For BYU, a new conference and an old talking point. How old are the Cougars really?

Most opposing coaches say BYU gains an advantage by being older. Kalani Sitake doesn’t think so.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Players take the field as BYU hosts Southern Utah University, NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

Kansas head coach Lance Leipold wasted no time this week pulling out the most common words to describe BYU football: mature.

“A lot is made about the age and maturity of the team,” Leipold said as his team prepared to face BYU on Saturday. “I think the average age of the roster is 22 years old versus what a traditional college roster is. So the size and maturity, the experience [stands out].”

Leipold is not the first coach to bring up age as a perceived advantage for the Cougars. As BYU enters the Big 12 — facing off against new conference foes beginning this Saturday in Lawrence — you can bet he won’t be the last.

But what is the truth? Here are the numbers about how old BYU actually is, and whether it helps the program.

The average age on BYU’s roster

Coming into 2023, the average age of BYU’s roster was 21.7 years old. So Leipold wasn’t exactly wrong when he said 22.

The reason for that is many BYU football players serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On this current roster, 65 players served a mission.

According to BYU, 21 signed players are actively serving church missions.

The oldest player on the team is offensive lineman Simi Moala, who is 26 years old and turning 27 during this season. Moala is a Utah transfer, who served in Nuku’alofa, Tonga.

That said, BYU does have a number of younger players. Quarterback Ryder Burton went through spring practice last year at 17 years old. He turned 18 before the season.

Also, BYU’s new starting running back LJ Martin is a true freshman out of high school from Texas.

Even as BYU’s average age is closer to 22, it is becoming more common for players to play college football well past 21. With the transfer portal — and the blanket extra year of eligibility gifted during COVID-19 — there are a number of high-profile older players.

Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman, for example, is 24 years old this year. He is playing in his sixth season of college after starting the first five at Wake Forest.

Does it help?

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has made it clear he doesn’t think the missionary program is an advantage on the field.

He offered his thoughts quite publicly during the 2017 National Championship game on an ESPN broadcast with several other coaches.

“If it was a great system to develop your athletes, Alabama would be doing it,” Sitake said. “We’d all agree, right? And not one of their guys is going on a mission. So case closed.”

The common argument is that BYU has older players, so they are stronger and more physically developed. Current Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said on that same broadcast that it helps the offensive line in particular.

“Hey, they didn’t go on a mission to Gold’s Gym,” Sitake responded to Babers. “I can tell you that. Those guys are riding bicycles and eating ramen noodles for two years.”

More recently, Sitake mentioned many return missionaries can’t play right away. The rate of injuries coming back into football and weightlifting is much higher that first season, Sitake said.