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BYU Vs. Sam Houston: Game Day Preview Plus Score Prediction

Sep 2, 2023, 12:01 AM

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PROVO, Utah – BYU vs Sam Houston will be a game of firsts for both programs.

It’s the first game for BYU as a member of the Big 12 Conference. The Bearkats will be playing its first game as an FBS team. Sam Houston is in Conference USA.

BYU and Sam Houston have never squared off against one another before. Initially, BYU was going to play Tennessee from the SEC at home in this spot, but the Volunteers bought out of the game to play Virginia in Nashville today instead.

BYU is reportedly paying $1.2 million (per The Huntsville Item) to Sam Houston to play in Provo tonight.

BYU vs Sam Houston

Kickoff: 8:15 p.m.

TV: FS1

Radio: KSL NewsRadio (102.7 FM, 1160 AM — Extended pregame begins at 6 p.m.)

For the first time in BYU’s Big 12 era, it’s time for the 3-2-1 game preview for the season opener against Sam Houston.

Three Game Day Thoughts

1. Kickoff to the Big 12 era

BYU has waited a long time –722 days to be exact- since receiving an invitation from the Big 12 Conference to play games as a league member. But the wait dates farther back than September 10, 2021. For five decades since LaVell Edwards took BYU’s sideline as head coach, the moment of being in a power league has always been the goal for the program.

They get that chance tonight against Sam Houston.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake said he wasn’t worried about leaving a first impression on the people around the Big 12. That’s fair. But the last thing you want is for five decades of waiting on this stage to debut with a dud of a performance.

The energy should be electric inside LaVell Edwards Stadium as BYU hopes to stripe LES with fans wearing royal blue and white in alternating sections.

2. BYU’s offensive line needs to set the tone

Sam Houston has a defense that was among the best in the FCS ranks. They won’t come into Provo afraid of BYU.

BYU isn’t afraid of Sam Houston, but the Cougar offensive line has to be a tone-setter from the opening drive.

The talent is undeniable on BYU’s offensive front starting with left tackle Kingsley Suamataia, the lone preseason All-Big 12 selection on BYU’s roster.

Every time at the end of BYU practice this week, offensive line coach Darrell Funk is swarmed by a team of NFL scouts. Assuming many of the questions are inquiring about Suamataia, who projects as a first-round NFL draft pick.

He’s not the only one with NFL potential.

Connor Pay steps in at right guard, switching from the center position. Pay was one of the highest-graded offensive linemen by Pro Football Focus this season.

Then a trio of transfers round out the line with Weylin Lapuaho at left guard, Caleb Etienne at right tackle, and Paul Maile at center.

BYU wants to be a violent football team on the ground. For that to happen, it starts up front. If BYU controls the line of scrimmage early against the Bearkats, it could be a long night for Sam Houston.

The Bearkats have some interesting personnel in their front six or seven. Middle linebacker Trevor Williams was named to Bruce Feldman’s “FREAKS” list entering this season. Then there’s defensive tackle “Meatball” Smith, a transfer from Georgia State, who is expected to be a key contributor for Sam Houston.

3. Concerns about the safety position

The season-ending injury to strong safety starter Micah Harper was a big blow to the backend of BYU’s defense. Harper was set to take on a leadership role in this year’s team, and it was all taken away after a second ACL injury in three years.

Then, days later, Harper’s replacement, Talan Alfrey, suffered an upper-body injury that left him sidelined.

BYU turns its attention to walk-on Ethan Slade. Kalani Sitake referred to Slade as a “playmaker” this week at his press conference on Zoom. Slade has shown a playmaking ability in spring ball and fall camps. But that was against third-team offenses or scout team units. Is he ready for a week one start? We will find out.

Jay Hill mentioned the possibility of “safety by committee” this week. Graduate senior Malik Moore anchors the free safety spot.

If these duo at safety doesn’t work, Hill might be forced to go to the drawing board and make a position change.

Two BYU vs Sam Houston Questions

1. How does BYU’s offense change with Kedon Slovis at quarterback?

USC and Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis said he feels this offseason has been long. He’s been on campus since the first week of January and after eight months, it’s time to roll for Slovis, the number one quarterback on Aaron Roderick’s transfer portal big board during the 2023 cycle.

Slovis has fit seamlessly into the BYU program. To the point where he is gushing about all things BYU.

It’s time to show all the work he’s put in with this offense in a game.

No one is going to mistake Slovis for Jaren Hall or Zach Wilson. Those two former BYU signal-callers combined for 24 touchdown runs during their careers. Slovis has never rushed for a touchdown. His career rushing yardage is -218. It’s probably safe to assume that Slovis isn’t running the rock. Although, to his credit, he did have a nice touchdown run during spring practice last March.

When you don’t have another number that opposing defenses have to account for as a potential runner, how does that change Aaron Roderick’s scheme? It should be interesting to watch.

BYU’s sweet spot historically is 60% pass/40% rush. That number for rushes might go up this year with the talent they have at running back. But Slovis has the greenlight from Roderick to let it rip through the air.

2. Will the BYU defensive line get to the quarterback?

When I asked BYU defensive end Tyler Batty this week on Cougar Tracks how this new defensive scheme would impact the defensive ends, he replied with a big smile, “It’s going to do wonders.”

Batty continued, “People are going to be like, ‘Oh, wait, we have a d-end position group?’ You guys are gonna see some stuff on Saturday that’s going to be a lot of fun.”

There’s a lot of anticipation to see the new aggressive scheme from defensive coordinator Jay Hill. BYU has retooled the personnel, adding Boise State transfer Isaiah Bagnah off the edge; Batty returns as one of the veteran players, whom Jay Hill has been impressed with from the moment he took the DC job.

Blake Mangelson might be the most physical defensive end in the entire unit. He’s backing up Batty. Michael Daley had a healthy fall camp and seems ready to take a step forward in his game.

BYU only had 15 sacks last season. An excellent first impression for the defensive line in week one with Hill would be getting one/fifth of that total tonight.

One Score Prediction for BYU vs Sam Houston

These games are tricky. If BYU wins by anything less than what they are expected to (around three touchdowns by most prognosticators), Cougar fans might panic about the outlook of this team. That panic would stem from the logo on the opposing team’s helmet.

Three years ago, BYU was a five-touchdown favorite against a UTSA team and barely held on to a seven-point victory. That same UTSA program, since that BYU game in 2020, has won 27 games and is viewed as one of the best in the Group of Five this year.

Sam Houston was a preseason cellar-dweller pick in Conference USA this year. Watching some Conference USA teams during Week 0 action, that seems like a lazy pick from the C-USA media. The Bearkats could be good enough to finish in the top three or four this year. They have a good enough defense to give BYU an occasional headache.

BYU’s defense should have an excellent debut for Jay Hill. The Bearkats have a quarterback debate between returning starter and team captain Keegan Shoemaker and college football’s journeyman Grant Gunnell.

The key in a game like this one is to play clean. No administrative penalties, communication errors from the coaching staff by getting play calls in, and no turnovers. Avoid those sorts of mistakes, BYU opens the Big 12 era with a victory.

BYU wins this game and enters the fourth quarter with a comfortable cushion. I’ll call for Sam Houston to get a late touchdown to make it seem closer than the game was.

BYU 30, Sam Houston 12

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s coverage of BYU in the Big 12 Conference on X (Twitter) and Threads: @Mitch_Harper.

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BYU Vs. Sam Houston: Game Day Preview Plus Score Prediction