Everything you ever wanted to know about BYU football season openers

BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake will lead the Cougars for the first time in the season opener against Arizona on Saturday, Sept. 3. Six of BYU's previous 13 head coaches won their first game leading the Cougars. (Photo by  Jaren Wilkey/BYU)

BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake will lead the Cougars for the first time in the season opener against Arizona on Saturday, Sept. 3. Six of BYU’s previous 13 head coaches won their first game leading the Cougars. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU)

BYU is looking to start a new season under a new coaching staff off with a bang against Arizona in the Cactus Kickoff on Saturday. Recent history suggests the odds are in the Cougars’ favor for getting off on the right foot.

Since 2001, BYU has posted a 12–3 record in season openers. Much of that success has come against Power 5 schools. The Cougars have faced P5 opponents 12 times in those seasons and have won nine of those games by an average margin of 9.4 points.

With plenty of talent and experience returning for BYU on both sides of the ball in 2016, the Cougars feel confident about their ability to excel under new offensive and defensive schemes.

“I don’t think there’s drop-offs at any position,” BYU quarterback Taysom Hill said. “I do think the style of offense we’re playing will allow us to be a little bit better in terms of we don’t have to rotate as much as we have traditionally in the past. Our starters and main guys will be able to take the majority of the reps.”

Where will the Cactus Kickoff rank among season opening games for BYU?

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Most memorable finish: Miracle at Memorial vs Nebraska (2015)

No one could have scripted a better ending for his first college football game than what Tanner Mangum delivered a year ago. On the final play against Nebraska, Mangum unleashed a 42-yard Hail Mary pass down to the goal line that Mitch Mathews hauled in for the winning touchdown. It handed BYU a 33–28 victory over the Cornhuskers and helped the Cougars notch their first win over a current Big 10 team since beating Penn State in 1992.

Biggest victories: No. 3 Oklahoma (2009) and No. 3 Pittsburgh (1984)

Both times BYU has faced a team ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP Poll, the Cougars have triumphed. BYU first did it in 1984 against Pitt in ESPN’s initial live college football broadcast. The Cougars rallied from a 14–3 second half deficit, taking the lead on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Robbie Bosco to Adam Haysbert with 1:30 left, to claim a 20–14 win over the Panthers. Then, in 2009, BYU faced off against Oklahoma in the first college game played in Cowboys Stadium. Max Hall threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns — including the 7-yard game-winning score to McKay Jacobsen with 3:03 left — to lead BYU to a 14–13 win.

Top quarterback performance: Steve Sarkisian vs Texas A&M (1996)

BYU opened its run to the 1997 Cotton Bowl with a 41–37 victory over Texas A&M in the 1996 Pigskin Classic. Steve Sarkisian put together one of the best single-game performances by a BYU quarterback in school history to secure the win. The senior threw for 536 yards and six touchdowns on 33-of-44 passing. His 217.78 efficiency rating against the Aggies remains the highest for any BYU quarterback in a season opener.

Top rushing performance: Luke Staley vs Tulane (2001)

Staley is BYU’s only Doak Walker Award winner to date and he kicked off his award winning season in style with a thorough domination of Tulane’s defense. The junior running back churned out 142 yards and three first quarter touchdowns on just 10 carries in a 70–35 rout of the Green Wave. He was one of three players who eclipsed the 100 yard plateau for BYU. Brandon Doman also piled up 116 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries and Brian McDonald totaled 110 yards and three scores on 18 carries.

Top receiving performance: Glen Kozlowski vs Boston College (1985)

During his BYU career, Kozlowski had a reputation for making acrobatic catches and stretching the field when the Cougars needed it most. Boston College got to witness it first hand in 1985. Kozlowski torched the Eagles’ secondary for 241 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions in a 28–14 victory for the defending national champions.

Top defensive performance: Kyle Van Noy vs Mississippi (2011)

Van Noy helped BYU claim a dramatic 14–13 victory in its first game as an independent with the game’s biggest defensive play. With Mississippi nursing a 13–7 lead and facing a 3rd-and-27, the sophomore linebacker stripped the ball from Ole Miss quarterback Zach Stoudt and returned the fumble three yards for the go-ahead score with 5:09 remaining. Van Noy finished the game with four tackles, a tackle for loss and the fumble recovery.

Best season opener coaching record by winning percentage: Gary Crowton (4-0)

There weren’t many bright spots for BYU during Crowton’s tenure, but he definitely knew how to prepare the Cougars for season openers. BYU won all four season openers Crowton coached. Three wins came against current P5 programs and all but one game was decided by 10 or more points. BYU averaged 39 points per game in season openers under Crowton while holding opponents to 21.5 points per contest.

Most common opponent for a season opener: Arizona

Believe it or not, the Wildcats have played the Cougars the most times in a season opener. Arizona and BYU tangle in a season opener for the sixth time this weekend. They also faced off to open a season in 1936, 1957, 1959, 2006 and 2007. BYU has played the Wildcats even in those games, going 2–2–1. Former WAC and MWC rival New Mexico and Big Sky team Montana State have each met BYU five times in season openers.


John Coon is a Utah native and has reported on sports in the Beehive State for more than a decade. After stints as a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune and then the Deseret News, John became a full-time freelance writer and editor in 2011. He currently covers major sports at BYU and the University of Utah for the Associated Press. You can follow John on Twitter at @johncoonsports

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