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From Big 12 dry run to facing former BYU coaches, storylines abound in Waco

No. 19 BYU’s success the first half of the season, and Big 12 bid, have made Saturday’s showdown at future conference foe Baylor must-see TV

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake looks on before the start of their game against Boise State in Provo, Utah, Oct. 9, 2021.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake looks on before the start of their game against Boise State in Provo, Utah, Oct. 9, 2021. Sitake and his staff will square off Saturday against the Baylor Bears in Waco, Texas, in front of a national ESPN audience, where a few of their former colleagues will be on the opposite sideline.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

WACO, Texas — It was supposed to be little more than the seventh game of the season, the fourth contest against a Power Five opponent, and a fun little reunion with a couple of the coaches who helped BYU go 11-1 last year against a weak schedule during a pandemic-altered season.

But Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. MDT showdown against 5-1 and criminally unranked Baylor here at McLane Stadium on the banks of the Brazos River has become much more meaningful than just the chance to match wits with former BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and former offensive line coach Eric Mateos for No. 19 and 5-1 BYU.

Of course, the matchup is a dress rehearsal, of sorts, for BYU’s admittance into the Big 12 Conference in 2023. The Cougars, who will host the Big 12’s Bears next year on Sept. 10, will get a good taste of what life will be like in a P5 league against one of its better teams.

But there are more storylines to this third meeting ever between the Bears and Cougars, Baylor having won 40-36 in Waco in 1983 and BYU having won 47-13 in Provo in 1984 en route to its national championship run.

After last week’s somewhat surprising 26-17 loss to Boise State, this is suddenly a crossroads game for BYU. If the Cougars lose, they could easily be staring at a four-game skid and season-derailing stretch, with P5 opponents Washington State and Virginia up next.

Win, and a special season is back on the table, even if the Cougars haven’t been dominant in any of their five wins to date. For BYU, Baylor and Big 12 fans eager to get a good look at the program that will join along with Cincinnati, UCF and Houston, this one is must-see TV.

ESPN will have the telecast, with Mark Jones on play-by-play and former Baylor QB Robert Griffin III as the analyst in Baylor’s homecoming game. Coming off an impressive 45-20 home win over West Virginia and with a victory over then-No. 14 Iowa State in its back pocket, Baylor is close to a touchdown favorite.

Will the Cougars be up to the challenge? They seemingly play better against better opponents, having risen to the occasion as underdogs in wins over Utah and Arizona State. The second straight afternoon game marks the first time BYU will have left the state of Utah for a game since the 24-16 win over Arizona in Las Vegas.

Last year, BYU’s Nov. 6 game at Boise State was said to be one of the most important of the independence era, the Cougars taking a No. 9 ranking into that affair — which they won 51-17 to stay on the national radar.

This one feels close to that, although the pressure of “auditioning” for Power Five admittance is no longer a thing.

The Cougars have mostly validated last season by beating three Power Five opponents and an improved Utah State team in Logan in 2021, but this one could seal that deal.

Walk into Waco and walk out with a win? That would make it a wrap.

“It is going to be a huge challenge to go on the road and play against a really, really good team,” said BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, the man who replaced Grimes and has kept the Cougars’ offense purring along. “It will be fun to be in the Big 12 in years to come; we look forward to that. But right now, we gotta figure out how to get this win.”

Jeff Grimes speaks during the press conference introducing him as the new offensive coordinator for the BYU football program in Provo South on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017.
Jeff Grimes speaks during the press conference introducing him as the new offensive coordinator for the BYU football program in Provo South on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. Grimes is now calling the offensive shots in Waco, Texas, where the Cougars will face the Bears Saturday.
Adam Fondren, Deseret News

BYU’s dream of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl took a huge hit with the loss to unranked BSU. Another setback will doom the Cougars to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, against a Conference USA opponent, although they could exercise an option to play in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl (formerly known as the Cheez-It Bowl) in Arizona if the Big Ten and/or Big 12 can’t fill its spot there.

“It’s a huge game,” acknowledged BYU receiver Keanu Hill, a Bedford native who played at Trinity High in Euless, Texas. “We expect them to be really aggressive and not (give us) a warm welcome at all.”

Obviously, there’s more familiarity than typical of a first meeting in almost 40 years, and not just because Grimes and Mateos (and quality control analyst Matt Mitchell) were at BYU last year. Baylor head coach Dave Aranda has faced BYU four times in the last 10 years as defensive coordinator at Hawaii, Utah State, Wisconsin and LSU, going 2-2.

“From what is in front of our windshield, (BYU) is a team that is looking to prove something, and bringing some intensity that we have to exceed,” Aranda said.

Baylor nose tackle Siaka Ika committed to play for BYU out of East High in Salt Lake City, but changed his mind and headed to LSU before transferring to Waco.

“We became really close friends and brothers with Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos, and we care about them,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “I know our (other) coaches and players do, too. So it is going to be different that way, but we want to win.”

Roderick said BYU has been planning for this game since Grimes and Mateos left, mostly because those coaches know so much about the Cougars’ offensive terminology, schemes and signals.

“We have to completely change how we function as an offense,” Roderick said. “Literally, our entire operation has to be different this week because they know everything that we do. … It is not like it caught us off guard. We have been planning it for close to a year now. We will be ready to go Saturday.”

The main changes will come in the way BYU signals in plays to expected starting quarterback Jaren Hall, who Roderick said on Wednesday is “completely healthy” and ready to roll. A big key will be whether Hall can run the football effectively, something he wasn’t able to do vs. Boise State due to lingering effects of bruised ribs.

Baylor’s defense has 10 starters back from a unit that allowed only 203.0 passing yards per game last season and has allowed only 175.0 this season through six games.

The Bears’ five starting DBs have a combined 105 starts under their belts.

Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon in action during a game against Oklahoma State, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Stillwater, Okla. Bohanon has completed 66% of his passes for 1,337 yards and 11 touchdowns, with no interceptions
Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

“I would say the thing that stands out is how squared away they are. They don’t make mistakes. There are no gimme throws against them,” Roderick said. “You earn every inch you get in the running game and the passing game. It is a physical team that flies around, 11 guys every snap that fly around. We are in for a big challenge. This is going to be a tough, tough defense to move the ball on.”

Offensively, the Bears have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Gerry Bohanon, who has completed 66% of his passes for 1,337 yards and 11 touchdowns, with no interceptions. Leading rusher Abram Smith averages 7.7 yards per carry.

Leading receiver Tyquan Thornton is averaging 77.2 receiving yards per game, and has caught five TD passes.

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said that scheme-wise Baylor’s offense is “a lot like we are facing right now,” with Grimes’ obvious influence.

“We are getting a lot of crossover with our offense to prepare for it and we know they are going to be well-coached,” Tuiaki said. “I have a lot of respect for coach Grimes and what he does. His boys are going to be ready and play hard, so it will be a good battle.”

One that seems a lot more important than it did two months ago.