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How Kalani Sitake and Kyle Whittingham view recent developments in NCAA structure, college football

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, right, and BYU coach Kalani Sitake speak before a game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Provo, Utah.

College football in 2024 will look vastly different than in previous years, from sweeping conference realignment to the new 12-team playoff at the end of the season.

Off the field, change has come in the form of how the people who have made the sport so wildly popular — the players — will be compensated for their efforts outside of the usual tuition, books, housing and cost-of-living stipends that come with a college football scholarship.

“It is going to be dramatically different in the next two to five years. So it is just constant evolution, and it is not done yet, by a long stretch.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

The sport is evolving so quickly that it is hard for the average fan to keep up, let alone coaches, and at least one veteran coach — Utah’s Kyle Whittingham — says that there are many more changes to come.

“We are at the tip of the iceberg,” Whittingham told the Deseret News on Monday at the annual Coaches Legacy Invitational golf tournament benefiting the National Kidney Foundation of Utah and Idaho.

“It is going to be dramatically different in the next two to five years. So it is just constant evolution, and it is not done yet, by a long stretch.”

In regards to the biggest change that will be noticed by the average college football fan — the expanded playoff, going from four teams to 12 — BYU coach Kalani Sitake said at the same event at Hidden Valley Country Club in Sandy that the bigger playoff will benefit the Cougars, even if they don’t appear to be capable of making it this year, as Utah is.

“We have a lot of work to do, I know that. But I like the trajectory that we are on. I like how the guys responded from last season until now,” Sitake said, alluding to last season’s 5-7 finish in BYU’s first season in the Big 12. “We are going to keep working. The stuff that we know is that you need to put your head down and go to work and worry about the rest afterwards. But the path and the goal at the end is a lot more achievable than it ever has been.”

Reading the tea leaves as various power rankings and whatnot are released, Utah will be picked to finish in the top three in its first season in the Big 12 this fall, while BYU will be picked to finish in the bottom three.

But Whittingham and Sitake both expressed confidence that their teams will handle the expectations, good or bad, with positivity and maturity.

“I am sure they hear it. I mean, it is out there. But our mentality through the years has been pretty good about not paying attention to the outside noise, just preparing like we always do,” Whittingham said. “Hard work is what is going to get you there. No preseason polls or hype are going to do anything for you. You gotta go out and get it done on the field.”

Believe it or not, Sitake said he “feels really good” about expectations being so low for BYU in 2024.

“That is fine,” he said when told it appears BYU could be picked to finish 15th or 16th in the new 16-team Big 12. “It is good motivation for the boys. I think I want to prove us right more than anything, but it doesn’t hurt to prove others wrong.

“We gotta change minds, and that is the goal. So I think the key is what I have seen from the guys, and the work ethic and the urgency to get better. I really like that,” Sitake continued. “We have gone through some adversity and this is going to be a good moment for us to get out there on the field and play together and play as a unit and play for the right reasons and good things will happen for us.”

Of course, Utah and the Big 12 are at the heart of the on-field changes in college football, as Oklahoma and Texas departed for the SEC and the Utes, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado join the far-flung league.

It is nothing new for Whittingham, who will now coach in his fourth conference, adding the Big 12 to a list that includes the WAC, the Mountain West and the Pac-12.

“It is like getting a new job. It is invigorating and energizing and we got a bunch of new venues that we are going to go to, a bunch of new teams coming into Rice-Eccles. So it is a challenge that we are looking forward to,” Whittingham said.

Renewing the rivalry as conference foes

The Cougars and Utes will tangle as conference mates on Nov. 9 at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time since Nov. 27, 2010, a 17-16 Utah win in Salt Lake City when both schools were in the Mountain West. BYU won the last matchup between the rivals, beating the Utes 26-17 on Sept. 11, 2021, in Provo.

Whittingham said having BYU back on the schedule changes nothing about Utah’s preparation for the season.

“They show us the schedule and we play who is on it, and we pretty much got the same process year in and year out,” he said, pretending (presumably) to not know the exact date of BYU’s visit.

On the other hand, Sitake spoke excitedly on March 30 when he was asked about having Utah back on the Cougars’ schedule.

“It is always good to compete and have that high level of respect,” Sitake said. “We are excited about getting them on the schedule. I think there is a bye for both teams before the game. I don’t know how the fans will deal with that.

“It is kind of interesting that you are going to have two weeks of fan interaction before the game. That will be a fun two weeks for you guys (in the media),” he continued. “It is really cool to have that game back, especially after not having it the past couple of years. So yeah, it is just going to be a lot of fun. Looking forward to it.”

More thoughts on NCAA, college football changes in 2024

With the Power Four conferences and NCAA board of governors voting last week to accept the settlement of three antitrust cases, more changes are coming to the structure of college football. The revenue-sharing model, brought on by more than $2.7 million in back damages with the settlement, signals the end of the amateur model that has defined college sports for decades.

Both coaches said they are on board with the move to a more professional model because in the long run the student-athletes will benefit.

“It doesn’t matter if I like it or not, it is here and it is not going away. NIL is here, and I think it is great for the players. Anything that benefits the players, I am all for,” Whittingham said. “But it would be nice to try and level the playing field a little bit between programs with some sort of caps or guardrails of some sort.”

Whittingham said just like with the transfer portal and NIL, programs that adapt the best will thrive.

“You gotta embrace it, because if you don’t, you will get left behind. You gotta figure it out. You can’t complain about it, or whine about it, because that will do you no good,” he said. “You just gotta continue to figure it out and figure out how you are going to do things that are in the best interest of your program.”

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BYU football coach Kalani Sitake and University of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham listen during the Coaches Legacy Gold Invitational by the National Kidney Foundation at Hidden Valley Country Club in Sandy, on Monday June 3, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Sitake said he doesn’t know all the details yet — nobody does, really — but he likes what he sees.

“I am glad that the players are getting taken care of,” he said. “I think the most important thing for us is to make sure that we educate them on how to use the money and how to spend money. We need to educate them on finances — that is what is most important for them to learn.

“So I don’t know where we will be a year from now, but I know that it has opened the door for quite a bit of movement to happen in the NIL world and I am glad that our players get to be a part of that,” he continued.

Speaking to the tournament field after the luncheon at Hidden Valley, Whittingham reiterated that this is just the beginning of the transformation of college football.

“I can promise you right now there are bigger and more change to come,” he said. “You are going to see a minor league model. You are going to see super conferences, a salary cap. … In two to five years, it is going to be so different you won’t even recognize it.”