Wins over Arizona and Wisconsin validate BYU’s desire to play tough opponents early in the season

Some observers have suggested the No. 25 Cougars should dial it back a bit in September, but Tom Holmoe and Kalani Sitake are determined to forge ahead

BYU's stunning 24-21 win over No. 6 Wisconsin has Cougars' coach Kalani Sitake repeating his mantra that the Cougars should play 'anybody, anywhere, anytime.' (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Provo • Tom Holmoe was asked last month during BYU’s Education Week whether the independent Cougars should “soften” their schedule in an attempt to get more wins and an easier path to a bowl game.

The BYU athletic director grimaced, then reminded the audience that the school has had some “legendary” wins over some of the top programs in college football. He said he would take BYU’s 28-21 win over No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Miami in 1990 over any of the four Super Bowls he played in as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.

“When you beat big teams out of conference, that’s when you get your stripes,” Holmoe said. “There may come a time down the road where we go, ‘You know what, things are rough. We need to make a change.’ But for right now, I love playing [tough games]. If you ask the players, they feel the same way.”

Holmoe has another Goliath to add to the list. BYU’s stunning 24-21 win over No. 6 Wisconsin, which improved the Cougars’ record to 2-1 against Power Five opponents in 2018. That win validates Holmoe’s and head coach Kalani Sitake’s long-stated claims that playing the best opponents possible is good for BYU in the long run.

The Cougars were the talk of the college football world this past weekend and gained priceless national exposure and a No. 25 ranking in the AP Top 25. Recognition like that doesn’t come from beating the likes of San Jose State, Hawaii or McNeese State — the Cougars’ opponent this week (Saturday, 4 p.m., BYUtv) as they get a small breather from September’s otherwise brutal schedule. BYU has two more Power Five opponents on the schedule this season. It is at No. 10 Washington next week and finishes the regular season at Utah, where it hasn’t won since 2006.

“Now we just have to build on it,” Sitake said of the Wisconsin win. “It does no good if you just show up once in a while. This has to be something that we build on. I am thankful that we had the schedule so we can really see where we stand.

“It is a standard so we know how to measure ourselves,” he continued. “Otherwise, how are we supposed to know? You know more about yourselves when you play someone that can beat you than when you play someone that you should beat.”

To his credit, Sitake never complained last year when the Cougars lost to all four Power Five programs on their schedule — LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi State. The losses, all blowouts save the 19-13 setback to Utah, contributed to their 4-9 record and missing a bowl game for the first time since 2004.

“There are two trains of thought: one is you grow from winning, and one is that you grow from knowing what you need to do to improve,” Sitake said. “I am probably more of the latter than the [former]. I think winning is the easier part. The hard part is getting everything lined up so you can win and be in a position to succeed.”

Sitake said if BYU hadn’t taken its lumps in a 40-6 loss to Wisconsin last year, it wouldn’t have been in the position to spring the major upset last Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. “After the Wisconsin game last year, I said we really need to get things different, and get better up front. And that’s something we need to hang our hat on. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of time, but I think it paid off.”

Holmoe consulted former coach Bronco Mendenhall on scheduling when the Cougars went independent in 2011, and does the same with Sitake. Like Mendenhall, Sitake says he wants to play the best.

“I just tell [Holmoe] to line them up,” Sitake said Monday. “I don’t care if they are a great team, let’s do it. If it is in 2028, then I hope I am here still for that time. It just seems so long from now, but yeah, I like [former Fresno State coach] Pat Hill’s approach to things — ‘anyone, anywhere, anytime.’ I think that’s cool. I am not really worried about trying to be somewhere for 50 years. I just want to see how we can get a foundation built.”

BYU will play an average of five Power Five opponents each year for the next five years in addition to Boise State, which is usually stronger than the majority of teams from the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC or SEC. Tennessee, Michigan State, Stanford, Washington, Missouri, Oregon and USC are among the big names on future schedules.

“I love playing the big teams,” said BYU senior defensive end Corbin Kaufusi. “You want to be on the big stage. We are not here to have a mediocre season, or win half the games this year or barely be bowl eligible. We are here to win every single game, and so whether it be against a top 10 team or a smaller team, it doesn’t matter. I think for us, we would much rather play against the big guys, and win.”

BYU’s Future Power Five Opponents

2018 — at Washington, at Utah

2019 — Utah, at Tennessee, USC, Washington

2020 — at Utah, Michigan State, at Arizona State, at Minnesota, Missouri, at Stanford

2021 — Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, at Baylor, at Washington State, Virginia, at USC

2022 — at Utah, Baylor, at Oregon, at Stanford