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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 12: B.Y.U.

Everyone used to do it, pretty much. Notre Dame did it best; Notre Dame still does it, as do Navy and Army. Penn State used to do it. So did Pittsburgh, Florida State, Miami (Fla.), West Virginia and Boston College, among others. Now B.Y.U. wants to get into the fun, ditching the past of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, the Mountain States Athletic Conference, the WAC and the Mountain West for the opportunity stemming from one’s independence – or being an Independent, I guess. Like Texas, which may one day want to follow suit, B.Y.U. brings the following to this lack of conference affiliation: history, past success, recent success, lofty expectations, a television network, talent and a dedicated fan base that stems from coast to coast, let alone from country to country. Unlike Texas, the Cougars have a quarterback.

Conference
Independent

Location
Provo, Utah

Nickname
Cougars

Returning starters
17 (10 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 36

2010 record
(7-6, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 50

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Mississippi
  • Sept. 10
    at Texas
  • Sept. 17
    Utah
  • Sept. 23
    U.C.F.
  • Sept. 30
    Utah St.
  • Oct. 8
    San Jose St.
  • Oct. 15
    at Oregon St.
  • Oct. 22
    Idaho St.
  • Oct. 28
    T.C.U. (in Arlington, Tex.)
  • Nov. 12
    Idaho
  • Nov. 19
    New Mexico St.
  • Dec. 3
    at Hawaii

Last year’s prediction

There remains far more good than bad. Begin with Mendenhall, one of the nation’s finest non-B.C.S. conference coaches. Even with the lost talent, B.Y.U. has a better, deeper, more athletic roster than all but two teams in the Mountain West; those two teams, of course, are T.C.U. and Utah. I don’t think these Cougars are capable of beating either team, particularly with both games coming on the road; all bets are off in the Holy War, however. With that pair and a tough first month, it’s going to be very difficult for B.Y.U. to again reach double-digit wins during the regular season. In fact, I’m more likely to predict B.Y.U. to lose four games than win 10. This is another solid team, but an 8-4 finish, with the potential for 9-3, doesn’t warrant inclusion in the Top 25.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Bronco Mendenhall decided to take his lumps very early in September: once Riley Nelson went down to injury following a loss to Florida State, B.Y.U.’s seventh-year coach officially turned the keys over to true freshman Jake Heaps. Ready or not, the future is now. As expected, Heaps had his freshman struggles; in hindsight, asking him to put the ball up 100 times over his first two starts was a poor idea. While Heaps did lead B.Y.U. to an impressive win over San Diego State on Oct. 9, the team stood at 2-5, 1-3 in the Mountain West following a loss to T.C.U. the following Saturday. First-year struggles often lead to a brighter future, especially with burgeoning stars like Heaps. These better days typically come the next season, however, not the next month. After the 31-3 loss to T.C.U., Heaps and B.Y.U. would roll off four straight wins — none altogether impressive, to be fair — to clinch bowl eligibility in advance of the season finale against rival Utah. That game? Well, B.Y.U. wouldn’t win, doomed to a one-point loss thanks to four turnovers, but the Cougars sent a clear message both by hanging with the Utes and by winning six of eight to end the season: the future is now.

High point Three consecutive wins over U.N.L.V., Colorado State and New Mexico by the combined score of 144-24. The third, over the Lobos, gave the Cougars their sixth straight bowl berth under Mendenhall.

Low point A 31-16 loss at Utah State on Oct. 1. It’s one thing to lose to T.C.U., Air Force, Florida State and Nevada, as B.Y.U. did over the first seven games of the season; it’s quite another to lose to the Aggies, winners of four games on the year. Those other three wins for Utah State? Idaho State, San Jose State and New Mexico State.

Tidbit With the move to Independent status comes a more diverse schedule. That’s one of the perks: B.Y.U. may have a tougher slate, but it’s a 12-game regular season schedule that should provide far more marquee games. This fall, the Cougars will take on teams from the SEC (Mississippi); Big 12 (Texas); Pac-12 (Utah and Oregon State); Conference USA (U.C.F.); WAC (Utah State, San Jose State, New Mexico State, Idaho and Hawaii); Mountain West (T.C.U.); and Big Sky (Idaho State). The Cougars have also scheduled future dates with Notre Dame, West Virginia and Georgia Tech.

Tidbit (finishing strong edition) Last season was a bit strong, but the Cougars are notorious for starting slow under Mendenhall. Only one of his teams, the 10-win 2008 squad, escaped September without at least one loss; B.Y.U. opened 1-3 in both 2005 and 2010. So how do the Cougars continue to rack up double-digit win seasons? By finishing strong. Here’s how B.Y.U. has fared from November through the end of the season under Mendenhall:

2005 2-2
2006 5-0
2007 6-0
2008 3-2
2009 5-0
2010 4-1

That’s a 25-5 mark from November on. So in 2011, for example, the Cougars could still close with 10 wins by finishing in their typically strong fashion. Just something to consider.

Former players in the N.F.L.

20 QB John Beck (Washington), TE Daniel Coats (New York Giants), WR Austin Collie (Indianapolis), LS John Denney (Miami), OG Ray Feinga (Miami), S Aaron Francisco (Detroit), QB Max Hall (Arizona), DT Chris Hoke (Pittsburgh), LB Bryan Kehl (St. Louis), DE Brett Keisel (Pittsburgh), LB David Nixon (Miami), TE Dennis Pitta (Baltimore), LB Brady Poppinga (St. Louis), OG Dallas Reynolds (Philadelphia), LB Vic So’oto (Green Bay), OT Jason Speredon (Arizona), FB Manase Tonga (Oakland), RB Harvey Unga (Chicago), FB Vui Vakapuna (Cincinnati), WR Todd Watkins (New York Giants).

Arbitrary top five list

B.Y.U. quarterbacks in the N.F.L.
1. Steve Young (1985-99).
2. Jim McMahon (1982-96).
3. Marc Wilson (1980-90).
4. Ty Detmer (1993-2003).
5. Virgil Carter (1968-76).

Coaching

Bronco Mendenhall (Oregon State ’88), 56-21 after six years with the program. Mendenhall also owns a sterling 39-9 mark in Mountain West play over this span, though that means nothing anymore. The Cougars departed the M.W.C. on a low note last fall, failing to win at least 10 games for the first time since 2006, Mendenhall’s second year with the program. But last season seemed to mirror Mendenhall’s debut campaign, back in 2005, when he piloted a young, unconfident team to a 6-6 finish. Then the Cougars took off; I think B.Y.U. will do the same in 2011. Prior to taking over as head coach, Mendenhall spent two years as the Cougars defensive coordinator under Gary Crowton. When Crowton was fired, B.Y.U. first reached out to the current Utah coach Kyle Whittingham – who at first accepted the job, then changed his mind – before promoting Mendenhall. Good move. Even when taking into account his 6-6 start, the former B.Y.U. assistant is off to the greatest start to a coaching career in the program’s history; yes, even better than the great LaVell Edwards. Mendenhall’s F.B.S. assistant stops, not including B.Y.U., include five years at New Mexico (1998-2002, all as defensive coordinator), a single season at Louisiana Tech (1997, secondary coach) and two years at Oregon State (1995-96, defensive coordinator his final season). Mendenhall was 29 when he got his first coordinator shot with the Beavers, making him the youngest coordinator in the history of the Pac-12. Brigham Young’s second choice has been an inspired one; I have no doubt that as long as Mendenhall remains with the program, we’ll see B.Y.U. competing for conference championships. The next step, of course, is to lead the Cougars to the next level while taking a Notre Dame-like – and Texas-like – non-conference approach.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Hey, it’s not like Mendenhall didn’t call his shot. In mid-December, he told his then-offensive staff to “aggressively seek employment” at any school in the country not named B.Y.U. – you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Most took advantage of the opportunity: former offensive coordinator Robert Anae is now at Arizona, for example. He’s been replaced by quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman, who will continue to hold those duties while coordinating the offense. The two new members of Mendenhall’s staff are running backs coach Joe DuPaix, formerly of Navy, and former B.Y.U. receiving great Ben Cahoon, who will coach the receivers; Cahoon is the most prolific receiver in C.F.L. history, if that means anything.

Players to watch

You’ll hear so much about Jake Heaps over the next three years that you’re bound to grow tired of the sophomore quarterback, so consider that a warning. All of it, mind you, will be justified. It’ll be more than justified, as when Heaps does head to the next level in 2014 he’ll do so as the next in the program’s long, accomplished and illustrious line of stars at the position. I give Mendenhall a tremendous amount of credit for one thing – well, more than one thing, but this in particular: it would have been easy to throw in the towel last fall, but he turned this team over to Heaps, survived the growing pains and now, in 2011, will begin to taste the benefits.

Heaps struggled, as expected. In his first two starts – Nevada and Utah State – the sophomore hit on 51 of 100 attempts for 499 yards and a pair of interceptions, making the sort of errors befitting his age and rampant inexperience. Then he developed, continuing to make mistakes against another pair of contenders in San Diego State and T.C.U. but ultimately, in November, showing the talent that made him a highly-coveted recruit. Over the last month, Heaps threw 13 touchdowns against 2 picks, throwing for more than 227 yards in each games and leading the Cougars to a 4-1 finish. Basically, Heaps did in one season what typically takes young quarterbacks two years to achieve: hit the wall, recover and excel. He has the brightest future of any sophomore quarterback in the country.

Heaps also has a sterling offensive line to watch his back. One lineman in particular takes great pains to keep Heaps clean: after opting to return for his senior season, left tackle Matt Reynolds is in line for all-American accolades in 2011. He’s already collected nearly every honor save that prestigious designation, clocking first-team all-M.W.C. honors in each of the last two years. Reynolds is one of four returning starters up front, joining all-conference pick Braden Hansen at left guard, all-conference pick Terence Brown at center and Braden Brown at right tackle. Junior Walter Kahaili’I and senior Marco Thorson are the leading candidates to fill the hole at right guard. Keep an eye out for true freshman Ryker Matthews, the heir apparent on the blind side.

The backfield is similarly deep – this will be a trend offensively. Leading the way is senior J.J. Di Liugi, last year’s leading rusher (917 yards, 8 scores). Di Liugi also made time to be one of Heaps’ favorite targets in the passing game, pulling down a team-best 45 catches for 443 yards and a score. Di Liugi is a steady, consistent, hard-nosed rusher – just a nice fit for what the Cougars want to do on the ground. Look for sophomore Joshua Quezada (505 yards, 5 scores) to hold a larger role in the running game. He was a major presence down the stretch in 2010, cracking the 100-yard mark twice over the team’s last three games. That may mean less touches for senior Bryan Kariya (550 yards), but B.Y.U. will make it work.

There are similar issues at receiver – how to get so many talented targets the ball, as if that’s an issue. Yeah, it’s an issue the rest of the F.B.S. would love to have; for B.Y.U., having this sort of depth at receiver will help continue Heaps’ development at quarterback. The Cougars return starters McKay Jacobson (37 catches for 410 yards) and Cody Hoffman (42 for 527, 7 scores), the latter a sophomore who quickly developed a strong rapport with his quarterback. While last year’s numbers don’t reflect it, Jacobson is a big-play threat; in 2009, he ranked among the best in the nation in averaging 24.2 yards per catch.

The Cougars are very high on redshirt freshman Ross Apo, who would have played last fall had he not suffered a hand injury in the early going. More experience comes from senior Spencer Hakofa, who’s been part of the rotation over the last two years, and sophomore J.D. Falslev, who will also hold a key role in the return game. B.Y.U. also has a few nice tight ends to work with, like sophomores Devin Mahina and Marcus Mathews – he’s basically another receiver – which gives Heaps even more to work with. All told, the receiver corps is extremely strong. The offense as a whole is more than strong: it could be outstanding.

Through five games, B.Y.U. was ranked 101st nationally in total defense. Hence Mendenhall’s decision to fire then-defensive coordinator Jaime Hill, who doubled as the team’s secondary coach. Listen: that’s unusual. What else? Perhaps some were surprised to see Mendenhall take over as defensive coordinator; it’s wasn’t all that much of a surprise, actually. Mendenhall pulled double duties in 2006, his first season on campus, in a similarly crucial juncture in the program’s history. The results were vintage: near the bottom of the country in early October, the Cougars ended the year ranked 24th in the F.B.S. in total defense.

The defensive line lost an all-conference end in Vic So’oto but return five linemen with past starting experience. One is back from injury: senior nose tackle Romney Fuga began the year well, making 15 tackles in September, but missed the final nine games due to injury. B.Y.U moved junior Eathyn Manumaleuna (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks) inside at times over the last two months of the year in an effort to fill Fuga’s role, but the senior proved largely impossible to replace. In 2011, Manumaleuna will moved back to his more natural end position and team with senior Matt Putnam (31 tackles, 2 sacks) in flanking Fuga at end. There’s your starting trio, but it’s on the second and third level that things get interesting.

Big, bigger, biggest. Fuga’s big. Senor Hebron Fangupo, a former transfer from U.S.C., is even bigger. Redshirt freshman Travis Tuiloma, however, is the biggest of them all. Fangupo and Tuiloma will be key figures up front: not just as Fuga’s replacements when the big senior tires, but also as early-season replacements should Fuga not be at 100 percent until midway through September. At end, the Cougars put forth not just those two starters but a third lineman with past starting experience in Ian Dulan, a returning missionary who could either play or take a redshirt. B.Y.U. is also high on sophomore end Graham Rowley, not to mention a past starter like Jordan Richardson – as with Manumaleuna, Richardson started inside in Fuga’s stead but is better suited at end.

There’s a similar story at linebacker: one lost starter, countless returning contributors with extensive experience. It’s on the inside that B.Y.U. faces its lone rebuilding job; Shane Hunter must be replaced, and there are options at Mendenhall’s disposal. The Cougars return one inside linebacker in junior Brandon Ogletree (49 tackles, 2 interceptions) but must find his running mate from a group that includes juniors Uona Kaveinga, a former U.S.C. transfer, and Austin Jorgensen. The latter made three starts last fall, adding 46 tackles, and is a solid reserve option if Kaveinga gets the starting nod. Another returning missionary, Spencer Hadley, could slide into a substantial role in the middle.

The Cougars are dynamite at outside linebacker. Senior Jordan Pendleton (38 tackles, 2 sacks) is back at 100 percent after missing the second half of last season due to injury. Sophomore Kyle Van Noy started in place of Pendleton and did well, making 35 tackles (7.5 for loss) during the defense’s second half climb out of the national cellar. For now, it looks like Van Noy will be the top backup before taking on a full-time starting role in 2012. It’s senior Jameson Frazier (34 tackles, 2 interceptions) on the weak side, ahead of another senior, Jadon Wagner (38 tackles, 7 for loss). I’m telling you, this front seven should be very, very good.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary There are holes to fill in the secondary, as B.Y.U. moves forward without starters Andrew Rich, Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley. Rich and Logan will be very tough for the Cougars to replace. But there’s returning talent in Provo, some of it off last year’s roster and others back from missions, which should help the Cougars bridge the gap from one starting quartet to another. The lone holdover is senior free safety Travis Uale (42 tackles), who will hold a key leadership role in this new-look defensive backfield. He’ll be joined at safety by one of those returning missionaries, sophomore Daniel Sorensen, who takes Rich’s job as the B.Y.U. do-everything defensive backs. Sorensen impressed during the spring, showing no rust whatsoever from his two-year absence, so he’s a player to watch in 2011. Senior Corby Eason headlines a crop of cornerbacks that’s short on proven experience but pretty long on talent; the key will be for this relatively untested group to learn the ropes on the fly under some difficult circumstances. Senior Corby Eason (22 tackles) is the most experience returning cornerback, so it’s no surprise to see him in the starting lineup heading into September. Whether he holds onto that starting role depends on his play, his ability to stay healthy and how quickly JUCO transfer Preston Hadley takes to the major college game. Junior Robbie Buckner has a leg up on redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson in the hunt to start on the opposite side.

Game(s) to watch

The first month. An 0-4 start won’t necessarily doom this team’s bowl hopes, though it will put an altogether damaging mark on B.Y.U.’s hopes of parlaying the move to Independent status into an immediate charge into major bowl play. Things get significantly easier from there, though non-home dates with Oregon State, T.C.U. and Hawaii await down the stretch.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Start fast. End strong. B.Y.U. always does the latter; it’ll need to do the former in order to live up to this lofty ranking, let alone begin justifying the program’s ultimately beneficial – extremely beneficial – move from the Mountain West to independence. Can a team be made or broken by four games? Well, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the Cougars begin play as an Independent with a key opening month, one that features dates with Mississippi, Texas, Utah and U.C.F., the final two at home. Does the year end at 0-4? It doesn’t end, but there’s no great gains to be made with that start. What of 1-3? It would be disappointing, to put it lightly. And 2-2? Survivable. And 3-1? Then the Cougars are primed for 10 or 11 wins in the regular season, that’s what, and put in the group of people who see that coming to pass in 2011. What’s that you say? It’s a small group, consisting primarily of myself? Then get on board, as there’s room to spare – get on board with a top coaching staff, a blossoming quarterback, a deep corps of running backs and receivers, one of the top offensive lines in the country and a front seven that matches up well with any team on this schedule. What’s that, you’re thinking 8-4? That would be a disappointment: not with the way B.Y.U. ended last year, with what is returned and with what’s on the line for this team. And you know what else? I think Mendenhall and the Cougars know that everyone will be watching, keeping an eye on our newest Independent, which I believe will help the Cougars offset their typical early-season lull. And as we know full well, B.Y.U. always, always, always finishes strong. I think very highly of this team. That’s just me. But there’s room on the bandwagon if you want to get aboard.

Dream season A win over Texas on the second Saturday of the season is the high point, but there are no low points in a 12-0 regular season, complete with a well-deserved B.C.S. berth.

Nightmare season A slow start — think 0-4 — dooms B.Y.U. to another 6-6 regular season.

In case you were wondering

Where do B.Y.U. fans congregate? I’m always pleasantly surprised by the number of solid B.Y.U. Web sites, such as Cougar Board, Cougar Corner and Cougar Blue, among others. For recruiting coverage, a topic growing in popularity among the B.Y.U. football faithful, check out Total Blue Sports, which provided the picture above, and Cougar Nation.

Word Count

Through 109 teams 343,780.

Up Next

Who is No. 11? Tomorrow’s program holds a winning record against four of its conference brethren; the four have a combined five outright conference titles.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Alex Payne says:

    Nebraska?

  2. Alex Payne says:

    Actually, I’m wondering if it’s Stanford…

  3. Patrick says:

    Could be Stanford, as it only has winning records against Cal, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State.

    But the conference title has me wondering. Oregon has four outright Pac-10 titles, but none of the others have won the Pac-10 outright.

    And if you include earlier incarnations of the Pac-12 (Pac-8, Pacific Coast Conference), the number skyrockets past 5, as all four schools have combined for many more than 5 titles.

  4. Patrick says:

    Also definitely not Nebraska, as the Huskers have winning records vs. Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

  5. korsakoff says:

    Has to be Wisconsin with winning records against Northwestern (outright Big Ten champion in 1936, 1945), Purdue (1929), Indiana (1945) and Penn State (1994).

  6. Troy says:

    I’m thinking Wisconsin.

  7. NUwildcat09 says:

    Korsakoff seems to be right. The one minor correction is Northwestern won the Big Ten outright in 1936 and 1995 (not 1945).

  8. Eksynyt says:

    Wisconsin looks right.

  9. David says:

    You and Jon Wilner seem to be the only two writers outside of Provo that think BYU will have a really good season. It will be interesting to see how Bronco manages the team in it’s first year of independence. Count me in on the bandwagon though.

  10. John Irons says:

    I’ve read this piece twice, and I still can’t determine just why in the mutton-thump you have BYU ranked #12.

    I was looking for some strong reasoning from you Paul, as to why you have a team that doesn’t appear in most top 25 polls near your top 10 – but there is none to be found.

    You talk about them as if you believe they will be slightly above pedestrian. What the fist fight gives?

  11. WEK says:

    I was hoping to be persuaded, but I’m not. I can see top 25 or even top 20, but based on what we know right now, I just can’t see 12 for BYU. That doesn’t mean they won’t rise up and be there by the end of the season–and it would be an awesome story if they did–but I don’t think there’s enough to justify that ranking at this point.

    That said, still love the blog. Keep it up!

  12. Patrick says:

    Not buying it. This team never showed well offensively against above-average teams last year, and when BYU has issues in the secondary, it has been picked apart by above-average QBs. BYU will be better, but it’s not making a quantum leap from the 50s to the top 15. More like top 25-30.

  13. Uberd says:

    those first four games are really tough with 3 top 25 teams. i’m thinking 3-4 losses overall if they split tcu/oregon st. i would rank them 18-25.

  14. Dave says:

    It’s the funky Q-B known as McMahon!

  15. schedule nit says:

    So you had me going and all with the talk of the offensive line, and skill players. Suddenly there’s a possibility of going 0-4 to start the season and I’m thinking, “Hold on a minute, this must be quite the murderers row.”

    And then it turns out it’s Mississippi, Texas, Utah and U.C.F. How on earth could a no. 12 team be thinking about 0-4 against that? You do know one of those teams is Mississippi, right? You have them at # 65, and I think that is pretty optimistic.

    If you really think they can go 0-4 or even 1-3 against that, I think by definition they are not your no. 12 team.

    Paul: That was me playing devil’s advocate. I think the Cougars will go 3-1, if not 4-0 over that stretch.

  16. David says:

    schedule nit:

    I am pretty sure Paul agrees with you and thinks BYU will go 3-1 or 4-0 in those first 4 games. However, I think he was analyzing how there season would play out if that did happen. Being an independent has changed the dynamic of what success is for BYU. As Paul pointed out, BYU has always finished strong and started slow. It will need to do both to have a special season and Paul thinks that will happen.

  17. Steve says:

    Even if they split Texas, UCF, Utah and TCU to go 2-2 in those games they still won’t be ranked 12th. Maybe if they can beat Utah and TCU, they could finish 12th but I don’t see how they do any better then 2-2 in those games. I would love to see BYU finish this high but not counting on it.

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