Pac-12 approves nonconference football games. Does that put a Utah-BYU game in play?

In an effort to offer maximum flexibility and give Pac-12 football programs every opportunity to play, the league on Thursday afternoon approved the scheduling of nonconference football opponents in the event a conference game gets canceled.

As the approval of nonconference opponents began moving forward on Wednesday, there was a great deal of speculation, if not conjecture, that BYU, ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 and increasingly looking like a New Year’s Six candidate, would schedule a Pac-12 opponent, maybe even Utah.

The hope of a Utah-BYU game this season stems from the fact that Utah’s Nov. 28 opponent, Arizona State, has had extensive COVID-19 problems the last two weeks. If the Sun Devils cannot play Nov. 28, the Utes would be in need of an opponent, and BYU is also without an opponent that weekend.

The good news is, the Pac-12′s announcement Thursday offered real credence to the notion that the Utes, or any other program in the league, may schedule the Cougars if there is a Pac-12 cancellation. The bad news is, the Pac-12′s announcement came with key stipulations.

The biggest stipulation offered by the Pac-12 is that the nonconference opponent must adhere to all league medical and testing protocols. In the case of Utah, the athletic department is conducting daily antigen and PCR testing with its football program. The Deseret News reported earlier this week that BYU does PCR testing three times per week, which is less than Utah, let alone the rest of the Pac-12. As an independent, BYU does not have to adhere to the testing protocols of a league office.

Beyond the testing discrepancies, the Pac-12 is mandating any nonconference game would have to be a Pac-12 home game, and that if a Pac-12 opponent were to become available by the end of the day Thursday in any given week, the conference game would take priority over the nonconference game.

To the first point, from a Utah perspective, the Utes were scheduled to host BYU in the season-opener back on Sept. 3. When that game was axed, Utes athletic director Mark Harlan said the series would continue as scheduled in Provo in 2021, with the canceled 2020 game getting figured out later. If Utah and BYU were to play this season, it would have to be at Rice-Eccles Stadium, so future scheduling, and probably contract language would have to get worked out.

On the second point, pivoting from a conference game, to a nonconference game, back to a conference game by the end of Thursday in a given week may seem daunting, but being flexible is paramount right now. As an example, last weekend, Utah-UCLA and Cal-Arizona State were both called off. With the dust still settling, UCLA and Cal got together and in a matter of hours, scheduled a game at the Rose Bowl for Sunday morning with a 9 a.m. PST kickoff.

In the middle of the Pac-12 backing off its conference-only mandate, the real fascination here is BYU. The Cougars have played a soft schedule to date, but sit 8-0 with games remaining vs. North Alabama on Saturday and vs. San Diego State on Dec. 19. There is a case to be made that by merely winning those two and not playing anyone else, the 10-0 Cougars would be a prime candidate for a New Year’s Six at-large bid, with the Cotton Bowl or the Peach Bowl as the likely destination.

Playing a Pac-12 team would do one of two things, with no middle ground. A win to go 11-0 would enhance BYU’s resume for the NY6, while strengthening a case to sneak into the College Football Playoff. A loss would eliminate the Cougars entirely from the NY6 conversation, relegating them to a much lesser bowl altogether.