BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe walks away from a crowd of fans, with one holding a sign that reads, "Big 12 > Pac 12." (Melissa Collado)

BYU sports mailbag: What does the Big 12 move mean for BYU? Keys to win against ASU

This is the first in a new series of BYU sports mailbags by The Daily Universe sports staff. The first one this week deals with BYU’s future in the Big 12 and keys to winning the upcoming ranked football matchup with Arizona State.

Should joining the Big 12 make BYU fans more or less worried about losing our great coaches (i.e. Sitake and Pope)? There would potentially be more attention from other schools if the teams succeed, but now that they’re Power 5 teams would it really be much of an upgrade to go someplace else?

Jackson Payne – There’s no reason to worry at all. Big 12 status is a built-in promotion for every coach at BYU. No one benefits more from the move than Mark Pope, who initially joined BYU when it was an average mid-major, brought the team to national relevance and is now set to coach in the best basketball conference in America. For a guy like Pope whose mantra is “chase discomfort,” leading BYU through the minefield of early Big 12 play is his best opportunity to do just that. His trademark transfer portal wizardry will be stronger than ever as he leads a Power 5 program, and while we all know that Pope will end up getting a huge job at a big-time program someday, right now he may just be creating that job for himself once the Cougars tip off in the Big 12. 

Caleb Turner – The Big 12 move seemed to cement the current BYU coaches for the time being. Recent success under Kalani Sitake and Mark Pope was surely a major contributor to the Big 12 bid for BYU, and both individuals were a big part of talks with athletic director Tom Holmoe over the last two weeks about whether this was the right move for BYU. Pope and Sitake are fully on board with the move and seem to be here for the long haul as the Cougars prepare to make the conference move in 2023. 

Along with the two major sports coaches, baseball coach Mike Littlewood, women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood and women’s golf coach Carrie Roberts were in attendance at the Big 12 press conference on Sept. 10, talking with media members afterward about how they will prepare their respective teams for the move in two years. None of them pulled a Magic Johnson and avoided the topic of their programs’ futures, but instead embraced the opportunity and spoke on how the move will both help and challenge the Cougars going forward. 

Middle row, from left: Women’s golf coach Carrie Roberts and baseball coach Mike Littlewood watch the Big 12 press conference on Sept. 10. (Dallin Wilks)

Aside from basketball/football, which team benefits most from joining the Big 12?

Jackson – I think it’s definitely baseball. The Big 12 is a historically elite baseball conference with a surplus of talent. Thirty-eight conference players were taken in the MLB draft this past July. In comparison, only 13 West Coast Conference ballplayers were drafted, with the Big 12 eclipsing the WCC’s number in less than seven rounds. It may not be immediate, but BYU will be able to recruit better prospects attracted to such competition, especially with the quality facilities at Miller Park. 

Baseball in the Big 12, quite literally, is a whole new ballgame. The WCC is all about small ball and squeaking runs across the plate, while the Big 12 lives and dies by the home run. Big 12 teams collectively slugged more than 200 dingers and averaged 121 more runs each than the WCC this past season, all while having a lower conference ERA among pitchers. BYU’s home run numbers weren’t outrageous this past season, but the Big 12 power surge will benefit the Cougars and be fun to watch.  

Caleb GOLF! Historically, the best golf programs in the nation have come out of the Big 12, and deputy athletic director Brian Santiago said at a BYU golf event recently that “one of the main contributing factors in (BYU) joining the Big 12 was all of the beautiful golf courses we get to play on now.” The Big 12 has six national championships in men’s golf since 2000, with three of them coming from Oklahoma State, which is expected to be part of the new Big 12 that BYU joins in 2023. The conference also has three individual women’s golf national championships and two from the men’s side. The BYU golf programs have been at or near the top of the West Coast Conference in every season since joining and should thrive in the elevated competition and premier courses of the Big 12.

Biggest keys to a win over ASU?

Jackson – BYU needs to get rolling on offense as soon as possible. The first quarter in each game this year has been a punt-fest, and while I love watching Ryan Rehkow work his magic, I’d much rather see some early points on the scoreboard. Jaren Hall has a dismal 56.8 passer rating and no carries in the first quarter thus far, which is pretty surprising considering how good he’s been otherwise. 

The BYU campus is more stoked on the Cougars than ever before and LaVell’s house is sure to be rocking once again. The faster Hall can move the ball and find the endzone, the faster the crowd becomes an X-factor the way it was against Utah. Maybe a few earlier carries are what Hall needs to dial into his passing game sooner, but the point is that BYU can’t waste any initial drives. Urgency is everything on offense. 

In addition, BYU needs its secondary to step up against Arizona State’s run game. The Sun Devils run the football a whole lot, especially with quarterback Jayden Daniels and his dual-threat capabilities. We saw BYU’s linebackers struggle at times in the open field against Arizona’s speed in week one, so the defensive backs will need to offer plenty of help — and clean tackling — to contain the run.

Caleb Keep protecting the football. BYU’s offense has continued to evolve and grow over the last several years under Aaron Roderick and Fesi Sitake, and appears to be firing on all cylinders to begin this season. A staple of this evolution over the last two seasons has been avoiding turnovers, with Zach Wilson throwing just three interceptions all of last season and Jaren Hall being free of turnovers through two games so far this year. 

BYU’s offense is not beating itself, and that goes a long way in staying competitive and winning games. As long as the Cougars consistently move the ball without giving it up to the Sun Devils, BYU should be fine and be in good shape to get its third-straight P5 win. 

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall runs with the ball against Utah on Sept. 11. Hall has yet to record a turnover this season, which is key to BYU’s success. (Dallin Wilks)

Football going 12-0? Is an undefeated BYU football team guaranteed to make the College Football Playoff this year?

Jackson – With a win against Arizona State this weekend, the Cougars would earn themselves a clear shot at an undefeated campaign. After all, they’ve already started 2-0 against Power 5 opponents, which hasn’t happened since…1984. I think most Cougar fans already know why that year matters.

Don’t get too excited just yet. Even if BYU runs the table — which would entail seven Power 5 victories and taking down at least two ranked opponents — there’s no way they sneak into the college football playoff. Not whatsoever. And that’s ok. 

Looking at BYU’s schedule beyond Arizona State, you’ll see that South Florida stinks, Utah State isn’t scary, Boise State shouldn’t win in Provo, Virginia is rebuilding, Washington State already lost to Utah State and USC just fired its head coach. Idaho State and Georgia Southern aren’t exactly Alabama and Clemson, either. What once seemed to be a whale of a schedule has cooled off a bit, possibly aligning the stars for an improbable Cougars run. 

An October road trip to future Big 12 rival Baylor worries me a bit, but if the Cougars are undefeated by that point, their momentum should be enough to get the job done. Hopefully, it will also be the first of many future wins in Waco for Kalani’s Big 12 bunch. 

Now, 12-0 would be sweet, but the ceiling there is a New Year’s Six appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. In its current four-team format, the playoff won’t come calling while BYU is still independent. Even if Dax Milne had gone a yard further last year to beat Coastal Carolina and seal an undefeated season, the Cougars still wouldn’t have crashed the playoff. There was no such luck for unbeaten UCF in 2017 and Coastal didn’t even land a New Year’s Six game last year. 

Now, fellow independent Notre Dame did earn a playoff berth in 2018 after an undefeated regular season where they beat four ranked squads and played ten Power 5 schools in total. They may have been independent, but they had the resume and, well, they’re Notre Dame. Of course, their playoff appearance was rather brief as eventual national champion Clemson smacked them 30-3 in the semifinal. 

Even Notre Dame is outmatched in the current playoff format. In addition to the Irish, we’ve seen Florida State, Michigan State and Washington all get embarrassed in front of the entire world as playoff teams. Is that really what BYU wants right now? Sure, they’re a good team, but do the Cougars really want to somehow grab a final playoff spot to just end up getting drilled by a school whose fourth-stringers will all still end up in the NFL? 

It’s totally fine to accept that BYU can’t make the playoff. Big 12 membership will change everything very soon. However, a New Year’s Six appearance should pretty much be expected if the Cougars go undefeated, and that’s plenty to celebrate. After all, it’s a feat only the 1996 team has accomplished. 

Caleb Yes. 

What does BYU need to become a legit playoff contender once it joins the Big 12?

Jackson – Simply put, BYU needs to win. Score more points than the other team during the allotted game time. Avoid losing. Just win, baby. 

Once BYU settles into the Big 12, there won’t be any arguments to diminish their credibility. They’ll finally have official Power 5 status and be on the same plane as everyone else as long as they just win games. If they can pull off another 12-0, or maybe even a strong 11-1 with a conference title, who says the Cougars can’t take Oklahoma’s usual playoff spot? Hopefully, the playoff expands anyway in a few years and opens the door for more reasonable entry. 

Caleb Considering BYU has never made the College Football Playoff, there’s no simple answer here, and a lot of the factors are outside of BYU’s control. First and foremost, BYU needs the Big 12 to remain a “Power 5” conference, which all signs point to it being. No school outside of a P5 besides Notre Dame has ever made the CFP, so BYU needs its new conference to maintain the prestige that allowed schools such as Oklahoma to make it into the coveted top four. While it doesn’t seem like Oklahoma and Texas will be around when BYU joins the Big 12 in 2023, as the two powerhouses bolt for the playoff-heavy SEC, a trip to Norman or Austin would certainly bolster BYU’s strength of schedule, and a win over either or both of those teams could make a strong playoff argument for BYU in two years.

A playoff expansion certainly would not hurt BYU’s chances either, which Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby seemed certain would happen at some point. While the exact number and time frame is still up in the air, (will it be 12, 16 or 24 teams? Could it happen by the time BYU enters the Big 12 in 2023?) the inevitable expansion, along with the Big 12 upgrade, will greatly increase BYU’s chances of just being considered for the playoff. 

The last factor, which Jackson has already mentioned, is simply winning. BYU football’s quality and depth at each position on the field has seen a significant improvement over the last five years (look no further than the 2017 season), and becoming a P5 team in the Big 12 should do nothing but further assist BYU’s recruiting efforts, both in high schools and the transfer portal. By seeking out elite talent and continuing to develop players in-house, BYU’s winning ways should continue into the Big 12 and eventually the College Football Playoff. 

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