Jerry Falwell, Sr. always dreamed of the day Liberty would face Notre Dame or BYU on the gridiron. While the ultimate dream of playing and beating the Irish in South Bend has yet to be scheduled, the Flames will face Brigham Young in Utah this season.
Coach: Kalani Sitake is entering his 4th season at the helm, having guided BYU to two bowl game wins in his first 3 seasons. Previously, he served as defensive coordinator at Utah and Oregon State. Sitake played his collegiate ball at BYU in the mid-1990s.
2018 Record: 7-6, W Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Last Season: Coming off a very unusual losing record in 2017, their first in nearly 15 years, 2018 was a very important season for Coach Sitake and the Cougars. There have been whispers that they couldn’t sustain an Independent program and those whispers grew to a loud roar in 2017.
BYU opened 2018 with a pair of road wins over Pac 12 foe Arizona and Big Ten member Wisconsin with a home loss to California sandwiched in between. After a win over FCS McNeese State to move to 3-1, fears were calmed briefly as it looked like the team had recovered to pre-2017 levels. The Cougars would then drop 4 out of 5 including a 7-6 loss to Northern Illinois at home.
Sitake and his staff decided to turn to freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, replacing longtime starter Tanner Mangum, to try to jumpstart the offense. It worked, as the Cougars rebounded to win 3 of the team’s final 4 games, including a 49-18 win over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The offense scored 27 or more points in each of these games down the stretch. Wilson went on to start 7 games as a freshman, throwing for over 1,500 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions.
Like what has become the norm, the defense is where the Cougars made their mark though. The Cougars’ defensive unit finished 18th in the country in fewest yards per game and 24th in scoring defense.
2019 Outlook: BYU will open 2019 with four straight P5 opponents on the docket. If they can successfully manage that part of the schedule, the Cougars have a much easier back half. With Zach Wilson entering his 2nd season at QB and the 2nd year of offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes’ system, BYU looks to be much more consistent and powerful on offense this fall. The Cougar fan base is very high on Wilson this season, following his bowl performance where he was a perfect 18-for-18 passing for 317 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The Cougars are also welcoming in two graduate transfers at running back in Ty’Son Williams (South Carolina) and Emmanuel Esukpa (Rice). Williams was a 4-star recruit out of high school and had a litany of offers from P5 programs. In two seasons at South Carolina, he played in 20 games and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. They will be added to a tailback room that includes 2018’s leading rusher Lopini Katoa.
Those backs will get the benefit of running behind the experienced BYU offensive line that features two Freshman All-Americans from a season ago in center James Empey and left tackle Brady Christensen. The Cougars return 4 starters from 2018’s unit.
On defense, the Cougars will have to replace Langi Tuifua. The defensive end was battling a neck injury that ultimately forced him to retire from the game. Several other key contributors on the defense return though, including defensive tackles Khyiris Tonga and Lorenzo Fauatea. In the secondary, most of their depth returns as BYU looks to have a top 50 defense once again.
Liberty Game Date: Saturday, November 9
Location: LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah
Odds of Liberty Victory: 10 percent
Very Early Outlook: This will be one of the more challenging games this season for the Flames, facing a program that’s poised to build off its 2018 success. Liberty will also be in the 3rd week of 4 straight on the road and the altitude could also have an impact. This will be the first ever meeting between the two FBS Independents and BYU will be making the return trip to Lynchburg in 2022. It would be great to see these two schedule more games in the future.