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Glendale, Ariz. • The temperature outside University of Phoenix Stadium will probably be higher than 100 degrees at kickoff, and the game won't start until around bedtime for most kids, but for new BYU coach Kalani Sitake it will feel like Christmas morning has finally arrived.
The long wait to begin the Sitake era of Cougar football is over, as BYU takes on the Pac-12's Arizona on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. MDT in the Valley of the Sun.
That's fitting, because the heat will be on from the start for the new coach and his staff comprised of mostly inexperienced former BYU players, like himself even if the opener is in a climate-controlled indoor venue that will likely include more BYU fans than Wildcats supporters, despite Tucson being less than a two-hour drive away.
With an ultra-tough schedule that threatens to snap the school's streak of 11 consecutive bowl appearances, and the eyes of the Big 12 conference upon the football independent desperate for an invitation to that Power Five league, every game is huge, and Sitake knows it.
"I wouldn't want it any other way," he said in June. "This is the kind of schedule I would have wanted to play when I was a player."
Earlier this week, Sitake said he had no butterflies in his stomach before his coaching debut, having prepared for dozens of big games like this as a defensive coordinator at Oregon State and Utah.
"Nah, I am good," he said, chuckling. "I have been more nervous for a lot of different things, but I feel confident in our players, and the talent that we have. It is not about me. I am excited and ready to go. More than anything, we have been waiting a long time. This is like Christmas coming up."
Unlike a certain rival it will face next week, BYU will never be able to open against a subpar opponent as an independent, perpetually having to front-load its schedule when P5 teams are most available. Next year, for instance, the Cougars open against the SEC's LSU Tigers at NRG Stadium in Houston.
"Our mindset is, whoever shows up, we are going to play our best," Sitake said. "We are going to focus on that opponent.
"I think if it was an FCS-type of team, we would still prepare as if it was going to be an Arizona-type team. That's our mindset."
It will be the sixth time BYU has opened against Arizona, more than any other opponent; The Cougars won the last opener, 20-7 in 2007, but Arizona won the last matchup, 31-21 in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl, and leads the series 12-9-1.
Sitake's predecessor, Bronco Mendenhall, lost 20-3 to Boston College in his head-coaching debut. Mendenhall's predecessor, Gary Crowton, defeated Tulane 70-35 in his first game as BYU's head coach after LaVell Edwards stepped down.
That Sitake has changed things up is evident everywhere one looks, from the more aggressive offensive and defensive schemes to the absence of the Friday night firesides that some players said distracted them from their game preparations. But perhaps the biggest difference can be seen in the confidence, and looseness, of those players, who have seemingly bought in to the new coach's infectious attitude and positivity.
"We are just ready to wake the beast, you know?" said safety Kai Nacua. "We just stay calm, focus on what we need to focus on, don't let outside things get in the way. When game day comes, just unleash that beast, and let's roll."
Arizona, which has undergone several changes itself, especially on the defensive side of the ball, is the first of three consecutive Pac-12 South opponents for BYU, which plays at Utah next Saturday and hosts UCLA on Sept. 17 in Provo. A win is vital, or the Cougars could be staring at an 0-4 start because they have to play West Virginia in Landover, Md., in Week 4.
Linebacker Harvey Langi said "hype is cheap, talk is cheap," and noted that it is finally time to show detractors who say BYU's coaching staff is too inexperienced that his team can back up its confidence with victories.
"We are just trying to play our game and show that, hey, BYU can play," Langi said. "We want to show that we weren't just dinking around during the offseason. We came together, and we want to put something special out there for everyone to see, like, these guys are from Provo, Utah and can play some football. We are playing an out-of-state team, in a great conference. That's the type of exposure we want and need."
BYU vs. Arizona
At University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
Kickoff • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • Fox Sports 1
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143 (BYU Radio)
Records • BYU 0-0, Arizona 0-0
Series history • Arizona leads, 12-9-1
Last meeting • Arizona 31, BYU 21 (Dec. 20, 2008)
About the Wildcats • They finished 7-6 in coach Rich Rodriguez's fourth year at the helm in 2015, defeating New Mexico 45-37 in the New Mexico Bowl. … Rodriguez revamped his defense this season, bringing in defensive coordinator Marcel Yates from Boise State. … They won't name a starting quarterback until just before kickoff, but it is expected to be junior Anu Solomon, who threw for 2,667 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, with just five interceptions. … Their top rushing threat is Nick Wilson, a junior who rushed for 729 yards in 2015.
About the Cougars • After going 9-4 last year and losing 35-28 to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, they've replaced 11-year coach Bronco Mendenhall with the first Tongan to become a head college football coach, Kalani Sitake. … They have also changed their offensive and defensive schemes, going to a more pro style offense under new offensive coordinator Ty Detmer and a 4-3 defensive front, with more man-press coverage, under new defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. … Fifth-year senior Taysom Hill will make his fourth consecutive opening-day start at quarterback, having beaten out sophomore Tanner Mangum for the spot.