Provo • Bevo the longhorn steer won’t be making an appearance, nor will the famed “Showband of the Southwest,” that enormous “Big Bertha” bass drum, or the world’s largest Texas state flag, which is unfurled at home games at massive Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin.
But when the mighty Texas Longhorns roll into LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday for an intersectional matchup with homestanding BYU, the Cougars and their fans will get up close and personal with one of college football’s true bluebloods, historically one of the top two or three programs in the country.
“They are pretty much bigger than life there,” said BYU offensive lineman Manaaki Vaitai, who is from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “Everybody knows about the Longhorns. They’re almost as big as the [Dallas] Cowboys, kind of like a state treasure.”
And by most indications, they are back. After three subpar years by their standards, the Longhorns are ranked No. 15 in the country. They are coming off the most explosive offensive output in school history — 715 yards in a 56-7 romp over New Mexico State — and are eyeing the Cougars as another step toward national glory.
Expectations are sky-high because Texas has 19 starters back, which ties Indiana for most returning starters in the country, from the team that went 9-4 and beat Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl.
“All the pieces are in place for a great run at the title,” said Kirk Bohls, columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, who has covered the program since 1973. “Plus there’s not really an elite team in the [Big 12]. It does seem like it is all there for the taking if Texas is up for task.”
For BYU fans, this is what they envisioned when athletic director Tom Holmoe announced the football program was going independent beginning in 2011, although the two-for-one agreement with Texas was set up when BYU was still a member of the Mountain West Conference: a big-time program making the trip to Provo. It doesn’t happen very often.
“Just a big school. Everybody knows them,” said Ross Apo, the BYU receiver from Arlington, Texas, who originally committed to UT but changed his mind at the urging of quarterback Jake Heaps, who is now at Kansas and will face the Longhorns on Nov. 2 for the second time, having lost at Austin 17-16 in 2011 as a sophomore at BYU.
“Everybody that grows up there wants to play for them,” Apo said.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who coached against Texas when he was at Texas Tech, said: “They will have a phenomenal athlete at every position. They always do.”
The Longhorns come to Provo not only singing “The Eyes of Texas,” that well-known school spirit song set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” but with the eyes of their massive national fanbase on coach Mack Brown, who is feeling a bit of heat after going 22-16 the last three years, including 11-15 in the Big 12.
“There is pressure on the head coach at Texas every year,” said Bohls, the columnist. “That’s unavoidable. I think it is ratcheted up this year because [Brown] has had three subpar years by Texas standards and by his own standards.”
Brown, in his 16th year at Texas, restored the program to national prominence and guided the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship, their fourth. The legendary Darrell Royal put Texas among the elite of college football from 1957 to 1976, and Fred Akers continued that tradition of national success through the mid-1980s.
Texas tumbled a bit when David McWilliams and John Mackovic were its coaches from 1986 to 1998, and it was during those years that BYU actually beat the Longhorns twice, 22-17 in 1987 and 47-6 in 1988.
Bohls said that some Texas supporters “are bothered that [Brown] has only won two Big 12 titles (2005 and 2009) in 15 years” but believes the coach has “the complete and almost unconditional support of the administration here,” partly because he’s been such a phenomenal fundraiser, drawing close to $1 billion to the school and a football program that is believed to be the richest in the country.
“In football profit alone, they make close to $80 million a year,” Bohls said. “So it is set up very well and had a lot of resources. ... It is the most well-heeled financial athletic department in the nation. Their budget, the last time we wrote about it, was $163 million a year. That’s pretty substantial.”
Bohls said although school president William Powers and athletic director DeLoss Dodds are Brown believers, the coach has alienated a lot of Texas fans because he has lost three straight games to rival Oklahoma, including two blowouts.
“That has cost him some of his support,” Bohls said.
The Longhorns get another shot at the Sooners on Oct. 12 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, but there’s a little work to do in Utah before then.
BYU fans hope it turns into a task as big as Texas.
• 4 national championships: 1963, 1969, 1970 and 2005, when Vince Young (above) led Texas over USC.
• 25 Southwestern Conference Championships (last one in 1995)
• Three Big 12 championships: 1996, 2005, 2009
• Second in all-time wins with 868. Michigan leads with 904.
• Only team in nation to be ranked in 13 of the last 14 BCS final polls
• Football program valued at $805 million in 2012, more than some NFL teams
• 2 Heisman Trophy winners: Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams (top)
• Seventeen former Longhorns are in College Football Hall of Fame; 129 have been named to All-America teams
ONLINE NOW • BYU tackle Ryker Mathews not fully recovered from hip surgery. > sltrib.com/sports
Texas at BYU
Saturday, 5 p.m.