With BYU set to join the Big 12 within two years, Saturday’s game at Baylor serves as preview

The matchup was originally scheduled more than five years ago, but has added meaning since the Cougars were invited into the Power Five conference last month.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Puka Nacua (12) pulls in the catch with Boise State Broncos cornerback Caleb Biggers (26) as No. 10 Brigham Young University hosts Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Oct. 9, 2021.

BYU is used to drawing national crowds to its football games, but there will be an even deeper look into the Cougars when they play at Baylor on Saturday.

While the matchup, which will air on ESPN, was scheduled more than five years ago, the game has added meaning ever since BYU received an invite into the Big 12 on Sept. 10.

Suddenly, Saturday’s game is now a preview of what it will be like when the Cougars join the Power Five conference in two years.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake said his Cougars will face a tough team in a tough matchup, but they are excited for to be there and experience the atmosphere at McLane Stadium.

“I think our guys are going to embrace it and have fun,” Sitake said. “A little bit of a weather change, too. Just looking forward to getting into Texas, playing some football there, and it’s just nice to be in a different region of the country. Looking forward to the matchup. Tons of respect for that team and that program and the university, and really looking forward to our partnership with the Big 12 in the future. I’m glad that we get to have an earlier version of it this week.”

Baylor coach Dave Aranda is as familiar with BYU as one can be without having played or coached for the Cougars. Aranda has coached against the Cougars during stints at Hawaii, Utah State and Wisconsin. Through the last six years, since Sitake became the head coach, Aranda has seen how the Cougars have grown and has come to respect them.

“I’ve had just a ton of respect for them, and now knowing their coaches and the direction that they’re headed and what Kalani has been able to grow there ... a lot of respect,” Aranda said. “It’s going to be a good matchup.”

With nearly two years until BYU transitions into the Big 12, it is hard to say how the Cougars will fare in the P5 conference. But Aranda believes they’ll be just fine.

“The long view of it is I think they’re going to be a good fit,” Aranda said. “… There’s a lot of respect for BYU — for their physicality, for their maturity, for their toughness. There’s a lot of athleticism there, but they’re very much the gym rat that’s the bully. They have been able to pull out wins all different types of ways.”

However, Sitake said his Cougars aren’t heading out to Waco worried about making a good first impression to the Big 12 fanbase. Instead, they’re just focused on the game at hand.

“I don’t know if I’m really worried about making an impression,” Sitake said. “I’m just trying to make sure our guys are playing fundamentally sound football. We’re a much better team when we can limit our mistakes and not shoot ourselves in the foot, as some people say. But we’re going to come in there excited to play the game, really looking forward to the matchup. I think we bring a unique brand of football, but we’re going to have a lot of fun playing with sportsmanship and class and embracing the opportunity to be in there, in front of that fan base.”

Both teams are currently sitting on a 5-1 record midway through the season. The Cougars will be looking to bounce back from last week’s loss to Boise State.

“I know that BYU is going to be an angry team,” Aranda said. “And they’re going to be motivated. And they’re going to want the stage to show that they belong. I think, from a big-picture view … it’s more of here’s a team that’s looking to prove something and bringing some intensity that we have to exceed.”