BYU accepts bid to New Mexico Bowl, will play SMU

Kalani Sitake now must address two issues: setting the practice schedule and finalizing the roster.

BYU running back Hinckley Ropati (7) celebrates with wide receiver Chase Roberts, right, after a 43-yard touchdown against Stanford during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

BYU is ending the independence era the same way it ended its Mountain West era: With a bowl game in Albuquerque.

The Cougars accepted a bid to play in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 17 against SMU. The game is scheduled for a 12:15 p.m. MST kickoff on ESPN, according to the bowl. However, that could be subject to change depending on the NFL television schedule.

“We appreciate this invitation from the New Mexico Bowl to come to Albuquerque and face a very good SMU team,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “Rhett Lashlee is an excellent coach, and he has his team playing very well right now. Our team is excited for the challenge and for another chance to take the field together. We are grateful for this opportunity to have a great bowl experience for our players.”

SMU went 7-5 this season in Lashlee’s first year as head coach. Like BYU, the Mustangs had an up-and-down year marked by a three-game losing streak from September to early October. Also like the Cougars, SMU’s defense has been the main source of the team’s issues — allowing over 50 points twice in November.

Now with its opponent in place, BYU must address two main issues: setting a practice schedule and finalizing a roster.

The New Mexico Bowl is one of earliest bowl games on the calendar. It likely means BYU won’t be able to fit in as many practices as it would have preferred. But Sitake will likely adopt a schedule that gets in as many as possible, especially with the Big 12 looming.

Sitake has said the most important aspect of this bowl game, for him, is the added practice time to evaluate the younger players. He is still deciding who BYU’s core will be heading into the Power Five next year.

“Not really that important to me [where] or even who the opponent right now,” Sitake said last week. “It is just extending the bowl prep and getting those extra practices. That is going to be key for our program and our development. Especially for those younger guys.”

But when Sitake does start game planning in earnest, he will also have to pin down who will be available for the bowl game. Between injuries, transfers and opt-outs, BYU’s roster might look different than it did in the last week of the regular season against Stanford on Nov. 26.

In particular, the status of quarterback Jaren Hall and wide receiver Puka Nacua is of interest. Both have expressed a desire to play the bowl game, but both could also enter the NFL draft this offseason and opt out.

Nacua said two weeks ago he hasn’t fully thought about the prospects of playing in a bowl game, but his initial plan was to play.

As for Hall, he said he will “100%” play in the game, but his health is now in question heading into Albuquerque. He injured his ankle and did not play in the final quarter against Stanford. He insisted he would be ready, but with a short turnaround it will be more of a challenge.

Other notable absences from the roster will be backup quarterback Jacob Conover. He will enter his name into the transfer portal rather than play the bowl game. Receiver Terence Fall will do the same.

Sitake also noted certain injured players like linebacker Payton Wilgar could come back for a bowl game if it was past a certain date. However, with this early game, that might not happen.

“We gratefully accept the invitation to participate in the 2022 New Mexico Bowl,” athletics director Tom Holmoe said. “We had a fantastic experience 12 years ago in Albuquerque and look forward to returning to the warm hospitality and incredible Southwestern culture. … The New Mexico Bowl also closes the independence chapter of BYU football and ushers in the era of the Big 12, and we look forward to what’s ahead.”