OXFORD, Miss. — The last time BYU ventured into the heart of the Southeastern Conference, it had captured the nation's attention.
In December 2001, the Cougars were undefeated (11-0), ranked in the top 10, and vying for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series. As it turned out, BYU remained unbeaten by kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired to defeat Mississippi State, 41-38.
Ten years later, the Cougars are back in the Magnolia State and, once again, the spotlight is on BYU as it collides with Ole Miss today (2:45 p.m. MT, ESPN) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
This showdown is historic because it marks BYU's first game as an independent.
"It's a big thing. We're independent, and we're on ESPN," said senior running back JJ Di Luigi. "A lot of eyes are going to be on us to see how we do in this first game, to see if it was the right move to go independent."
Besides, the Cougars have been a hot topic of conversation around the country in recent weeks because of the swirling speculation about the possibility of BYU joining the Big 12.
The way the Cougars see it, there's no better place to open this new era of independence than against a team from the SEC, regarded as the top conference in college football.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said this game against Ole Miss will be a good measuring stick for his program.
"I'm anxious to see how we measure and how we fit against them. National champions have come out of the SEC the last couple of years at least," the coach said. "They have a lot of talent, good coaching and a lot of tradition at almost every school. I'm anxious to see and compete against those teams, maybe on a yearly basis, to see how we stack (up)."
Just how tough is it to play in the SEC?
"It's brutal," Ole Miss left tackle Bradley Sowell said. "You have to work your tail off every week to get ready for an opponent. One week, you face a team that's awesome, then the next week you play a team that's just as good, if not better. It's a tough league. It's a man's man's league."
"The SEC is a tough conference. A very athletic conference," Di Luigi said. "That's what Ole Miss is, very athletic. They're going to be tough."
First-year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, who quarterbacked BYU to that win over Mississippi State, the only victory over an SEC opponent in school history, knows the Cougars will be playing in a charged atmosphere today.
"We've been in some pretty hostile environments," Doman said. "I don't know that they will have experienced anything like this … (The Ole Miss fans) will be waiting for us when we get off the bus, I'm sure, and let us know we're in a hostile environment immediately. That makes it kind of fun."
Of his trip to Mississippi State in 2001, Doman remembers "it being exciting football and passionate, passionate fans."
Doman said the SEC offers "really, the best you can find in football down there. I think those guys do a heckuva job, be it football, coaching and just fans altogether."
Quarterback Jake Heaps said the keys to beating Ole Miss include "executing our game plan and doing the little things and not letting the environment get too big for us. It's an SEC environment and a traditional powerhouse football team that has been very good over the last few years and is a very good team this year. We can't make the moment bigger than it really is."
The Cougars started the 2010 season with a 1-4 record before rebounding to end up 7-6. BYU knows it needs to win a lot more games this season, especially as an independent.
"You think about how long it's been since last season and (finishing) on a great note," Heaps said. "But at the end of the day, we were still 7-6. We've been anxious to get back into the swing of things, progress as a football team and start playing to prove that this team and this program is not a 7-6 football team. We have a lot of those guys returning and we've got a huge chip on our shoulders."
Heaps has seemed relaxed, and said he's not feeling any pressure, despite the high expectations placed on him and his team.
"There's no pressure at all. If you're pressured to win, then you don't feel that confident in your team," said the sophomore QB. "You should go out there confident that you're going to win that football game and that there's no pressure. That's how every great football team is. I'm sure that Ole Miss is feeling the exact same way. We feel confident that we can walk into that stadium and win. It's not going to be easy. They're a good football team. But we believe we can do it. There's no pressure, just excitement. We're ready for the opportunity."
Cougars on the air
BYU (0-0) at Ole Miss (0-0)
Saturday, 2:45 p.m. MT
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM