As Tennessee football cancels return game, BYU will get a big check and some rare nonconference flexibility

Tennessee will pay a reported $2 million buyout to BYU for canceling the 2023 season-opener in Provo

(Wade Payne | AP) BYU's Jake Oldroyd (39) celebrates a 33-yard field goal with teammate Hayden Livingston in the second half of a game against Tennessee to send the game into overtime Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn. The Vols had been scheduled to play BYU in Provo in 2023, but announced Monday they would cancel their trip.

Here is something we haven’t heard in a while at BYU: The Cougars have an open date in their nonconference schedule.

After spending the past four months feverishly trying to trim down on an overcrowded calendar ahead of their move to the Big 12, BYU lost its 2023 season-opener on Thursday. The Tennessee Volunteers announced they would instead play Virginia in Nashville to start the 2023 season rather than travel to Provo to play BYU.

“Pivoting to play a marquee non-conference opponent in Nashville made sense for multiple reasons,” Tennessee Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Danny White said in a statement. “This is a more accessible game for our fanbase. I expect that we will have a much larger contingent of fans in Nashville than would have been able to travel to Utah. Our fans also have heard me talk about the importance of finding new revenue to grow our operating budget, and playing Virginia at Nissan Stadium is an opportunity for a net-positive revenue game.”

That net-positive revenue, however, will come at a price. Tennessee will reportedly owe $2 million to BYU as a penalty for cancelation.

There is plenty to unpack about Tennessee canceling the return game of its series with BYU after the Cougars beat the Vols in Knoxville in 2019. But, for now, the more interesting part is the open date on BYU’s schedule in 2023 — especially after the Cougars canceled the Utah State series last week to make room for the Vols. Now, all that remains is Arkansas on the road and Southern Utah at home. BYU will quickly have to fill a third nonconference game.

This is somewhat rare territory, at least in recent days, for BYU, which remains over-scheduled in 2024, 2026 and 2028. Now, the Cougars theoretically can have some flexibility.

BYU will likely want to fill the Tennessee void with another home game against a high-major opponent. So far, BYU has followed the typical Power Five scheduling pattern of filling the nonconference slate with multiple out-of-conference Power Five opponents and one FCS school. It gives teams the most viable path to the College Football Playoff in the Big 12.

It is possible BYU could try to move up a game against a Power Five opponent from one of its overcrowded seasons. It is difficult to push a game up in the schedule this late in the process, but if it could happen it could alleviate some stress.

For example, in 2026, BYU still has five P5 teams on the nonconference schedule. At the most it will only be able to play two that year. Then again in 2028, BYU has four P5 opponents scheduled. If any of those programs have an open date, or can arrange to move up their game with BYU to 2023, it could give BYU the option not to cancel the meeting outright.

Of course, scheduling in college football is a mix of contracts and figuring out open dates years in advance. It will be tough. But it is also not as simple for BYU to bring back games it canceled in 2023 now that it has an open date. Or find a new opponent not currently on the schedule.

Utah State for example, which just announced it would not play BYU in 2023, already filled its date with the Cougars and will now play Iowa. Other teams that BYU took off the schedule — like UNLV and Rice — also filled their schedules.

So, rescheduling a future team to 2023 might be an option right now. And while BYU prioritized playing Tennessee in Provo, the game getting canceled gives it some rare flexibility for the first time since moving to the Big 12.