Big 12 opener is finally here. Are the Cougars ready to contend?

BYU Cougars running back LJ Martin (27) scores against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

When the Big 12 preseason football rankings were released on July 6, news that they were picked to finish 11th in the 14-team league was met outwardly with shrugs and feigned disinterest among the BYU Cougars.

Internally, however, the players and coaches felt a bit disrespected, especially those returning from the team that went 8-5 in 2022 and finished the year on a four-game winning streak. They kept their grumbling to a minimum, particularly at the Big 12 football media days the following week in Arlington, Texas.

“We don’t really look into media hype that much, or what the media says about us too much. There were rumblings of how we were going to struggle in the Big 12. We do want to prove some people wrong. We want to have that underdog mentality.” — BYU tight end Isaac Rex

“I haven’t heard anybody say anything about it,” linebacker Ben Bywater said at the time.

Frankly, after starting the 2023 season with less-than-impressive wins over Sam Houston and Southern Utah on their home field, the Cougars looked like the squad the media predicted they would be — a lower-tier finisher in their first season in the Power Five conference.

Then Arkansas happened. A 38-31 come-from-behind win over an SEC team on the road has buoyed hopes in Provo ahead of the Cougars’ long-awaited Big 12 opener against also 3-0 Kansas at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium (Saturday, 1:30 p.m MDT, ESPN).

Suddenly, the Cougars, although clearly flawed and with doubtful questions still dogging various positions on the team, are being seen as a group capable of finishing in the top half of the league. John Williams of Sooners Wire even put them at No. 3 in his weekly Big 12 power rankings, behind the only two Big 12 teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 this week — No. 3 Texas and No. 16 Oklahoma.

Kansas State, TCU, Kansas and BYU are among the Big 12 teams receiving votes.

That the Big 12 has collectively underperformed through three weeks of the season has also added to BYU’s optimism that it can be competitive in Year 1. Maybe Saturday’s game at Kansas, Oct. 14’s game at TCU, the early November game at West Virginia and the Nov. 25 regular-season finale at Oklahoma State are winnable, after all.

Still, the Cougars are more than a touchdown underdog Saturday, which doesn’t disappoint them in the least, according to tight end Isaac Rex.

“We don’t really look into media hype that much, or what the media says about us too much,” Rex said Monday. “There were rumblings of how we were going to struggle in the Big 12. We do want to prove some people wrong. We want to have that underdog mentality.”

After the big win at Arkansas, the Cougars’ third true road win at an SEC venue since 2011 (Ole Miss and Tennessee were the others), Kalani Sitake was asked the question all of Cougar Nation wants to know. Are they ready for Big 12 play?

“We have been waiting for this. We have been prepping for this. This is a good start, but again, we are going on the road again next week. We got to be ready. We have to have the same mindset and everything is 0-0 right now,” Sitake said. “We can be happy about the win, but there are things we need to fix and things we need to correct. That is what I am focused on.”

Receiver Chase Roberts was a bit more confident.

“We are excited. One game at a time,” he said. “We are looking forward to Kansas and to try to go 4-0.”

‘Every team is dangerous’

For his part, Sitake isn’t buying the notion that the Big 12 as a whole is down this year with the exception of the outgoing teams, Texas and Oklahoma.

“They are all well-coached teams, with tons of talent,” he said. “That is still the same. I don’t think you can judge it all on one week. I don’t know if you can judge it all on three weeks.”

The league’s best win to date is Texas’ 34-24 win at Alabama. BYU’s breakthrough at Arkansas could be considered the second-best win, so the Cougars have already earned some credibility from their conference brethren, presumably.

“That was a big road win for them,” Kansas coach Lance Leipold said Monday. “You know, to be down two scores on the road, and to come back and win, in the fashion that they did (was impressive).”

In other matchups with Power Five foes, the league has not fared well. Texas Christian was upset 45-42 by Colorado in an opener (a loss that doesn’t seem as bad now, considering CU’s emergence under coach Deion Sanders).

There have been some close calls: Baylor lost 20-13 at home to Utah; Kansas State lost 30-27 at Missouri on a 61-yard field goal; Texas Tech led No. 10 Oregon most of the game before falling 38-30 in Lubbock.

“Every team is dangerous in this conference. … I know all those coaches. I have been able to be around them in meetings. I have seen their teams. I have watched enough film to know these guys are really good coaches and they know how to get their teams ready,” Sitake said. “I need to do my part to match the level and the standard that they have. That means starting (this) week against Kansas.”


The Jayhawks have one of those wins over a Power Five team, having downed the Big Ten’s Illinois 34-23 in Lawrence two weeks ago. Other breakthroughs include Cincinnati’s 27-21 win over Pitt, and Oklahoma State’s 27-15 conquest of Arizona State in Tempe.

There have been several damning losses, however, such as Baylor’s 42-31 setback to Texas State, Cincinnati’s 31-24 overtime home loss to Miami (Ohio), Iowa State’s 10-7 loss at Ohio, and OSU’s 33-7 home loss to South Alabama.

“It is about matchups,” Sitake said, downplaying the league’s shaky start. “You can’t sit there and be able to predict what is going to happen from the beginning with no games. It is not like you can get three games in and say, ‘OK, now we know who is going to have success in the conference and who isn’t.’”

Cougs become scoreboard watchers

BYU newcomers such as quarterback Kedon Slovis, running backs Aidan Robbins and Deion Smith, receivers Keelan Marion and Darius Lassiter and linebackers Harrison Taggart and AJ Vongphachanh have played in dozens of conference games, so this new world the Cougars are embarking on isn’t novel to them.

Slovis has played at the Power Five level throughout his career.

“It is a grind, because everybody you play is going to be really good,” he said during fall camp. “There are no weeks off, not even close.”

For BYU veterans Max Tooley and Rex, however, league play is something they have never experienced before. Both guys are big scoreboard watchers, and now they are keeping tabs on 13 conference mates, in addition to in-state teams and those that include friends from high school days.

“I am always on ESPN after the game on the bus rides and plane rides home, seeing how the other teams in our conference are doing,” Tooley said. “Yeah, it is the first time of my whole college career that I have been in a conference and really been able to track the teams within our conference. It’s fun.”

Tooley said watching upsets happen serves as a cautionary tale for the Cougars, although from here on out they will probably be favored in less than half their Big 12 games.

“We know how football is. Every college team is going to come out swinging every week, especially when you are the underdog, you are going to want to show what you can do and upset some teams,” Tooley said. “We have seen that in the Big 12 already. We are just trying to stay on the opposite end of that.”

Rex has always been a college football fan, so he naturally pays attention to scores the entire season from across the country. Playing in a conference only adds to his fandom, he said, noting that there are constant reminders that upsets occur regularly.

“A lot of guys want to show what they’ve got, show what they’ve been working for this offseason and just to show what BYU football is all about,” Rex said. “We want to keep that underdog mentality throughout the whole year and just remember that we weren’t supposed to win the Arkansas game, and there are going to be lots of other games that we will be underdogs in in the future, so we want to keep that mentality.”

Can Cougars contend for title in first year?

That question would have seemed silly throughout the summer, and again in weeks 1 and 2. BYU couldn’t run the ball against inferior competition and its defense was and still is without its top two safeties, Micah Harper and Talan Alfrey.

But Sitake’s team showed some real mettle and resilience at Arkansas, and the defense has clearly improved overall under new defensive coordinator Jay Hill, the former Weber State boss. It is amazing what happens when opposing quarterbacks get pressured.

Slovis showed flashes of his freshman year at USC, when he burst onto the college football scene and was getting talked about as a potential NFL quarterback.

So there’s some renewed hope. Maybe, just maybe, BYU will be all right in a Big 12 that might not be as deep as once thought. Just don’t run that idea by Sitake.

Cougars on the air

BYU (3-0)
at Kansas (3-0)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

“This is the old cliche, but it is a one-game season for us,” he said. “We are never going to have this opportunity back again. Just like last week. We are never going to have another opportunity to go back to Arkansas and make a statement and play that game.”

Kansas quite likely is better than Arkansas. Certainly, Jayhawks quarterback Jalon Daniels shows more poise under pressure than the Hogs’ KJ Jefferson. Daniels is the preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year for a reason. He’s probably going to be the best QB the Cougars see this season.

So reel in those unreal expectations. Win a conference game first — for the first time since Nov. 20, 2010, a 40-7 win over New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference.

That’s Sitake’s message. Nothing more, nothing less.

“I need these guys to understand the seriousness of this situation, and why there needs to be a huge sense of urgency for us to get to a position where we can play at our best,” he said. “That is what the focus is on. The rest of the stuff will take care of itself as soon as we get there. But you can’t really focus on the Big 12 other than the first game that is in it, and that’s Kansas.”

Players for the Kansas Jayhawks take the field before a game against Illinois on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. On Saturday they’ll be taking the field in Lawrence against BYU in the Cougars’ first conference game as a member of the Big 12. | Colin E. Braley, Associated Press
Players for the Kansas Jayhawks take the field before a game against Illinois on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. On Saturday they’ll be taking the field in Lawrence against BYU in the Cougars’ first conference game as a member of the Big 12. | Colin E. Braley, Associated Press