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Why No. 14 Cougars are wary of ‘dangerous’ Georgia Southern (and how Saturday’s game came about)

Kickoff for 8-2 BYU’s penultimate regular-season game in 2021 is set for 2 p.m. MST and can be accessed via ESPN+

BYU coach Kalani Sitake watches during game against Washington State, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Pullman, Wash.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake watches during game against Washington State, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. The Cougars face Georgia Southern in Statesboro on Saturday afternoon.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

STATESBORO, Ga. — When BYU football historians get together 10 or so years from now to look back upon the Cougars’ dozen years as an independent, games such as the one BYU will play here Saturday will stand as stark reminders of the negative aspects of drifting alone in the college football landscape.

Even if No. 14 BYU blows out 3-7 Georgia Southern at sold-out Paulson Stadium (capacity: 25,000) in a contest that viewers will have to access via ESPN+, not much will be gained for a program eyeing a move up the College Football Playoff rankings and into position for a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Kickoff is at 2 p.m. MST as BYU (8-2) plays in the state of Georgia for only the fourth time ever, and first since it drubbed Georgia Tech 41-17 in Atlanta in 2012.

Georgia Southern is supposed to return the game in Provo on Oct. 12, 2024, but that probably won’t happen because BYU will be in the Big 12 by then and can only play three or four nonconference contests a year as a member of that Power Five conference.

Why are the Cougars playing this game? They’ve got precious little to gain, and a whole lot to lose should the Eagles — a 20-point underdog with an interim head coach after Chad Lunsford was fired four games into the season — spring the upset.

Thursday night, GS officials announced they were “officially sold out of seats” for the game, and incoming head coach Clay Helton recorded a video asking Eagles fans to “come in full force and be loud” in the game.

The series was announced on Nov. 30, 2017, in conjunction with announcements of multiple games against Houston and Hawaii. It came five days after the Cougars completed their worst season in a couple decades, 4-9, with a 30-20 win over Hawaii and three days after head coach Kalani Sitake dismissed offensive coordinator Ty Detmer.

It came at a time when there was considerable debate whether athletic director Tom Holmoe’s plan to get as many Power Five opponents on the schedule was too ambitious for a program without Power Five funding.

When the series was announced, then-GS athletic director Tom Kleinlein celebrated it as a major coup for the program that transitioned to the FBS level in 2014, mentioning in a school news release that BYU “won a national championship (in 1984) and is steeped in history.”

Ironically, BYU is 5-1 against P5 foes this season, with one more on the docket — Nov. 27 at USC.

But anybody who thinks Georgia Southern upsetting BYU isn’t possible hasn’t been following college football this season, Sitake said Monday, noting how a record number of ranked teams have lost games this season to unranked opponents.

“You go watch their film, and you can see that they are still motivated,” Sitake said. “They are coming off a win against Texas State (38-30 in San Marcos) and I see a lot of athleticism and speed on the field.”

BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said the Eagles “could have packed it in midseason and just tanked” after their coach was fired — former USC coach Helton will take over next year — and they lost four straight games before the win last week in Texas.

“It is their Senior Day. They are going to be excited to play. I imagine if I was on their end of this thing, I would be, too,” Roderick said. “They are excited about this opportunity to play us in their home stadium and with a week off, we want to make sure we are ready to play.”

As Roderick said, the Cougars should be rested after a bye last weekend ended 10 straight weeks of games, but they are still not completely healthy. Leading receiver Neil Pau’u, for instance, will not play after sustaining a lower-leg injury against Idaho State.

Defensively, it appears hybrid linebacker Chaz Ah You will return, a good sign since Georgia Southern runs a triple-option offense similar to the one that gave BYU fits last year at Coastal Carolina — which is the last time BYU played a team from the Sun Belt Conference.

“Their record doesn’t really show how dangerous they could be, at least on offense,” said BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. “When you are facing a team that runs an offense that has elements of option football, it is always challenging.”

The Cougars left for Georgia on Thursday, and practiced at a facility in Savannah — an hour away from Statesboro — on Friday. They are 6-5 in the Eastern time zone in games played under Sitake, the most recent a 49-23 win over Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl last December.

Sitake said the travel and climate won’t be the determining factors in the game. How each team plays will make the difference.

“What I have seen from Georgia Southern is this group, they care about each other and they are going to play hard for each other. We need to have that same mindset on our team and need to make sure we show up (because) we are going to get their best. … We just need to make sure that they get our best shot as well.”