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SMU Mustangs in New Mexico, according to reports

Kalani Sitake now has two issues to deal with: defining the training 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 November 26, 2022. ( AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)

BYU ends the Independence era the same way BYU ended the Mountain West era: with a bowl game in Albuquerque.

The Cougars accepted an offer to play SMU in the New Mexico Bowl on December 17, first reported by Action Network’s Brett McMurphy. The game is scheduled for the 12:15 p.m. MT kickoff on ESPN, according to the Bowl. However, this is subject to change depending on NFL television schedules.

“We appreciate this invitation from the New Mexico Bowl to come to Albuquerque and play against a very good SMU team,” said head coach Kalani Sitake. “Rhett Lashlee is an excellent coach and he’s making his team play very well at the moment. Our team looks forward to the challenge and another chance to conquer the field together. We are grateful for this opportunity to provide our players with a great bowl experience.”

SMU went 7-5 that season under first-year head coach Rhett Lashlee. Like BYU, the Mustangs had a year of ups and downs from September through early October, marked by a three-game losing streak. As with the Cougars, SMU’s defense was the main source of the team’s troubles – allowing 50+ points twice in November.

Now that his opponent is in place, BYU must address two main issues: establishing a training schedule and finalizing a roster.

The New Mexico Bowl is one of the earliest bowl games on the calendar. This likely means BYU won’t be able to accommodate as many practices as it would have liked. But Sitake will likely adopt a schedule that reaches as many as possible, especially with the Big 12 coming up.

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

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

But when Sitake gets serious about game planning, he also needs to determine who will be available for the bowl game. Between injuries, transfers and opt-outs, BYU’s roster could look different from the last week of the regular season against Stanford on Nov. 26.

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

Nacua said two weeks ago he hadn’t fully considered the prospects of attending a bowl game, but his initial plan was to play.

As for Hall, he said he will be “100%” in the game but his health is now in question en route to Albuquerque. He injured his ankle and didn’t play in the last 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 include backup quarterback Jacob Conover. He will enter his name in the transfer portal instead of playing the bowl game. Recipient Terence Fall will do the same.

Sitake also noted that certain injured players, such as linebacker Payton Wilgar, could return to a bowl game past a certain date. That might not happen with this early game, however.

“We gratefully accept the invitation to participate in the 2022 New Mexico Bowl,” said athletics director Tom Holmoe. “We had an amazing experience in Albuquerque 12 years ago and look forward to returning to the warm hospitality and incredible culture of the Southwest…The New Mexico Bowl also includes the independence chapter of BYU football and ushers in the Big 12 era. We look forward to it.” forward to what lies ahead.”

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