For No. 21 BYU, Saturday against No. 9 Baylor could be an all-timer in Provo

It’s a safe bet that this Saturday has been circled on BYU’s calendar for months.

Players and coaches usually say they’re only concerned with “the next opponent” and don’t pick favorites on the schedule, but it’s not often that a squad of No. 9 Baylor’s caliber visits Provo with so much shared intrigue on both sides.

Even in a 2022 slate also featuring the likes of Oregon, Notre Dame and Arkansas, Baylor has always been the matchup of most interest, especially now with both teams ranked among the nation’s best.

“You could say that the Baylor game is one that players are looking forward to,” defensive tackle Lorenzo Fauatea said. “They have a great program, nothing better you could ask for.”

Welcoming the Bears to town is more than just a chance to knock off a top-10 opponent. It runs much deeper than that.

“I’m personally looking to get some revenge on those guys,” defensive end Tyler Batty said of Baylor at June’s media day. “We came to their place. Welcome to our place.”

The Bears are the defending Big 12 champions, setting the standard within the conference BYU sets to enter just a year from now. Two of the initial architects of the Cougars’ current roster — Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos — are now draped in green and gold, serving as Baylor’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, respectively after filling the same roles at BYU from 2018-20.

In last season’s meeting in Waco, Grimes and Mateos were well prepared in guiding the Bears to pound BYU where it hurt, handing the Cougars their second loss of the year in humiliating 38-24 fashion. BYU had no answer for the far more physical, bruising Bears, as Baylor’s offensive line paved the way for more than 300 team rushing yards while its defense sacked Jaren Hall five times and smothered Tyler Allgeier to the tune of just 2.2 yards per carry.

It was a wake up call for the Cougars. To eventually compete as a Power 5 program, players needed to transform their bodies to both withstand and outlast the physicality Baylor displayed.

“Baylor definitely had a strong presence up front last year.. I know our players, especially up front, realized that they needed to change some things, get stronger and they definitely got that done,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We’ll see if it applies to the football field for us on Saturday.”

Baylor’s offensive line is still elite, ranking as the country’s fourth-best according to Pro Football Focus, but the Bears lost their top two running backs, top three receivers and top two safeties and corners from last year’s team. While just 45% of Baylor’s 2021 production remains, Dave Aranda’s program develops talent well and is widely expected to repeat as conference champions and knock on the door of a playoff berth.

However, BYU’s 85% returning production from 2021 spent the offseason obsessing over Baylor. It’s a similar angst to that which helped snap BYU’s losing streak to Utah.

“Baylor is a team that I’ve been really looking forward to this offseason,” left tackle Blake Freeland said. “I have been preparing myself physically and mentally for it.”

It’s almost as if these two teams were destined to become rivals. BYU’s Big 12 admission this July will be a treat for both schools.

As for the present, Hall will need to remain efficient, keep drives alive and be creative in distributing the ball, especially if Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua are sidelined again. BYU’s defense needs to prove it isn’t the same unit Baylor torched last year and show that it can stop the run and get off the field. The Cougars need to work fast, strike first and ignite the projected sellout crowd at LaVell’s house.

It’s much easier said than done, but such a result has been the goal since last October. BYU’s 2022 ceiling and everything it hopes to accomplish runs through Baylor this Saturday, so there’s no time to lose.

BYU is 5-22-1 lifetime against top 10 foes. It hasn’t hosted a top-10 opponent since TCU in 2009 and hasn’t beaten one since Wisconsin in 2018. The last time a top-10 team went down in Provo at the hands of the Cougars was when Ty Detmer stunned No. 1 Miami in 1990.

32 years later, BYU may never have better shot at another top-10 takedown in Provo than right now. They’re three-point favorites against Baylor, after all.

A win Saturday wouldn’t just change the trajectory of BYU’s season— it would be the program’s biggest win since Detmer’s heroics, the highest point of the Sitake era and the validation of a revenge-fueled offseason to challenge the Big 12 hierarchy and establish the Cougars as a future conference power.

Oh, and I’m sure it would merit another memorable field-storming that we’ll all tell our children about years from now.

“We have to prepare for their best and hopefully we can match up against them,” Sitake said. “I feel good about our team, and this will be a great test to see where we’re at.”

BYU and Baylor kick off Saturday at 8:15 in Provo. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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