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Expansion hopes not in either Cougars' game plans

Brigham Young plays the 57th-most difficult schedule nationally this season, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. Houston's schedule ranks 75th.

Not enough to get your blood boiling as a magnificent lineup of Week 1 games nears its kickoff?

Consider, then, the task before BYU, which opens Saturday night at Arizona before September dates with Utah, UCLA and West Virginia.

"I know when I played at BYU, I would have loved the opportunity to play this schedule," said first-year BYU coach Kalani Sitake, whose Cougars visit Michigan State and Boise State and host Mississippi State in consecutive October weeks.

Houston takes center stage Saturday against third-ranked Oklahoma (noon ET, ABC). The reigning American Athletic Conference champion on Sept. 15 visits league rival, and fellow Big 12 hopeful, Cincinnati, which dispatched Miami last year in a similarly placed Thursday night game on ESPN.

"We're trained for chaos," Houston linebacker Steven Taylor said. "We feel like we're trained for anybody and anyone who comes our way."

For BYU and Houston, widely considered to sit among the top candidates this year for Big 12 expansion, the importance of their high-profile, early season games extends no further than this fall. Despite the immediate challenges ahead, players and coaches at both schools said they view the tests of 2016 only as a method to measure these teams -- not as a Big 12 audition.

"No," second-year Houston coach Tom Herman said, "because I've been told by the people in charge that it isn't [an audition], and I trust them."

BYU and Houston expressed interest this summer, among more than a 20 programs, in Big 12 membership after the league's board of directors in July tasked commissioner Bob Bowlsby to explore options in growing the 10-team conference.

For the Big 12 to evaluate Houston on its performance Saturday at NRG Stadium, Herman said, "would be extremely short-sighted."

"I think that decision," Herman said, "has to be very long-term, far-sighted vision."

Not that it will stop fans and media this month -- and until Bowlsby moves forward -- from using the performances of BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and others to form beliefs on the viability of potential Big 12 additions.

In fact, Houston's 2015 success, no doubt, greatly boosted its public perception as an expansion candidate. It finished 13-1 and ranked No. 8 after a Peach Bowl win over Florida State.

"We're still the same, disrespected, little old American Conference team with a giant chip on our shoulder," Herman said.

The primary objective this season of Houston players remains to defend their league title.

"If we beat Oklahoma on Saturday, [AAC commissioner] Mike Aresco is not going to jog out to the 50-yard line and hand us the American championship trophy," Herman said.

Never in discussing their goals did the Cougars set out to earn an invite to the Big 12.

"We don't let any outside influences, chatter, noise, any of that stuff, infiltrate our culture," Herman said. "Our kids have done a great job of insulating themselves from all of that chatter, because at the end of the day, that's all it is."

Taylor, the senior linebacker, offers another description for that chatter and noise.

They're "demons," he said, trying to distract the Cougars from their tasks at hand.

"There's no future if we don't take care of the present," Taylor said.

It's much the same story for the Cougars at BYU, accustomed to a difficult schedule. Last year, BYU, an FBS independent, played Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan in the first month of the season.

The normalcy of this upcoming lineup of Power 5 foes, according to senior receiver Mitchell Juergens, eliminates concern that BYU players might respond to this schedule as if something greater than usual was at stake.

"To create benefits for years to come," Juergens said, "what it comes down to is how we play each week. We'd play harder teams if we could.

"The thing that I learned most from last year was how much of a mental game it is. You've got to be strong. It takes 100 percent focus. It takes a lot of mental strength. It's draining, but to be honest, it's a blast."

Juergens, a 24-year-old former walk-on among five siblings in his family to attend BYU, wants badly to leave a strong legacy at the school.

"Every day," Juergens said, "I count my blessings, because I'm living a dream."

If BYU earns a Big 12 invite -- because of its September success or not -- his class will be long remembered.

Sitake played fullback for four seasons at BYU, concluding in 2000. The former Utah and Oregon State defensive coordinator said he noticed a sense of urgency from among his players because of three straight games against Pac-12 foes this month.

"I look at it as an opportunity for our players to see where our program's at," Sitake said. "It doesn't prepare you for anything if you feel like any game is already a guaranteed win."

Needless to say, not much of anything feels like a guarantee at BYU -- in the present or future. Sitake and his players simply don't have time to think about their Big 12 candidacy.

"I know others may think that, but our program's focused on this year and just respecting the process that we have," the 40-year-old coach said, "respecting our seniors and their leadership. We're focused on our team and the things we're trying to get done here -- the things we can control.

"I think it'll all work out the way it's supposed to."