FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — When is a nonconference game more important than a Big 12 contest for the BYU Cougars in their first season in a Power Five league?

How about Saturday’s showdown (5:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) with the SEC’s Arkansas here at Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium? Does that qualify?

A case could certainly be made. Hear us out for a minute.

“I think everybody kinda has a bitter taste from what happened last year. So yeah, everybody is locked in. We (BYU fans) travel well. We play well on the road. Last time we went down to SEC country we beat Tennessee. So we are excited to go and show what we are about.” — BYU defensive tackle Caden Haws

Let’s start with the premise that BYU, picked to finish 11th in the Big 12 and fitting that description in its first two games, maybe worse, is not going to contend for the league title in 2023. 

As the Deseret News reported Wednesday, the Cougars (2-0) are expected to lose all of their remaining games, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. So those October and November games against the likes of No. 4 Texas, No. 19 Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are not going to matter much in the big scheme of things, at least not to the Cougars.

That’s especially true if BYU loses at much-improved Kansas next week, or the following week in its Big 12 home opener against Cincinnati. 

Which brings us back to this little rematch Saturday in Arkansas. BYU can immediately establish some street cred with its new Big 12 brethren, and a healthy dose of goodwill, if it can somehow handle the haughty Hogs (2-0), a team that walloped them 52-35 last year in Provo.

It is a big “if,” obviously. BYU looked like it did not belong on the same field as Sam Pittman’s team in 2022 — at least not in the fourth quarter when the Razorbacks pulled away.

Buying it?

No coach or player in his right mind is going to say one game is more important than another, especially when it comes to a nonconference game against a nonrival some 1,200 miles away. And the quest for revenge isn’t a thing in Provo. Hasn’t been since Utah brought its nine-game winning streak in the rivalry to Utah County in 2021.

That’s not how the Cougars roll under Kalani Sitake. But they do pay attention to the national college football landscape, and also care about how they will be perceived by their new conference mates, having roamed the barren and lonely independence trail for more than a decade.

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So this one is big. Trust us. And trust BYU junior Connor Pay, the tell-it-like-it-is offensive lineman who hasn’t forgotten the feeling last year when the Cougars ran out of gas in the final 20 minutes and Arkansas kept living high on the hog, as it were.

“Yeah, yeah, it is really important (because) it is the next game. It is the most important game on our schedule right now,” Pay said Wednesday. “Even though conference play comes later, I think any time you have a chance to go play a team that took one from you last year in your home stadium there is some extra juice there, and we kind of get to represent the teams here out West and go into the SEC and try to put a good product on the field and represent the guys out here.”

And, more importantly, represent the Big 12.

Said BYU receiver Darius Lassiter, who played for Eastern Michigan last year: “Playing an SEC (team) is enough motivation. So, just proving to everybody that we can do it even though we are Big 12 and they say SEC is this powerhouse conference.”

Then there are the thoughts of BYU defensive tackle Caden Haws, who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and played for Natural State powerhouse Pulaski Academy, known as the program that never punts.

How will BYU fare against Arkansas this time around?

“I think everybody kinda has a bitter taste from what happened last year,” said Haws, whose father, Kurt, played for the University of Utah. “So yeah, everybody is locked in. We (BYU fans) travel well. We play well on the road. Last time we went down to SEC country we beat Tennessee. So we are excited to go and show what we are about.”

Sitake said Monday that the Cougars are “right where we wanted to be” at this point in the season, while admitting that there is plenty of room for improvement — particularly in the run game on offense.

“Nobody should be feeling comfortable where they think they have arrived. That includes me as a head coach,” Sitake said. “But we are 2-0, and we are sitting in a position now where we are going out to visit Arkansas and play this game, and I think the focus now needs to be on them. They are a really great team, with tons of talent. We are going into an environment that we haven’t seen this year, meaning being on the road.”

Cougars on the air

BYU (2-0)
at Arkansas (2-0)
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT
Fayetteville, Arkansas
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

With a capacity of 76,000, Razorbacks Stadium will produce the biggest true road crowd the Cougars have faced since that Zach Wilson-engineered 29-26 win over Tennessee in 2019 that Haws referenced. The last time they were on this big of a stage was last October in Las Vegas, where they fell 28-20 to Notre Dame in front of 62,742, the largest crowd to ever watch a college athletic event in Nevada history.

The stakes are high. The pressure has been palpable in practice, observers say.

“I just want the guys to let loose and go have a lot of fun this weekend and we will see what the results show,” Sitake said, cautioning against making one game more than it is. “I know (Pittman) will have his guys ready, which for me gives us a higher sense of urgency to make sure we are ready by the time we get out there.”

In this Sept. 5, 2015, photo, Arkansas fans watch game against UTEP at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, Ark. Saturday, the BYU Cougars will be the guests. | Samantha Baker, Associated Press