OVERVIEW: One year after BYU started a true freshman quarterback for the majority of the season, the Cougars head into life as an independent with a wealth of experience on offense. They'll try to build on the momentum they established late last season. After averaging just 14.7 points in their first seven games, the Cougars scored at least 40 points in four of their final five contests. The big changes this season are on the sideline rather than in the huddle. Brandon Doman was promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator to replace Robert Anae, who resigned at the end of last season and now is Arizona's offensive line coach. Newcomers to the staff are running backs coach Joe DuPaix and wide receivers coach Ben Cahoon. DuPaix was Navy's slotbacks coach the past three seasons; Cahoon, a BYU alum, is in his first season as an assistant after retiring as the CFL's career leader in receptions in January.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Did BYU make the right move in going independent? We won't get a complete answer on this for a few more years, but this season could offer a few clues as to whether the Cougars acted wisely in leaving the Mountain West Conference. As a Mountain West member, BYU had basically no shot at earning a BCS bid unless it went undefeated. It would be interesting to see what happens this season if BYU goes 10-2 or 11-1 against a schedule that includes Texas, TCU and Utah. Would the Cougars get serious consideration? If so, it would be tough to argue against BYU's decision. But if they don't get chosen for the BCS, they will go to the Armed Forces Bowl - which is played in TCU's home stadium.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: QB Jake Heaps emerges as a star in his sophomore season and the defense continues the improvement it made in the second half of last season. BYU manages to go 4-1 while facing one of the nation's toughest September schedules and cruises the rest of the way to finish 11-2.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: All the momentum the Cougars established late last season disappears when they stagger into October with a 1-4 or 2-3 record. Bronco Mendenhall's overhaul of the coaching staff results in a lack of cohesiveness. And a young secondary gets burned time and time again as BYU needs a late-season rush to stagger into the Armed Forces Bowl with a 7-5 record.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: BYU usually is known for its passing attack, but the Cougars actually ranked much higher in rushing offense (42nd) than passing offense (76th ) last season. BYU had an average ranking of ninth in passing offense and 76th in rushing offense during Mendenhall's first five seasons as the Cougars' coach. BYU had seven 200-yard rushing games last season, its highest total since 2001. Does the Cougars' emphasis on the run continue this season, or will they throw it more often now that Heaps has a year of experience?
BACKFIELD: Our top-25 ranking for BYU is based on the notion that QB Jake Heaps will continue playing the way he did late in the 2010 season. Heaps struggled early, but he threw 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions over his final five games. That included a four-touchdown performance in a New Mexico Bowl rout of UTEP. TB J.J. Di Luigi continues BYU's recent tradition of running backs who can contribute in the passing game. He rushed for 917 yards and eight touchdowns while also catching 45 passes for 443 yards and one score last season. Bryan Kariya is a nice complementary back who rushed for 550 yards and caught 21 passes in 2010. The Cougars also have confidence in Joshua Quezada and FB Zed Mendenhall.
RECEIVERS: Heaps has reliable targets in WRs Cody Hoffman and McKay Jacobson. Hoffman caught 42 passes for 527 yards and seven touchdowns last season, with six of his touchdowns coming in the final five games of the year. Jacobson had 37 receptions for 410 yards and one touchdown. BYU must replace Luke Ashworth (32 catches, 368 yards, seven TDs last season), but the Cougars believe the addition of redshirt freshman Ross Apo could help in that regard. Apo missed almost the whole 2010 season with a finger injury. BYU has a history of producing prolific tight ends, but the Cougars have struggled to find a replacement for Dennis Pitta, an All-American who completed his career in 2010. BYU's top returning tight end is Devin Mahina (11 catches and 118 yards last season).
LINE: BYU could have one of the best lines in the nation. The Cougars return four starters, including All-America candidate Matt Reynolds at left tackle, and each of the returness started all 13 games last season. Reynolds is entering his fourth season as a starter, and he earned first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors in each of the past two seasons. C Terence Brown and G Braden Hansen were honorable mention All-MWC selections last season. RT Braden Brown is the other returning starter. The lone vacancy is at right guard, where junior Walter Kahaiali'i, sophomore Houston Reynolds and senior Marco Thorson are competing for the right to replace Jason Speredon. Houston is the younger brother of Matt Reynolds ; their dad is Lance Reynolds, BYU's tight ends coach.
OVERVIEW: Coach Bronco Mendenhall took control of the defense midway through last season and will stay in that role this season. BYU is counting on the return of LB Jordan Pendleton and T Romney Fuga to help make up for the loss of talent elsewhere on the defense. Pendleton and Fuga are two of BYU's best defenders, but injuries limited them to a combined 10 games last season. The Cougars, who run a 3-4 scheme, could have a tough time replacing Vic So'oto up front and Andrew Rich in the secondary.
LINE: BYU should get a boost from the return of Fuga, who played only four games last season before a knee injury shut him down. Fuga made 40 tackles two years ago. Eathyn Manumaleuna and Matt Putnam are returning starters at end. BYU needs more production up front. The Cougars ranked just 71st nationally last season with 1.85 sacks per game. BYU doesn't have a lineman who recorded more than 2.5 sacks or five tackles for loss last season.
LINEBACKER: The Cougars have plenty of talent and depth here. Pendleton made 38 tackles in six games before getting knocked out by a shoulder injury. He now is back to headline a linebacker corps that also features Kyle Van Noy, who showed off his big-play ability by recording 7.5 tackles for loss last season. Other returning starters are Jameson Frazier (33 tackles last season), Brandon Ogletree (49 tackles) and Jadon Wagner (38 tackles). The Cougars also are expecting a big contribution from USC transfer Uona Kaveinga, rated as the No. 5 inside linebacker and No. 97 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class.
SECONDARY: This area could represent a major challenge for BYU, as FS Travis Uale is the lone returning starter. The Cougars' toughest chore is replacing All-Mountain West SS Andrew Rich, who had 110 tackles and five interceptions to lead the team in both categories. BYU also must break in two new starting cornerbacks now that Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley have completed their eligibility. Rich's departure has opened an opportunity for Daniel Sorensen, who just completed a church mission. Although Sorensen played linebacker for BYU in 2008, strong safety is his natural position. Candidates for the cornerback spots include senior Corby Easton and juniors Robbie Buckner, DeQuan Everett and Preston Hadley and redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson.
BYU must find someone to replace K Mitch Payne, who ended his BYU career last season as the Mountain West's all-time leading scorer. The most likely candidate is Justin Sorensen, who just returned from a church mission and is the cousin of Daniel Sorensen. Justin Sorensen was BYU's main kickoff man in 2008, though he has attempted only three college field goals. Riley Stephenson averaged 42 yards per punt last season as BYU ranked 61st nationally in net punting. J.D. Falslev also is back after averaging 9.1 yards per punt return last season. BYU ranked 50th in punt returns, 56th in kickoff returns, 17th in punt coverage and 92nd in kickoff coverage last season.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 58th
Buzz: Max Hall was a two-star quarterback who received little coverage during his high school playing days at Mesa (Ariz.) Mountain View, but he ended up in the NFL. The Cougars' coaching staff has done a phenomenal job targeting quality quarterbacks and developing them, with Jake Heaps being the latest. Now, Boise (Idaho) Eagle four-star recruit Tanner Mangum has committed in the 2012 class. He has a lot of potential. - ADAM GORNEY
BYU justifiably has high hopes for Kaveinga, a junior who sat out last season after transferring from USC. Although he played sparingly as a Trojan, Kaveinga is a former Rivals100 prospect who had 258 tackles in his last two seasons at Lawndale (Calif.) Leuzinger. He exited spring practice atop BYU's depth chart at linebacker and should open the season in the starting lineup.
It should become obvious early whether BYU is a legitimate top-25 team. BYU opens the season with back-to-back road games against Ole Miss and Texas before returning home to face Utah and UCF. It isn't out of the question that BYU could lose all four of those games. But the Cougars also could make it through that stretch 3-1 or even 4-0, and if the do that, they have an excellent shot at reaching double-digit wins for the fifth time in the past six seasons. The rest of the schedule is manageable, though the Cougars do have tough tests away from home against Oregon State, TCU (in Arlington, Texas) and Hawaii. While BYU does face five WAC teams and an FCS program (Idaho State), this schedule also includes two Pac-12 programs (Oregon State and Utah) and one each from the SEC (Ole Miss), the Big 12 (Texas), the Mountain West (TCU) and Conference USA (UCF).
Disregard BYU's 7-6 record last season. By the end of the season, the Cougars were playing like a top-25 team. And most of the players from that team are back. The question is whether BYU can build on that momentum as the Cougars adjust to all the changes on the coaching staff. It will be interesting to see how quickly the Cougars adapt to the new faces on the sideline since most of the tough games are early in the season. It would have been interesting to see whether this team could have contended for a Mountain West Conference title this season. They're probably still a notch below TCU and MWC newcomer Boise State, but the Cougars aren't far behind either team. They'll get a shot at TCU on Oct. 28 at Cowboys Stadium. BYU might struggle early in the season, but a 9-4 or 10-3 mark is a legitimate goal.
For more on Brigham Young now and throughout the season, check out CougarNation.com