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Big 12 preview? BYU's road game at Baylor as much about past, present as future

In this July 15, 2021, file photo, Baylor head coach Dave Aranda smiles as he listens to a question during an NCAA college football news conference at the Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas. A former Utah State assistant, Aranda is in his second season as Baylor’s head coach as the Bears host BYU Saturday afternoon. (LM Otero, Associated Press)

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PROVO — The next step of BYU's 2021 football campaign takes the Cougars to Waco, Texas, the home of Magnolia Way, Chip and Joanna Gaines, and the only private school in the Big 12 governed by a religious organization.

Until, of course, 2023 when the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will get a conference fixer-upper and join with one governed by the Baptist General Convention of Texas (Texas Christian — the only other private religious school in the conference located in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex — is affiliated with, but not governed by, the Disciples of Christ).

So if BYU's road tilt Saturday afternoon at Baylor (1:30 p.m. MT, ESPN) feels like a Big 12 dress rehearsal, that's because in some ways, it is — even if BYU coach Kalani Sitake says he's not worried about trying to make a first impression on the conference his team is planning to join in 2023. The Cougars are just trying to move on from their first loss of the season.

"I just want our guys to play fundamentally sound football," he said. "We're a much better team when we limit our mistakes and not shoot ourselves in the foot. But we're excited for the game. … I think we bring a unique brand of football, but we're going to try to bring a lot of sportsmanship and class.

"It's going to be a fun day, and our guys are looking forward to a change in scenery a little bit."

The Cougars' first trip outside of the intermountain corridor of the year will be to a place the program hasn't been since the season opener in 1983. BYU lost that game, but equalized the all-time series at a win apiece with a 47-13 win a year later in Provo.

Baylor is contracted to return the home-and-home series on Sept. 10 in Provo, meaning the Cougars and Bears will play a true precursor of the new Big 12 before beginning conference play — with or without Texas and Oklahoma, and likely with Houston, Cincinnati and UCF — in 2023.

BYU president Kevin Worthen, right, speaks about athletic director Tom Holmoe, left, during a press conference announcing that BYU has accepted an invitation to the Big 12 Conference at BYU in Provo on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.
BYU president Kevin Worthen, right, speaks about athletic director Tom Holmoe, left, during a press conference announcing that BYU has accepted an invitation to the Big 12 Conference at BYU in Provo on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Few in the Big 12 know the Cougars like Baylor coach Dave Aranda. The former LSU defensive coordinator has known Sitake for "a long time," by his own admission, and worked as defensive coordinator at Southern Utah under current BYU associate head coach Ed Lamb.

Linebackers coach Kevin Clune held the same position on Aranda's staff at Utah State, and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki was running backs coach on that staff "for about two months," Tuiaki says, before he left for the University of Utah to be the fullbacks and tight ends coach in 2012.

When Tuiaki was moved to defensive coach at Utah, his top mentors were Gary Andersen, Frank Maile, Pete Jenkins — and Aranda when he was at Wisconsin, he said.

"A lot of these guys I know and have a ton of respect for," Aranda said. "And I know BYU is going to be an angry team. They're going to be motivated and want the stage to show that they belong."

Aranda faced BYU in each of his past four coaching stops as defensive coordinator at Hawaii, Utah State, Wisconsin and LSU. His association with Lamb goes even further back, to when he was a JV coach at Redlands High School in California in 1995 and moved to Division III Cal Lutheran a year later. Lamb was at Redlands at the time, and though the two schools were considered Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference rivals, the two linebacker coaches would often meet to talk ball.

With that staff and the type of program the Cougars boast, Aranda believes they will be an excellent fit for the newly aligned conference in two seasons.

"There's a lot of respect for BYU — for their physicality, for their maturity, for their toughness," Aranda said. "There is a lot of athleticism there, but they're very much a gym rat that is the bully, able to pull out wins all different types of ways. I felt that very much in the coaching circles I was with, and since that time, I've had a ton of respect for them.

"Knowing their coaches and the direction that they are headed there, a lot of respect. It's going to be a good matchup."

As for this season, the Bears are a good football team. Coming into the meeting at 5-1, Baylor sits just outside the latest Associated Press Top 25 with an offense that averages 461.3 yards per game and complements a defense that allows 320.7. Those are the 26th and 32nd best marks nationally.

The Bears are led by quarterback Gerry Bohanon, a 66% passer who has amassed 1,337 yards and 11 touchdowns without an interception this season, and a standout wide receiver in Tyquan Thornton, who has 27 catches for 463 yards and five touchdowns.

But true to the Jeff Grimes offense, Baylor also leans on its running back Abram Smith, a senior averaging 99.5 yards per game for 597 yards and seven touchdowns.

"They're explosive," BYU defensive lineman Caden Haws said. "We've got a lot of respect for Grimes and (offensive line coach Eric) Mateos; those guys will definitely be well coached. We're just looking forward to getting the opportunity to prove ourselves against those guys this week."

As far as the Big 12 goes, that's in the future. But it's a future that is inherently connected with this year's BYU and Baylor team — and even the past.

"I love the Big 12," said Haws, who grew up in Kansas, attended Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was a fan of K-State as a child. "I was super excited when we got the invite to go to the Big 12. It's too bad it's in a few years and I probably won't get a chance to play there."

The redshirt freshman will get that chance Saturday. And he's going to take advantage of it.

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