Will BYU football crack the preseason polls?

The last time BYU football was ranked in the AP preseason top 25, “I gotta feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas was at the top of the music charts. Michael Scott was still on “The Office”, the latest Marvel film was “The Incredible Hulk”, and Instagram and Snapchat had yet to be conceived.

So yeah, it’s been a while. 4,727 days, to be exact.

Kalani Sitake’s Cougars are no strangers to ending decade-long droughts (just ask the fans up north what “26-17” means to them), and the cards are stacked in BYU’s favor for its possible first preseason ranking since August 2009 when the initial polls are released later this month.

It would be BYU’s first preseason ranking as an Independent program — fitting for the “final tour” prior to Big 12 membership next year.

“I was a player here when we first started out as an Independent, and we have better players right now than we’ve ever had,” defensive ends coach Preston Hadley said. “You see the results on the field.”

The Cougars return 88% of their production from 2021 while adding key transfers in running backs Chris Brooks and Houston Heimuli, offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia and defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally. When you couple BYU’s relative roster stability with a 21-4 record and two AP top-25 finishes over the past two seasons, it seems that the Cougars would be obvious poll darlings.

Many would agree. Pro Football Network listed BYU at No. 19 in its preseason projections. ESPN’s SP+ rankings and Stuart Mandel of The Athletic both slipped the Cougars in at No. 25 in their respective lists. CBS Sports slotted BYU at No. 22, Fox Sports at No. 16 and USA Today has the Cougars in the top-10 at No. 9.

Forget about crashing the polls — in June, The Athletic suggested that BYU could even crash the New Year’s Six party by season’s end. When was the last time anyone outside of Utah said that about BYU in June?

Unlike the past two seasons, BYU isn’t going to sneak up on anybody this year. Any success for Sitake’s squad will be anything but surprising. The Cougars have a target on their backs that hasn’t existed in Provo in years, if ever.

“This year, people expect us to be good so we have to learn how to handle success,” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said. “We’re trying to prove now.. that we’re going to be a team that’s good every year. Now the challenge this year is to live up to expectations. That’s a different role than we’ve been in, but I embrace it.”

If there was ever a year to live up to expectations, it’s 2022. BYU’s behemoth schedule includes the likes of Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame and Arkansas — all near certainties for the preseason top-25. Sound execution against such opponents could indeed propel the Cougars into the New Year’s Six conversation, but a few missteps could prove embarrassing. The stakes are high — clearly where Sitake wants them.

The Cougars may party like it’s 2009 when the AP polls are released in a few weeks, but players hope to maintain the same underdog mentality that’s served them so well thus far amid the new outside noise and hype.

There’s something about adversity that BYU understands (see 2021 against Utah, Arizona State, Washington State, etc.) and something regarding being comfortable favorites that may still need to be learned (I didn’t want to bring up the Independence Bowl, but let’s not act like BYU didn’t think it was too good for Shreveport).

After all, the preseason polls matter for about a week. It’s a whole new ballgame once the Cougars take the field and have to maintain their national standing each week.

“It’s important for us to remember what it was like when we didn’t have great seasons and what it took to get to those good seasons,” quarterback Jaren Hall said. “You keep that same focus and then add some on top of that. We just keep a chip on our shoulder.”

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