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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. 36: B.Y.U.

The world is its campus, Mountain West rivals Utah and T.C.U. the bane of its existence.

Contrary to popular belief, B.Y.U. doesn’t throw the ball around the field with abandon. The Cougars ranked 41st nationally last fall in attempts, running the ball 67 more times than they passed. I know, you’d think otherwise. These are not necessarily the Cougars of old, those led by the great Lavell Edwards. These days, the running game earns equal respect. And you wonder why B.Y.U. has played such good defense since 2006: it’s a matter of mentality. No matter how many yards B.Y.U. puts up through the air — 17th-most in the country in 2009 — the team continues to be defined by a tough ground game and a physical defense. And that’s just how Bronco Mendenhall wants it.

Mountain West

Provo, Utah


Returning starters
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 20

2009 record
(11-2, 7-1)

Last year’s

No. 15

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
  • Sept. 11
    at Air Force
  • Sept. 18
    at Florida St.
  • Sept. 25
  • Oct. 1
    at Utah St.
  • Oct. 9
    San Diego St.
  • Oct. 16
    at T.C.U.
  • Oct. 23
  • Nov. 6
  • Nov. 13
    at Colorado St.
  • Nov. 20
    New Mexico
  • Nov. 27
    at Utah

Last year’s prediction

I really like this team: Hall is yet another great B.Y.U. quarterback, the defense may well return to the top 10 in the F.B.S. and Mendenhall, though overlooked nationally, is one of the top young coaches in the country. I want to believe, but I can’t predict better than a 9-3 finish for the Cougars, with a 7-1 mark in M.W.C. play representing a one-game improvement over last season.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Utah’s slight decline allowed B.Y.U. to move into second place in a talented Mountain West, but a one-sided loss to T.C.U. prevented the Cougars from winning their first conference title since 2007. And you know what that means: Las Vegas Bowl. Regardless, this team surpassed my expectations: the offense inserted seven new starters yet didn’t miss a beat; while the defense, with four new starters, lived up to Mendenall’s standard — minus two ugly losses. The first came to Florida State — seven-win Florida State — two weeks after the Cougars allowed only 13 points to Oklahoma. T.C.U. took the Cougars behind the woodshed, but the Horned Frogs did the same to the rest of the Mountain West. When all was said and done, when B.Y.U. capped its season with a 24-point win over then-No. 18 Oregon State, the Cougars ranked firmly within the top 15 teams in the country. Again.

High point A 26-23 win against Utah to end the regular season. Beyond the all-important bragging rights at stake with each year’s Holy War, the victory allowed B.Y.U. to claim sole possession of second place in the Mountain West. A season-opening win over Oklahoma – albeit a team largely without Sam Bradford – lent B.Y.U. some much-deserved credibility.

Low point The loss to T.C.U. obviously hurts the most, as it sent the Cougars from potentially reaching a B.C.S. bowl (though a long shot) to the Las Vegas Bowl. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Las Vegas Bowl, believe me. A month earlier, B.Y.U. had its doors blown off by an average Florida State team, losing by 54-28 at home.

Tidbit B.Y.U. is 10-0 over the last three seasons in games decided by a touchdown or less. You have to think that coaching plays a huge role in that success. The Cougars were 3-0 in such games last fall (beating Utah, New Mexico and Oklahoma), 3-0 in 2008 (Colorado State, U.N.L.V. and Washington) and 4-0 in 2007 (U.C.L.A., Utah, T.C.U. and New Mexico). The last time the program lost a game decided by a touchdown or less was on Sept. 16, 2006, when it lost, 30-23, at Boston College.

Tidbit (excellence edition) In case you weren’t paying attention, the Cougars are back. And have been, in fact, since the day the university hired Bronco Mendenhall. B.Y.U. is one of six programs to end each of the last four seasons ranked in both the B.C.S. and The A.P. Top 25, and the only non-B.C.S. conference program to do so. B.Y.U.’s four consecutive finishes in the Top 25 ties a program record, one set from 1989-92. It is one of only five teams to win at least 10 games in each of the last four years, joining Ohio State, Boise State, Texas and Virginia Tech.

Former players in the N.F.L.

20 QB John Beck (Baltimore), OG Travis Bright (Dallas), TE Daniel Coats (Cincinnati), LS John Denney (Miami), OG Ray Feinga (Miami), S Aaron Francisco (Carolina), QB Max Hall (Arizona), DT Chris Hoke (Pittsburgh Steelers), LB Bryan Kehl (New York Giants), DE Brett Keisel (Pittsburgh), LB David Nixon (Oakland), TE Dennis Pitta (Baltimore), LB Brady Poppinga (Green Bay), OG Dallas Reynolds (Philadelphia), FB Naufahu Tahi (Oakland), FB Manase Tonga (Oakland), RB Harvey Unga (Chicago), RB Fui Vakapuna (CIncinnati), WR Todd Watkins (Oakland).

Arbitrary top five list

Non-B.C.S. conference rivalry games
1. Army-Navy.
2. Holy War (B.Y.U.-Utah).
3. Border War (Colorado State-Wyoming).
4. Battle of I-75 (Bowling Green-Toledo).
5. Battle of I-25 (New Mexico-New Mexico State).


Bronco Mendenhall (Oregon State ’88), 49-15 after five years with the program. Mendenhall also owns a sterling 34-6 mark in Mountain West play over that span. While he extended his streak of four consecutive 10-win or better seasons last fall, the Cougars remained unable to leapfrog past T.C.U. to the top of the conference. Nothing wrong with that, in hindsight, as T.C.U. ended the regular season with a B.C.S. bowl berth. It was a similar story in 2008, albeit slightly different. B.Y.U. failed to live up to much of its preseason billing that fall, when many – not just me – believed B.Y.U. capable of running the table. Mendenhall and the Cougars preceded a 10-win finish in 2008 with back-to-back 11-2 seasons from 2006-7, with identical 8-0 marks in Mountain West play. 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 a 6-6 debut season in 2005, 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-10. 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 B.C.S. — where both Utah and T.C.U. have made an appearance over the past two seasons.

Players to watch

The biggest surprise on last year’s team was the play of the offensive line, which returned one sure thing — left tackle Matt Reynolds — and four new starters. The Cougars didn’t miss a beat, which the four replacements playing equally well as their predecessors. Now with an added year of experience under its belt, the offensive line is a team strength in 2010. Only one starter must be replaced: center R.J. Willing, one of those first-year contributors. He’ll be supplanted by junior Terence Brown, who started every game of his sophomore season at right guard. It’s like dominoes along the rest of the strong side: senior Nick Alletto moves from right tackle to guard, with sophomore Braden Brown — a two-game starter in Alletto’s stead last fall — stepping in at tackle.

If he’s healthy, and all signs point to he is, senior Jason Speredon is another option on the right side. He’s an option on the weak side as well, where he was a projected starter prior to suffering an injury last fall, but there’s little opportunity for playing time at left tackle and guard. That’s due to two incumbent starters, one of whom ranks among the finest left tackles in the country. Junior Matt Reynolds has earned nothing but praise for his play over the last two seasons, with first-team all-M.W.C. honors a season ago joining his 2008 freshman all-American accolades. Sophomore left guard Braden Hansen is following in Reynolds’ footsteps: a freshman all-American last fall, he’s a heavy contender for all-conference honors in 2010. This line is going to be really, really good.

Here’s a name to remember: Joshua Quezada. Thanks to Harvey Unga’s unexpected departure from the program, there is an opportunity for a yet-unproven running back to earn significant playing time. Quezada certainly fits into that category, thanks to his superb play during the spring. Though still a true freshman, Quezada should factor into the mix. He currently stands behind junior J.J. DiLuigi on the depth chart, with DiLuigi rushing for 248 yards on 5.5 yards per carry a season ago. He’ll have a nice partner in fellow junior Brian Kariya, a better runner between the tackles than the shifty DiLuigi. Also in the mix is Mike Hague, who missed most of last season due to injury.

If any groups can match the returning talent of the offensive line, it’s the receiver corps. Juniors McKay Jacobson and O’Neill Chambers, both returning starters, lead the way. Jacobson is dangerous: he averaged 24.2 yards per his 23 receptions — fourth-best average in the country — though he missed four games due to injury. Chambers chipped in 32 catches — the most of any returning receiver — while making an impact in the return game; he averaged a team-best 25.6 yards per his 19 kick returns. Further depth will come from senior Luke Ashworth (28 receptions for 387 yards) and junior Spencer Hakofa (16 for 155).

The Cougars will face a vast gap at tight end, where they must replace all-conference picks Dennis Pitta — the best receiving tight end in the country — and Andre George. The team has high hopes for a handful of redshirt freshmen, though expecting similar production will be asking too much. Players like Mike Muehlmann, Devin Mahina and Richard Wilson certainly have promise; each were well-regarded recruits, with Mahina one of a handful of players ready to contribute after missing at least one season while completing their missionary service.

B.Y.U. must address issues with its front seven, which lost several starters. At end, for instance, the Cougars must replace two standout, all-conference performers in Brett Denney and Jan Jorgensen — the latter of one of the finest defensive linemen in school history. The line does return nose tackle Romney Fuga (40 tackles, 3 for loss), which helps. B.Y.U. will also welcome back former starter Eathyn Manumaleuna, back on campus after his two-year mission. With Fuga entrenched at tackle, loss for Manumaleuna to earn a crack at stepping into one of the two open ends spots. For now, the starting ends are junior Matt Putnam and senior Vic So’oto.

It’s a similar story at linebacker: one returning starter, three players to replace. Junior Jordan Pendleton, a converted safety, returns on the strong side. After learning the position on the job last fall, Pendleton is poised for an all-conference season. Despite their losses, Cougars do return some experience at linebacker. It will be senior Jordan Atkinson on the weak side, for example; Atkinson steps into the starting lineup after backing up Coleby Clawson last fall. Another senior, Shane Hunter, holds a slight edge over a pair of underclassmen in the race to replace Matt Bauman in the middle. There’s a similar competition underway at buck linebacker, with sophomore Brandon Ogletree and junior Aveni Leung-Wai jockeying for the starting role.

The secondary is loaded, on the other hand. If there is a concern, however, it’s the lack of experience at free safety. The Cougars lost the services of starter Scott Johnson and reserve Craig Bills, the latter for a two-year mission. For now, it looks like junior Steven Thomas — little-used last fall — will start at free safety. Don’t count out junior Travis Uale or senior Landon Jaussi, who stand behind Thomas on the depth chart.

It’s difficult to find fault with what B.Y.U. brings to the table at the remaining three secondary spots. Andrew Rich, one of the finest defensive backs in the Mountain West, returns at strong safety. His 85 tackles (3.5 for loss) last fall paced the Cougars, helping him land second-team all-conference accolades. I’m not sure if many teams return such depth at cornerback. In addition to both returning starters, seniors Brandon Bradley and Brian Logan, the Cougars bring back three important reserves: senior Lee Aguirre, junior Corby Eason and sophomore Robbie Buckner. Neither Bradley nor Logan are in any danger of losing their starting jobs; both could start for most B.C.S. conference teams, in fact. Yet it’s a very good thing for this defense to have so many options — all experienced — at cornerback.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback Mendenhall isn’t lying — technically — when he lists a pre-fall depth chart with four players sharing the top spot at quarterback. B.Y.U. does have four quarterbacks, and each could, maybe, start on Sept. 4. In reality, however, it’s a two horse race. Junior Riley Nelson is one potential starter; the favorite, in fact. The other is true freshman Jake Heaps, whose early arrival on campus allowed him to participate in spring ball. What does each bring to the table? Nelson has starting experience, albeit at Utah State. Still, he made eight starts as a freshmen, throwing for 925 yards while rushing for another 290. Nelson also served as Max Hall’s backup a year ago, making 10 attempts and rushing for 122 yards. He can do more with his legs than Heaps, giving the offense a new dimension. Heaps, however, might be the next great quarterback in B.Y.U.’s long line of success at the position. Of course, such a claim is based only off Heaps’ high-profile recruitment and solid returns during the spring, not off any game experience. It is his lack of experience that could cost Heaps the starting role. In a perfect world, perhaps, Nelson would be named the starter, allowing Heaps to redshirt. If that does occur, sophomore James Lark becomes the No. 2 at quarterback.

Game(s) to watch

In order of importance, from low to high: Florida State, Washington, Air Force, T.C.U., Utah. That last game, no matter what’s on the line, is always B.Y.U.’s biggest game of the year. Don’t sleep on the Air Force game, however, as the distance between the third- and fourth-place team in the Mountain West is the thinnest since 2007.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell In B.Y.U.’s favor: wonderful coaching; a terrific offensive line; depth at the receiver corps; and talent in the secondary. These factors alone should prevent the Cougars from losing more than four games. What are the concerns? The Cougars are sure to lose a significant amount of production at the quarterback position, at least in the passing game; perhaps Nelson, if he’s the starter, can offset that decline with his legs. Losing Unga also hurts, even if the Cougars don’t lack for depth in the backfield. No one player is going to replace his talents, however, with B.Y.U. instead going with a by-committee approach. The defensive line will break in a pair of new starters at end, with the linebacker corps breaking in three new starters. So all is not perfect. Nevertheless, 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.

Dream season If I keep touting this as a dream season, it’s bound to someday come true: B.Y.U. goes 12-0, undefeated in the M.W.C., and in the B.C.S.

Nightmare season For the first time since his debut season, Mendenhall suffers through a six-loss season: 6-6, 4-4 in the Mountain West, and in a very, very lower-tier bowl.

In case you were wondering

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

Up Next

Who is No. 35? Our next program’s mascot enjoys taking a cold beer, tilting his head back, and drinking the beer through a hole in his right eye socket. After listening to the university’s spirit yell, you’d think the mascot would enjoy whiskey, not beer.

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

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  1. pfz10 says:

    BYU going undefeated and in a BCS bowl? Laughable. Next they’ll end up in the Big XII and play in a national championship game. I thought Michigan was over-ranked and then there is BYU. New QB, new receiving corp, losing the best running back in the programs’ history (Unga), and a perennial mediocre defense, I would be surprised at anything more than eight wins.

  2. donniemac says:

    Pretty sure the undefeated thing came under dream season. Seems to me like Paul is saying eight wins is waht to expect from BYU.

  3. george howley says:

    In tennessee you would expect whiskey instead of beer but I have never Smokey with a beer. Anyway Tennessee is not a party school?

  4. katster says:

    oski wow wow, whiskey wee wee…

    Next up is my California Golden Bears.

  5. OskiGoDumb says:

    Oski’s technique demonstrated:


    Cal has many great fight songs and cheers. The Oski Yell isn’t one of them. Fortunately no one really does it these days. It did give Oski a name, though.

    Go Bears!

  6. Jim Narby says:

    Cornhuskers can’t handle beer, or whiskey, so I don’t know who is next. -Jim Narby

  7. Jake Smith says:

    How is Cal not a top 25 team? They won 8 games last year and have a Senior QB in the Pac-10. Tedford is still at the helm and there has been nothing upsetting this offseason. You are way underrating them. They get Oregon, Washington, and Stanford at home. If they don’t go 10-2, it will be a real disappointment for Cal. You also under-rated Arizona and Washington and over-rated UCLA though.

  8. pfz10 says:

    I hope this year marks a decline for the BYU program which drives them into a Gary Crowton like slump (In Jim Narby terms, Gary Crowton is to BYU as Bill Callahan is to Nebraska).

  9. Chago04 says:

    Pfz10, you are an idiot. We do not have a new receiving core, did you not even read the article? We have new TEs, but our two starting WRs are returning Juniors. Unga’s loss hurts us, but we are more stacked at RB than we have ever been. With DiLuigi, Kariya, Juice, and Phillips all being capable of starting at most other school. Perennial mediocre defense? Check out our secondary, bud. Or check out the hit Pendelton laid on your boy Wynn last year.

    In an honest prediction, I see us going 10-3 or, worst case scenario, 9-4. It is a rebuilding year, but I still expect to be ranked at the end of the season, especially if Heaps wins the starting role. We have a better recruiting class than we have ever had (the highest ranked class among non-BCS teams) and we are in the middle of one of the best runs in BYU history. There is no reason to not be optimistic. BYU is the greatest school in the country, in our opinion, and we are hoping to show that out on the football field this year.

  10. Chago04 says:

    Also, Paul, I have really been impressed with your write-ups. This is the stuff of genius. Good job.

  11. pfz10 says:

    I stand corrected on the receivers. I couldn’t help but throw a few lighthearted jabs at the cougars expense. In all honesty I agree with your prediction because I can’t see BYU losing to Air Force or Washington this year.

  12. Chago04 says:

    I honestly see the MWC being more of a toss up for 2-4 than it has been even in recent years. TCU should dominate this year (they have so much experience returning from a great team), but Utah, BYU, and even AFA could sneak away with 2nd.

  13. OskiGoDumb says:

    “If they don’t go 10-2, it will be a real disappointment for Cal.”

    Jake, it may be time to put down the blue and gold Kool-Aid. Cal was just picked 7th in the Pac-10 media poll. Paul is ranking the Bears significantly higher than many national outlets (the Sporting News has Cal @ 62!) and now 2 spots higher than Pac-10 beat writers. Unless the secondary, pass rush, O-line, QB, receivers, special teams and kicking game are markedly improved (some will be, but most or all?) I really don’t think 10-2 is likely. Cal always does well at home in even numbered years the way the Pac-10 schedule sets up. They’re 14-0 vs the PAC at home since 2004 during even years so hopefully that trend continues but @USC, @OSU, @Arizona with Oregon late in the year at home isn’t an easy schedule. The Bears could realistically go anywhere from 5-7 to 10-2 this year but 9-3 would be a overachieving and 8-4 would or 7-5 seem likely.

  14. Colin says:

    After recent remarks by Boise State president Bob Kustra, the Boise State-Idaho rivalry just went up a few notches.

  15. [...] in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 36, is B.Y.U. You can find a larger B.Y.U. preview [...]

  16. Roy says:

    UW has far more offensive weapons and if Heaps starts week 1 UW will win that game. Defense isn’t great but ended the year real well last year. BYU will win 8 or 9 games I think this year

  17. jspj says:

    Left of the players in the NFL list is Austin Collie, one of the best rookies in the NFL last year. Payton Manning loves him and I hope he has even a better year this year.

  18. manaen says:

    This is an excellent review; it equals or surpasses the best ones from the local sources that live with our team all year.
    Three nits:
    1. In the Oklahoma game last year, Sam Bradford left two minutes before halftime — because our defense knocked him out of the game with a clean hit. The score was tied 7-7 at the time of his departure. At that time, BYU had 100 more yards of offense and Oklahoma’s score was set-up by a BYU fumble on our own 35-yard line. We were outpacing Oklahoma *with* Bradford in that game.
    An un-noticed achievement of Lou Holtz: I recently re-watched this game. The first comment in the pregame show was Lou Holtz asking “How is Oklahoma’s line going to protect Sam Bradford?” They didn’t.
    2. We literally handed last year’s game to Florida State. We lost possession *five* times by fumbling the ball. Two of these were by the same player whose fumble set-up Oklahoma’s lone first-half score against us. Our points per minute scored were significantly higher than FSU’s, including our possessions ending in turnovers. We should have lost that game — FSU was much better than us at turning-over possession *after* scoring — but our loss came from poor ball protection, not by being dominated like the score suggests.
    3. We lost to Boston College in 2006 at Boston by a touchdown in double overtime. This was a turning point in the team’s spirit; after the losing seasons, Mendenhall told them at halftime to not look surprised that they still were in the game.

  19. Dustin Davis says:

    I can’t believe BYU is going independent in football!

    Epic win for BYU fans. Now games can be watched all over the country on BYU-TV. They are already set up to broadcast these games. BYU-TV is on the cheapest package for both DISH Network & DIRECTV.

  20. Colin says:

    BYU just lost to Utah State. They are currently 1-4 with games left against TCU and Utah. The way they’ve been playing, they might have another loss coming, possibly to San Diego State or Wyoming. (Fortunately for the Cougars, they do at least get those two at home.) This would drop them below your nightmare prediction of 6-6 unless they can pull out an upset against either TCU or Utah.

  21. Scott Wallace says:

    Another Cougar website http://www.cougarcorner.com

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