BYU football sets aside any New Year’s Six disappointment as the Cougars begin preparing for UAB

The Cougars look to win their fourth bowl game in the last five tries.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake disputes a call as Brigham Young University hosts Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Oct. 9, 2021.

Slews of people watched the College Football Playoff selection show on Sunday hoping their favorite team either made it to the coveted top four spots or earned a compelling bowl matchup.

But not Kalani Sitake.

The BYU coach went to church that day and then opted to watch some former Cougars play NFL football. As a result, Sitake wasn’t necessarily paying attention to the conversation surrounding the Cougars — namely how they ended up ranked lower than Utah and missed out on a New Year’s Six game.

All Sitake wanted to know was who they were playing and where.

“I’m not into the narrative outside of what I can control, which is get the team ready to play,” Sitake said Monday. “We’re looking forward to playing another game. We knew that we earned the right to play another game.”

That game will be against the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 18 in Shreveport, La. It’ll be the first-ever time the schools have played each other in football.

While Sitake didn’t seem to care about this team missing out on other bowl games, some of his players did.

“Honestly, I had some high hopes for a New Year’s Six bowl,” sophomore offensive lineman Blake Freeland said. “I knew it would be a stretch, but I was really hoping to get in.”

But now that the Cougars know their opponent, they say they’re looking forward to the matchup against a team that finished 8-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA. The football program at UAB didn’t even exist as recently as 2016 after getting shut down for two years, which is why Sitake has so much respect for it and its coach, Bill Clark.

“Look at what’s happened since that ... when they brought football back to the university and the amount of wins that’s happened and a couple of conference championships,” Sitake said. “So obviously he’s doing something right.”

To that end, no BYU player has chosen not to play the bowl game, Sitake said.

“I haven’t heard anything about opt-outs,” Sitake said. “I anticipate everyone to be playing that they are able-bodied that are healthy to do it.”

The Cougars are still dealing with some injuries to key personnel. Tight end Isaac Rex had surgery on his injured leg, Sitake said. The coach added that wide receiver Neil Pau’u is still “highly unlikely” to take the field.

But BYU might get junior offensive lineman James Empey and sophomore offensive lineman Harris LaChance back, Sitake said. But he’s not trying to rush any of his players to return either, he added.

The Blazers have won the Conference USA championship twice since 2017, and qualified for their fifth straight bowl game (the game in 2020 was canceled). Clark said he and his team are looking forward to going against a BYU team that is ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25.

“We know we’ve got our work cut out for us, but I think our kids are going to be excited for the challenge,” Clark said. “We have a lot of work to do to compete with them, but we’re excited. ... It’s a great step for our program, no doubt.”

Clark said fans who are not familiar with UAB can expect a balanced offensive game with a complementary defense. He added that he considers it an “honor” to play BYU.

The Cougars will try winning their sixth straight game overall, and their fourth bowl game out of the previous five. BYU won the Boca Raton Bowl last year.

“It’s another chance to get to do what we love,” freshman defensive lineman Tyler Batty said. “If you’re playing football, you have to love it a lot to keep up with the grind. So for us, it’s another opportunity to go out on the field with our teammates, with our brothers, go have fun and do what we do.”