Location: Provo, Utah.
Quick facts: Brigham Young not only enters the fall with the pressure of trying to repeat as Mountain West champions, but with the added responsibility of living up the Countdown’s belief that this team, much like Boise State in 2006, is good enough to run the table and bust into the B.C.S. The rationale for this prediction is a simple one: B.Y.U. is an extremely talented team, and if it can get past its two Pac-10 battles in the month of September, it has a strong chance of going through the M.W.C. undefeated for the third straight season. With the junior Max Hall, a Heisman dark horse, at quarterback, and a plethora of offensive weapons to choose from, the Cougars won’t lack for offensive firepower. The defense, which takes its cue from Coach Bronco Mendenhall – the defensive coordinator before being promoted – combines toughness and athleticism in equal measure. While the Cougars had through three consecutive losing seasons under Mendenhall’s predecessor, Gary Crowton (the program’s first such streak since 1959-64), B.Y.U. is 22-4 over the last two seasons, including 16-0 in conference play.
Tidbit: Every B.Y.U. coach until the end of time will be compared to the Cougar legend LaVell Edwards, who compiled a 257-101-3 record over 29 years in Provo, making him the sixth-winningest coach in F.B.S. history. Renowned for his innovative offensive mind, Edwards used a system that was a precursor to the spread offenses we see today, especially those made famous at Texas Tech and Oregon, among others. His squads combined to throw for more than 100,000 yards, which comes out to approximately 57 miles of yardage.
Tidbit (good luck with all that edition): B.Y.U. students must follow a stiff honor code, which prohibits the consumption of drugs and alcohol and participation in premartial sex. The Countdown applauds the Brigham Young student body. This is very commendable.
Former players in the N.F.L.: 16 – QB John Beck (Miami Dolphins), TE Daniel Coats (Cincinnati Bengals), DE John Denney (Miami Dolphins), DE Ryan Denney (Buffalo Bills), S Aaron Francisco (Arizona Cardinals), NT Chris Hoke (Pittsburgh Steelers), OL Scott Jackson (Houston Texans), LB Cameron Jensen (Seattle Seahawks), LB Bryan Kehl (Giants), DE Brett Keisel (Pittsburgh Steelers), DE Shaun Nua (Buffalo Bills), LB Brady Poppinga (Green Bay Packers), RB Naufahu Tahi (Minnesota Vikings), OL John Tait (Chicago Bears), WR Todd Watkins (Oakland Raiders), OL Scott Young (Philadelphia Eagles).
Famous alumni (non-football related): Mitt Romney, 2008 presidential candidate; the actors Aaron Eckhart and Jon Heder; Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon; Thomas Monson, the current President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Conference: Mountain West.
Head coach: Bronco Mendenhall (’88 Oregon State), 28-10 after three years at B.Y.U. As mentioned, the Cougars have posted back-to-back 11-2 seasons, 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 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. Despite a 6-6 debut season in 2005, Mendenhall is off to the greatest start to a coaching career in Brigham Young history; yes, even better than 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. One of the hottest names in college coaching, Mendenhall has been – and certainly will continue to be – on the short list of names for many West Coast coaching vacancies. To the best of the Countdown’s knowledge, Mendenhall is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which would lead me to believe that B.Y.U. is genuinely a place where he would like to remain, and not a place he sees as a steppingstone to another, bigger job. Nevertheless, if the Cougars continue to win like they have, Pac-10 teams – much like U.C.L.A. this off-season – will continue to come knocking.
2007 record: 11-2 (8-0). Another blemish-free conference season, with the only black marks on the entire campaign being two non-conference losses in September. Following their 1-2 start, B.Y.U. rolled off 10 straight victories to give itself 22 wins over the last two seasons; the last Cougar teams to have such a successful stretch were the 1982-83 squads, which combined to go 24-1. Not surprisingly, Brigham Young was strong on both sides of the ball, averaging 30.1 points per game on offense while allowing only 18.5 points per game. The offense, led by Max Hall, was among the most balanced in the nation. While the Cougars did excel in the passing game, throwing for a shade under 300 yards per game, the B.Y.U. running game (144.4 yards per game) was also among the best in the Mountain West. Much of the success can be attributed to the offensive line, which opened up holes and allowed only 20 sacks (out of 523 passing plays) on the season. And we can’t forget the defense, which ranked in the top 10 in the nation in total defense, scoring defense and rush defense.
High point: An emotional 17-10 win over Utah in the Holy War. Credit goes to Hall, whose gutsy performance earned the admiration of viewers across the nation, including at least one all the way in New York City. The Cougars won their second consecutive bowl game, 17-16 over U.C.L.A., avenging an early-season loss to the Bruins.
Low point: The two non-conference losses: By 27-17 to then-No. 13 U.C.L.A. and by 55-47 to Tulsa. Hall had 537 yards passing in the loss to the Golden Hurricane.
Returning starters: 13 (10 offense, 3 defense).
On offense, the lone starter not returning is center Sete Aulai, who started two years for the Cougars, earning second-team all-Mountain West honors in 2006. Aulai’s departure has been magnified by the loss of the junior center Tom Sorensen to injury; Sorensen was tabbed to replace Aulai in the middle. B.Y.U. must also replace receiver Matt Allen, who caught at least 20 passes each of his final three seasons, including a career-high 31 in 2007. The would-be senior fullback Manase Tonga will miss the 2008 season due to academic issues, but can take a redshirt season and should be back in 2009. Not a fullback in the traditional sense, Tonga combines great blocking ability with good vision in the running game (305 yards, 8 scores in 2007) and a nice pair of hands (27 receptions for 248 yards). He’ll be missed.
On defense, eight lost starters must be replaced, including the leading tacklers Bryan Kehl (91 stops, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions) and Kelly Poppinga (113, 7.5 for loss) at linebacker. Kehl, a first-team all-M.W.C. pick, was the only Cougar taken in the 2008 N.F.L. draft (Giants in the fourth round). With the departure of his fellow linebacker Mark Staffieri, who added 54 tackles (5 for loss) and a sack, the Cougars return only one starting linebacker to their 3-4 defense. In the secondary, free safety Quinn Gooch, an all-conference selection each of the last two seasons, tied for the team lead with three interceptions. At corner, starters Kayle Buchanan and Ben Criddle combined for five interceptions.
Players to watch: The offense should again be among the nation’s best. Leading the way is Hall, who threw for 3,848 yards and 26 scores (against 12 picks) last season. He enters the fall as a member of every quarterback award watch list and a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman. A former transfer from Arizona State, people have forgotten that, prior to last season, Hall had not received any extensive playing time since high school, giving him the potential for an even greater performance this fall. His top options will be the junior tight end Dennis Pitta (a team-leading 59 receptions for 813 yards last fall) and the junior wide receiver Austin Collie (56 receptions for 946 yards and 7 scores), both of whom are locks for all-conference honors. Pitta is a contender for national accolades. The senior Michael Reed (41 receptions for 449 yards) will also be counted on. In the backfield, the sophomore Harvey Unga – the defending Mountain West rookie of the year – hopes to build off his terrific freshman season: 1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, 44 receptions for 655 yards and 4 scores through the air. Mendenhall and his staff hope to offset losing Tonga for the season with the senior Fui Vakapuna, who finished third on the team a season ago with 252 yards. Opening holes for Unga and keeping Hall clean is the M.W.C.’s best offensive line, which returns four starters. Leading the way are the seniors Ray Feinga (left guard) and Dallas Reynolds (left tackle). Feinga came on strong a season ago to earn first-team all-conference honors, while Reynolds, the most consistent lineman on the team, has started all 38 games since his freshman campaign. While there are significant question marks about the B.Y.U. defense – especially in the back eight – the strength is up front, where the Cougars return an all-American candidate in the junior end Jan Jorgensen (77 tackles, 20 for loss, 14 sacks) and strong contributors in the junior nose tackle Russell Tialavea and the junior ends Bryant Denney (another Denney at end for the Cougars) and Ian Dulan; Denney and Dulan combined for seven sacks in 2007. Tialavea must show he has completely rebounded from the knee injury that cost him the 2007 season. The only returning starter at linebacker is the senior David Nixon (66 stops, 10 for loss,4 sacks), who will be counted on as the team leader on defense this fall.
Position battle to watch: There are major questions about the B.Y.U. secondary, a unit that was subpar a season ago and must break in four new starters. The good news is that due to improved recruiting, Brigham Young’s depth is as good as it’s been in recent years. However, while the depth is great, the lack of experience may come to haunt the Cougars, especially during their early-season Pac-10 clashes with Washington and U.C.L.A. This will be Mendenhall’s prime task throughout the rest of fall camp and into the beginning of the season: Utilize the team’s defensive strengths (a solid line) while doing everything he can to offset what should be a questionable linebacker corps and secondary. There is no doubt the Cougars will again be among the nation’s best offensive teams; however, the onus will be on the defense to step up its game and match the performance of last fall’s unit.
Aug. 30 Northern Iowa
Sept. 6 @ Washington
Sept. 13 U.C.L.A.
Sept. 20 Wyoming
Oct. 3 @ Utah State
Oct. 11 New Mexico
Oct. 16 @ T.C.U.
Oct. 25 U.N.L.V.
Nov. 1 @ Colorado State
Nov. 8 San Diego State
Nov. 15 @ Air Force
Nov. 22 @ Utah
Game(s) to watch: Both of the Pac-10 duels and the season finale at Utah. The Utes would love nothing more than to dash Brigham Young’s hopes of an undefeated season.
Season breakdown & prediction: I know it’s controversial, but as anyone who reads the Countdown knows, we’re all about controversy. We’re picking B.Y.U. to run the table. Yes, to beat Washington on the road, beat the Bruins in its third matchup in a year and best both T.C.U. and Utah on the road. Why? Because of an outstanding offense, for starters, though there are reasons for reservations when discussing the defense. However, I think Hall and the offense will be good enough to carry Brigham Young past Washington (though this game, played at Husky Stadium, will be a tough one) and U.C.L.A. and through the Mountain West season. Keep an eye on the season finale with Utah, which will be must-see if B.Y.U. is undefeated. Over all, I predict B.Y.U. to go 12-0 and reach the B.C.S. Unfortunately, if the Cougars lose even once, it would likely mean another trip to the Las Vegas Bowl. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but this team is good enough to do more.
Dream season: B.Y.U. finishes the regular season undefeated and earns a B.C.S. trip.
Nightmare season: The Cougars lose both Pac-10 matchups and a pair of M.W.C. games – including Utah.
Who is No. 9?: This program has had only a pair of seasons with 10 victories or more in the last century.