- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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BYU could not have asked for a better way to begin its first season as an independent.
Veteran team. National television. SEC opponent.
OK, so Ole Miss is not Alabama. But there is no sugarcoating the belief that the SEC is the best league in America, top to bottom. A win in Oxford, Miss., on Saturday would go a long way toward showing the college football nation what BYU is all about.
“It’s a huge statement game for us,” quarterback Jake Heaps said. “This game means a lot to us. This is an SEC football team, so to walk into an SEC stadium and environment and walk away with a win from a traditional powerhouse program in the SEC, that’s a great thing for us. But it’s going to be a hard fought battle. They’re a good football team, and we’re up to the challenge.”
BYU opens Year 1 as an independent with a slew of “statement games.” Following Ole Miss, BYU travels to play Texas, then has Utah and UCF at home. The first three are against teams from automatic qualifying conferences, and wins against all three would most certainly land the Cougars back into the national spotlight.
“Every game we play, we try to make a statement,” linebacker Jordan Pendleton said. “Being independent, we get the opportunity to play against some great teams and we get an opportunity to play against an SEC team our first game on the road. That means a lot to us. It is showcase game, and we want to show we can play against anybody in the country.”
That is of paramount importance for the Cougars as an independent, now that it begins a new partnership with ESPN. Mediocrity is not going to be rewarded with high television ratings. But there is much curiosity about whether or not BYU is making the right move in going independent, and that curiosity has folks interested in some of the early season games against high-profile opponents.
BYU does not have much experience against SEC teams. The Cougars are 1-3 against the conference, with their only win coming in 2001 at Mississippi State, 41-38. That game was pushed to December because of September 11. The Cougars survived the loss of running back Luke Staley, who broke his leg, and won a last-second field goal.
Current offensive coordinator Brandon Doman was the starting quarterback on that team and threw for 390 yards and three touchdowns. Doman is calling plays for the first time this season, but everybody seems comfortable with him now in charge.
Heaps said the Cougars had an excellent fall camp. So much so, they broke early and started preparing for Ole Miss. BYU returns 10 starters on offense, including a potential first-round tackle in Matt Reynolds and Heaps, now the full-time starter.
Defensively, BYU is faster and more athletic, especially at linebacker. That should help out the defensive line, which is smaller than the offensive line Ole Miss presents. Speed, of course, will be a story line going into this game because so much of it is made from an SEC perspective.
“You know going into this game we’re going to face a lot of athletes. We understand that,” Pendleton said. "However, I feel like this team at BYU, we’re the most athletic we’ve ever been. In the past, that may have been a question, but his year is different. We know we can match up with anybody.”
Matching up is one thing. Winning is another. This is as close to a must-win for BYU as it is going to get.