BYU sports mailbag: Conference realignment chaos, offseason activity and everything in between

It’s been a while, but we’re back with another installment of our BYU sports mailbag series. This week, Daily Universe Assistant Sports Editor Jackson Payne discusses your questions regarding college football’s power conference insanity, various offseason storylines around BYU athletics and more.

How will USC/UCLA moving to the Big Ten impact BYU and the Big 12 as a whole?

Well, it’s all a mess. As much as the pettiest part of me loves watching the Pac-12’s downfall, USC and UCLA’s recent Big Ten move just pushes the college football landscape closer to the inevitable future of a Power 2 “super conference” model, and such a dynamic almost certainly leaves BYU on the outside looking in.

At this point, everything revolves around Notre Dame. If the Big Ten adds the Irish, then Stanford likely follows suit and leaves the rest of the Pac-12 for dead. Although unlikely, if Notre Dame’s current alliance with the ACC is upgraded to full-fledged conference membership, the Pac-12 might remain intact (with a few Mountain West additions) while the Big Ten and SEC attempt to raid the ACC for programs such as Clemson, Miami or UNC.

Notre Dame is clearly the greatest factor here, and nothing can really happen elsewhere until its future is set. Of course, the Irish could elect to remain independent and continue the unique marketing and scheduling freedoms they enjoy, but the prospect of earning hundreds of millions of dollars from conference affiliation will definitely be thoroughly examined and explored.

So where does the Big 12 fit here? The Big Ten has flirted with Oregon and Washington, but both schools could easily be ghosted should the Notre Dame domino fall into Big Ten territory and lure Stanford as well. With the Pac-12 on life support and the ACC needing to protect itself, the Big 12 is put in a position of power to determine its own destiny to become the third-best conference in the country.

Here’s the part some BYU fans probably won’t like: the Big 12 is going to add some of these Pac-12 refugees, and that will probably include Utah.

The Big 12 is reportedly considering adding Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah, with Oregon and Washington on the conference’s radar as well. It’s a no-brainer for the Big 12 — it needs these programs and brands in order to maintain “power conference” status and cash in with the ESPN and Fox executives whose media deals are controlling all of this chaos.  

The Big 12 won’t be lazy — it certainly can’t afford to be — so new members of the conference are imminent.

I can only assume that Utah would much rather swallow its pride and share a conference with BYU than stand pat in the Pac-12 and sink into obscurity. It may be awkward at first, but a Big 12 with both BYU and Utah would be a win for everyone.  

USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten is the exclamation point on a trend that’s killing the spirit of college sports: retiring regional rivalries. We’ve already been robbed of Maryland/Duke, West Virginia/Pitt (dare I say Utah/Utah State?) and a number of other iconic past clashes, so two California schools leaving a west coast conference for a Midwest/Mid-Atlantic league further buries the importance of geography. Even Oklahoma/Oklahoma State, Oregon/Oregon State and Washington/Washington State will soon be on the chopping block as well.

Therefore, adding a century-old, historic and heated regional rivalry to the Big 12 adds a touch of prestige to its conference schedule every year and helps to preserve sanctity and tradition within college sports.

And wouldn’t it just be a blast?

The best years of the “Holy War” have always been when BYU and Utah share a conference. Battles within the WAC or Mountain West to close out the regular season always meant much more than a non-conference affair in September between Pac-12 Utah and independent BYU. Just imagine a late November showdown with the Utes to determine which squad goes to the conference title game — wouldn’t that be a sight to see?

To conclude, all this conference realignment craziness puts the Big 12 in a favorable position if the Pac-12 is further gutted by the USC/UCLA domino effect. “Super conferences” are the (disappointing) future of college sports, and absorbing more Pac-12 programs will allow the Big 12 to forge its way into that conversation. BYU fans should welcome a reunion with Utah as a conference mate, because as much as nobody really wants to admit it, every party involved needs it.

What are your thoughts on the state of the new-look women’s basketball program?

With the hiring of new assistant Aaron Kallhoff last week, it looks like Amber Whiting has her coaching staff solidified for her inaugural campaign at BYU. The staff has me excited — Whiting may be a first time head coach at the college level, but she’s surrounding herself with a solid group that will make the transition smoother and help her develop into the coach that BYU will need to lead women’s hoops into the Big 12.

Kallhoff has plenty of experience at the Power 5 level, having been part of successful programs at Penn State, LSU and TCU in his 20-year coaching career. Fellow assistant Morgan Bailey is a program legend, earning WCC Player of the Year and All-American honors in her playing days at BYU prior to coaching stints at Snow College, Southern Utah and UVU. Associate head coach Lee Cummard — the lone holdover from Jeff Judkins’ staff — is a rising star in the coaching world, already knows the roster and has enough existing credibility with the players to serve as the branch between the Judkins and Whiting regimes.

Between graduating seniors and outward-bound Shaylee Gonzales — whose chances of returning to BYU are virtually nonexistent — the Cougars will have four new starters in 2022. It won’t be the same team that went 26-4 last year, but All-American Lauren Gustin, veteran Kaylee Smiler and young prospects Nani Falatea, Emma Calvert and Rose Bubukar will win some games and be fun to watch (as long as the program can avoid any more transfer portal casualties).

I’m curious as to how recruiting efforts and strategy will change under Whiting, which will hopefully involve flipping her four-star Oregon commit daughter Amari to Provo. While her lack of collegiate experience might still be frightening for some fans, the staff Whiting has already assembled should offer enough confidence to buy in for now.

Is there a game on BYU’s football schedule this year that particularly sticks out?

Everyone knows BYU has a monster schedule this fall. Between home rematches with 2021 conference champions Baylor and Utah State, grueling Pac-12 road trips to Oregon and Stanford, a formidable SEC visitor in Arkansas and the Las Vegas showdown with Notre Dame, the Cougars will have plenty of opportunities to build a New Year’s Six-worthy resume should they play to their potential.

BYU’s meeting with Notre Dame on Oct. 8 will likely accumulate the most hype (and viewership), but there’s one matchup I can’t stop thinking about: week one at USF. It has all the makings of a possible trap game.

The Bulls may have finished 2-10 in 2021, but they came within a score of beating BYU on the road in a 35-27 bruiser that really should have been much more lopsided. Taking away a 21-point outburst in the first quarter, USF outgunned the Cougars 27-14 in the final three frames and 21-7 in the second half. It was the first major red flag for BYU’s season, as its defense proved incapable of getting off the field and players on both sides of the ball were ravaged by injuries.

BYU’s lone east coast road trip last season didn’t come until November, but this year the Cougars travel to Tampa right off the bat to play in a new time zone, at sea level and amid brutal humidity — not ideal for a squad that started somewhat sluggish in its 2021 opener against a laughably bad Arizona team. When BYU made the trip to USF in 2019, it surrendered a fourth quarter comeback to lose in a contest where quarterback Jaren Hall exited early with an injury. Simply put, this trip hasn’t been too kind to the Cougars historically.

To make matters even more complicated, headlining USF’s dozen new transfers is quarterback Gerry Bohanon, who started for Baylor and hung 38 points on the Cougars a season ago. Sure, BYU’s defense is a bit older, wiser and has reps against Bohanon under its belt, but it’s still a matchup slanted toward Bohanon.

The early betting trends have BYU listed as a 12-point favorite over USF, and I personally do believe the Cougars get the win that day (Kalani Sitake is a slick 5-1 in season openers, after all), but there are still plenty of overhead factors making week one against the Bulls less than comfortable. The Cougars need to be sharp right out the gate, and if 2022’s contest with USF is as physical as last year’s, BYU’s questionable depth could handcuff its other September matchups with Baylor, Oregon and Wyoming while digging an early grave for any New Year’s Six hopes.

How do you feel about the Jazz trading Rudy Gobert?

I’m bitter. Rudy has been my favorite Jazzman for years. I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but I believe he raises Utah’s ceiling much higher than Donovan Mitchell, and the advanced analytics agree. You’re more likely to find another Mitchell in the draft or elsewhere than another Gobert.

Obviously the trade package from Minnesota was ridiculous, but it’s hard to get excited about a 2029 first round pick (coupled with Patrick Beverly.. goodness gracious) when it comes at the cost of your current favorite player (who already has THREE Defensive Player of the Year awards before the age of 30!).

I didn’t think the Jazz could upset me more this summer than their gross new uniforms already did, but here we are.

With the 2021-22 athletic season complete, which BYU team will take the biggest leap forward in 2022-23?

Baseball seems like the obvious choice here. To say it was a turbulent past season for the Cougars would be an understatement — they lost their best hitter, Andrew Pintar, after just 17 games. They stumbled in early conference play, starting a mediocre 7-10 against WCC opponents. Most notably, head coach Mike Littlewood jumped ship midway through the season, leaving his players blindsided and shocked after 10 years at BYU.

Under interim head coach Trent Pratt, BYU won 11 of its final 13 games to rally into a playoff spot. Sure, the Cougars fell to LMU in the first round of the WCC tournament, but overcoming the amount of adversity they did is a win on its own. They flipped the script on their season and played with a fire that wasn’t present under Littlewood.

BYU removed the interim label from Pratt last month, putting the longtime assistant firmly at the helm of a team set to return Pintar and 10 of its 11 All-WCC selections from 2022. The team will be more established, experienced and have much less drama. Pratt was the overwhelming favorite among players for the head coaching vacancy, so his official promotion will offer plenty of confidence for both sides. I don’t see any reason why BYU can’t storm to a conference baseball title in its WCC finale.

Jackson Payne is the lead columnist at Daily Universe Sports. Follow him on Twitter @jackson5payne.

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