2011 Record: (10-3)
Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (66-24 at BYU)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 Armed Forces Bowl: beat Tulsa 24-21
Big Name Opponents: 9/20 at Boise St, 10/20 at Notre Dame
Swing Games: 8/30 vs Washington St, 10/27 at Georgia Tech
Stats to Cheer: converted 51.31% of third down conversions (5th in Nation), held opponents to 44.4% TD rate inside the red zone (5th in Nation)
Stat to Fear: only beat two teams with winning records in 2011: Tulsa (8-5) and Utah State (7-6)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 7; Defense: 7; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Brandon Ogletree (76 tackles), LB Kyle Van Noy (68 tackles, 3 INT, 6 sacks), CB Preston Hadley (51 tackles), S Daniel Sorensen (61 tackles, 2 INT), LB Uona Kaveinga (51 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Riley Nelson (19 TD, 7 INT), WR Cody Hoffman (61 rec, 10 TD), WR Ross Apo (34 rec, 9 TD)
Inside Scoop with the Blue Cougar Football:
CFBZ: What were your overall thoughts on BYU’s first season as an independent?
Blue Cougar Football: The first year of independence brought unparalleled exposure for the program. BYU played 11 games on one of the ESPN networks. Unfortunately, the outcome of a few games made the ESPN airtime almost moot. While most of the time a 10-3 season would be considered a success, the 2011 season left many fans feeling disappointed. In fact, fans weren’t the only ones feeling hollow about the season. For the first time in school history, BYU won 10 games and was not ranked in both major polls. Had USC been eligible for the USA Today poll, it is likely BYU would not have been ranked at all.
Calling 2011 a failure is a little harsh. Disappointment is a better word. There was some buzz about BYU nationally when the season started, but none when the season ended. All in all, the 2011 season was not what BYU needed from the first year of independence. That doesn’t mean BYU is doomed to fail as an independent, but the Cougars can’t keep letting opportunities to generate buzz to pass them by.
CFBZ: Prized recruit Jake Heaps struggled in 2011 and ended up transferring to Kansas. What are your thoughts on the QB position this year and beyond?
Blue Cougar Football: Although losing Heaps added to the disappointment in 2011, his departure does little to change the QB outlook for 2012. Had he stayed, Heaps would most likely have redshirted.
Senior Riley Nelson has become the team’s undisputed leader. What he lacks in raw talent he makes up for with toughness, heart, and an unrelenting desire to win. Many are concerned that Nelson will not survive the season without time lost to injury, and history validates those concerns. Should Nelson go down, fellow senior James Lark is ready, waiting, for his chance. He turned heads in practice last fall and again this spring. Lark has gained the confidence of his teammates that, if needed, he can get the job done.
Looking beyond 2012, that is where Heaps’ transfer could really have an impact. Jason Munns will be a senior in 2013, but all signs indicate that Taysom Hill will be the starter in 2013. Hill is a true freshman this year and may redshirt. BYU will need him to play to the level that Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, and Kellen Moore did when they started as redshirt freshmen. The 2013 schedule is loaded with stiff competition.
CFBZ: What games on the schedule this season does the fanbase want to win the most?
The BYU fanbase has four games circled on the calendar: September 15 at Utah, September 20 at Boise State, October 20 at Notre Dame, and October 27 at Georgia Tech. These four road games are expected to be the four best teams BYU faces this season. In recent years, BYU has developed a reputation of not being able to beat the good teams on its schedule. Shedding that label is just one reason these games are the most important to win.
Utah: BYU has lost the last two games to their archrival in bizarre fashion. Until recently, this game appeared to be the last time BYU and Utah would play in the foreseeable future. Cougar fans definitely wanted to go out with the upper hand, especially with the way the last two games have gone. On July 10, two more games were announced (2013 and 2016), but that doesn’t change the fans’ desire to serve the Utes some payback.
Boise State: What better way to create buzz for your program than to go to Boise and beat the Broncos on their blue turf? Beating them by more than a touchdown. Boise State hasn’t lost in September since 2007. It has been at least that long since they lost a game by more than 3 points. Boise State also symbolizes what BYU once was. In the early 1980s, BYU was the team tucked away in the Rocky Mountains that wore royal blue and destroyed nearly all comers. Fans want to win this game to make a statement to the nation that they are still the best team that doesn’t belong to one of the power conferences.
Notre Dame: A win in South Bend is another fantastic way to get a lot of people’s attention. If BYU wants to be respected as an independent, it is absolutely necessary to be competitive with Notre Dame. For the time being, the only way to prove that is to beat the Fighting Irish. BYU needs to win not just this game, but a majority of the games in the six game series the two schools have scheduled.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets play in the ACC, in the South, and in Atlanta. A great formula for a fanbase looking for respect. Not only to fans want to win this game for what it will do to the Cougars’ profile in the South, but we pride ourselves in being able to stop option offenses—just ask Air Force. To lose would be one thing, but to lose to an option based attack would really hurt.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for 2012 and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Blue Cougar Football: It won’t be easy, but I think BYU finishes 11-2. The four games just mentioned are the “toss ups” this season. Each game could go either way.
At the June 27 BYU Media Day, you could tell that this group of players, which includes 29 seniors, is fed up with falling short of over hyped expectations. They have a more low key, business like approach to things. That is why I expect them to win two of the four. Which two, I am not sure, but I do think BYU splits Utah/Boise State and Notre Dame/Georgia Tech.
To measure success, I have to go back to the 2011 measuring stick: finish ranked in the top 15 and have some national buzz. With this schedule, an 11-2 record should do that, as long as BYU is competitive in those two losses.
As referenced in our Q&A, BYU's first year of independence didn't exactly take the college football world by storm. On the field, BYU had a good but not great year. Generally speaking they won the games they were supposed to win and the only real sore thumb that sticks out was the drilling they got by Utah. This year the schedule takes a step up in competition although there still feels like there are a lot of filler games, especially late in the schedule (Idaho, SJSU, NMSU) where most teams would be playing conference rivals to close the year. That's definitely a drawback on BYU's independence as it's hard to tie in teams at the end of the season for games and if you aren't playing in big games at the end of the year then it's tough to be relevant.
One thing that stands out in BYU's losses last year is that they didn't run the football well. In the three losses they combined for just 193 yards and 2.03 yards per carry and 1 TD. BYU has one of the more veteran offensive lines in the Nation (77 starts according to Phil Steele which ranks them 26th) so that should help. Riley Nelson returns to anchor the offense and after not playing much in the first four games he took the job in game five against Utah State and the Cougars went 7-1 under his leadership (with the only loss being to TCU). Nelson returns a lot of players at the WR position so I would expect the passing game to pick it up a little bit this year. Back to the running game...Michael Alisa should be their first option and he gained 455 yards after playing sparingly in the first five games (just 3 rushes). He, or another option, needs to have an impact against the tougher teams on the schedule for the Cougars to be balanced enough to beat the better teams on the schedule.
Defense is a calling card for Bronco Mendenhall and last year the Cougars were solid allowing 20.4 points per game. They were good against the run giving up just 112 yards per game and 3.63 yards per carry. One thing that leads me to believe that the Cougars can improve on defense is that they return their top five tacklers and they have a strong core at linebacker. The defense will be laden with upperclassmen with as little as two underclassmen getting the starting nod.
On paper, BYU should be a better team this year then they were last year. Of course, the schedule also is a bit harder. Last year, BYU started out 1-2 with a heart-breaking loss to Texas and a gut-wrenching butt kicking from Utah. This year the schedule also gets off to a pretty tough start. They start off with an unpredictable game against Mike Leach's Washington State team, then they get a freebie against Weber State but after that it's on the road to Utah and then on the road to Boise State. That's going to be a tough road but if the Cougars can come out of that four game stretch with a winning record they will be poised to have a very good year. After that four game stretch the biggest tests left are at Georgia Tech and at Notre Dame. If BYU can beat the teams they are supposed to beat that really leaves four games to take care of (although games like Wazzu, Utah State and Oregon State will present a challenge). Last year, BYU's most impressive victory was against an eight win Tulsa team. BYU is going to have to be a lot better than that to put forth the same record as they had last year. Are they up for the challenge?
2012 Prediction: 8-4
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