PROVO — This is the type of scenario BYU officials had in mind two years ago when the school announced it was signing an exclusive deal with ESPN and the football program was going independent.
The college football season kicks off Thursday night, and the BYU Cougars are hosting the Washington State Cougars (8:15 p.m. MT, ESPN) in a prime-time contest at LaVell Edwards Stadium that will be nationally televised.
Led by senior quarterback Riley Nelson, BYU is hosting a Pac-12 team that features Mike Leach making his debut for WSU after a two-year hiatus from coaching.
"It's an intriguing matchup," said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe.
BYU wants exposure, and will get it.
"I don't think it's random, and I don't think it's by accident," coach Bronco Mendenhall of his team's upcoming ESPN appearance. "I don't think they had a blind-folded executive at ESPN that threw a dart at 123 teams and just happened to hit BYU. I think it was well thought out and planned, and that's an honor."
At the same time, Mendenhall isn't putting any more weight on this game than other openers.
"The first game is always one that you'd love to win and play well in," Mendenhall said. "I don't see any more intrigue or anything else. This is just another good opponent in our opener. That's what we're preparing for."
But BYU wants to get off on the right foot in its second season as an independent. Senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree knows that this game can set the tone for the campaign, and with no conference championship to play for, there is little margin for error.
"As an independent, we have a harder road to get to where we want to go, to gain national attention and be the program we want to be," he said. "We can't lose any games. At the same time, we don't look at it like, we have to go undefeated … but we know that to come out of the gate early and to put our stamp on the season early will be huge for us because we'll carry that momentum throughout the rest of the early part of the season."
Said running back Michael Alisa, "Everything is on the line, every week. We're an independent team. Every week, all of our hopes for a potential BCS bid are on the line."
Besides that, BYU loves the idea of playing on Thursday nights on ESPN.
"That's awesome. Being a Thursday game, the whole nation sees it because no one else is playing," Alisa said. "Every team across the nation will be watching BYU and Washington State play on Thursday night."
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman loves the opportunities ESPN provides BYU. The Cougars play on the ESPN family of networks in five of their first six games of the season.
"The Washington State game will be one of the first college football games played this season," Doman said. "In the first weeks of the season, we're on national TV in slots where no one else is playing. It's just us. So potentially everyone's watching that. Especially on Friday night, because every team in America is in a hotel somewhere, lying there in their hotel bed, watching college football. That was us forever. Now, we're the ones they're watching.
"Coach Mendenhall says, 'What if we're a really good team? What if we're winning, especially early on in the season with all of the exposure in the world?' " Doman continued. "It accelerates opportunities in a significant way. Last year, we lost two of our first three games, so it can go either way. It can be great, or it can be tough on you. But that's what we want. We want to be in position for a great spot, rather than nobody knowing that you're winning."
The contract with ESPN means BYU frequently will play night games. That's just fine with Doman.
"The tradeoff is the fact that (ESPN) wants to put us in there in some of those prime viewing spots — Thursday and Friday nights. Our contract with them is such that they help us schedule and they promise to put us in prime-time situations," said Doman. "It's not always going to be on Saturday because of all of the other contracts that they have. I think we're quite fortunate to have it. I don't worry if it's 7:30 or 8:30 at night. We're going to have to get really good at playing at night. I think coach Mendenhall has a really good routine for playing at night. We've been traditionally pretty dang good on Thursday nights. The give is not that big of a deal. But the takeaway from these games is significant."
Washington State at BYU
Thursday, 8:15 p.m. MT
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM