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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: BYU

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The least you should know about BYU...
2006 Record
11-2 (8-0 Mountain West/ Champions
Past Five Years
31-29(22-15 Mountain West)
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (5 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
There were Cougars everywhere on last year’s all-Mountain West team, but all of them, and any other person who could be associated in any category with the tern ‘leader’ on that team has graduated, leaving a gap for a few merely solid players to fill – more seasoned nominees include McKay Jacobson, Nathan Meikle, and David Nixon. SMQ’s tentative endorsement goes to safety Mike Gooch, a ballhawking sort (53 total tackles) who impressed on TV at Boston College and was second team all-MWC. Served a mission in Germany, which, given how well most of the rest of America understands Mormon missionaries, must have been very confusing for the Germans.
Bizarre Tradition(s)
This is a new one, but when then-freshman receiver Bryce Mahuika’s father – according to Bryce, next in line as chief of New Zealand’s Ngati Porou tribe when he left the island to work at BYU-Hawaii’s Polynesian Cultural Center – died of lymphoma in 2005, Bronco Mendenhall honored Mahuika’s request to commission a team-wide Maori "Kai Mate" Haka dance before the first home game against Boston College. They still do it. It’s pretty aggressive-looking by nature, and nearly caused an altercation with Utah players in 2005 and with a Polynesian Oregon player who apparently felt he had been served before last year’s Las Vegas Bowl; video of the latter is here. Here’s the team Haka before a booing Utah crowd last year:
Bizarre Enviable Item of Dubious Interest
BYU’s domination of the old WAC well into the late nineties was so complete, last year’s 11-win season broke a couple unpleasant strings for the Cougars: it had been four years since the team had won double-digit games in one season and four years since its last conference championship, the program’s longest stretch by both measures since LaVell Edwards took over as head coach in 1972.
A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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Pleasantries dispensed today...

What's Changed: Traditionally, BYU is well ahead of the rest of the Mountain West, but it had been reduced to a sleeping giant (a mid-major Fionn mac Cumhaill) at the end of the prosperous Edwards Era and - prolific 2001 team notwithstanding - most of Gary Crowton's stay. Take last season away from the "Last Five Years" item to the right, and the Cougars have losing records overall and in Mountain West play from 2002-05. In 29 years, Lavell Edwards won 19 conference championships and finished second four more times, picked up one mythical championship and didn't have a losing season ater 1973, but by the time Mendenhall took over, the improvement to 6-6 in his first season was considered a mild surprise. The top of the Mountain West is where BYU really belongs, and after its undefeated run there last year, it feels like a perennial regional contender was reborn. All critical thinking where BYU is concerned, therefore, occurs in the light of this reaction.

The difference between the latest success here and its previous incarnations is mainly in the improved defense, which is what Mendenhall's hire promised and, last year, at least, delivered. Even in Crowton's best season, 2001, the 12-2 Cougars allowed more than 30 points per game, gave up 72 to Hawaii and relied almost exclusively on outscoring people. Mendenhall's 2005 defense regressed slightly, giving up 29 points on average, before roaring back last year, holding opponents to barely two touchdowns and keeping five teams - albeit pretty bad ones, save Oregon in the bowl game - in the single digits. You have to go back to the mid-eighties for aBYU defense of that caliber on the scoreboard.

What's the Same: The Cougars, when they're good, are still an offensive juggernaut with a hellish quarterback, the very long line of which John Beck joined the last two seasons after a string of relatively mediocre passers before him. The offense led the Mountain West and finished in the top five nationally last year in passing, total and scoring offense and has topped 40 points 14 times in Mendenhall's two seasons; only TCU and Arizona held the `06 outfit under 400 total yards, and most other defenses didn't come anywhere near that.Three receivers with at least 25 catches - Matt Allen, McKay Jacobson and Michael Reed - are back, along with a couple hulking running backs, 235-pounders Manase Tonga (23 catches) and Fui Vakapuna (445 rushing yards) who played a lot in reserve roles.

And now, the catch, Part One: John Beck has graduated. His brother and incredibly similarly-named but completely unrelated top backup Jason Beck, who threw for 300 against hapless Utah State, has graduated. His leading receivers, tight end Johnny Harline and running back Curtis Brown, have graduated with 173 catches between them the last two years. Three other players with 69 catches between them last year (they really spread it around, obviously) have graduated. The best offensive lineman, Jake Kuresa, has graduated. So, you know, a lot of good players have graduated (or run out of eligibility, if the reader prefers and is a tedious stickler. SMQ doesn't know their actual academic standing).

McKay Jacobson: At BYU, they're all possession receivers.
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What offsets the departures is not only the tradition of plugging instant proficiency into the system, but the depth that allowed the ball to be spread so liberally has left plety of options for, er, plugging (apologies, Mormon readers). The leading receivers are gone, but the guys coming back contributed significantly enough that they're hardly mysteries. Ditto the running backs; three offensive linemen also return. Everything, in other words, will ultimately come down to the new quarterback, the only really unknown position, where none of the six contenders in Spring camp has taken a Bowl Subdivision snap. Best bet appears to be Arizona State transfer Max Hall, who played behind John Beck in high school and sat out last year, shadowing ex-Cougar and quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. Hall's advantage entering Spring was slight slight slight over the other likely option, Cade Cooper, national JUCO player of the year from Josh Heupel's old school, Snow College. SMQ can vouch for neither, so maybe, tragically, the offense only averages four touchdowns a game for a year instead of five. Just a hunch based on decent but meaningless hype for two unproven kids, but don't expect it to fall more than that.

And now, the catch, Part Two: More major turnover benefits here: BYU only gave the ball up 13 times all of last year, an obscenely fortunate number bested only by Michigan (12 turnovers), so although the defense was only slightly above average in creating turnovers (27 total), the Cougars were a full +1 per game better than opponents, a certain harbinger of future doom. John Beck threw eight interceptions in 417 attempts, a feat a first-time starter, even a largely successful one, will have a hard time matching. Okay - a feat he will not match - they're already fumbling snaps!

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter: Practice got physical Thursday, for the defense, at least, which took to dazing receivers across the middle (Quinn Gooch reportedly plastered tight end Andrew George) and holding the offense out of the end zone from inside the five despite a perilous lack of lower body padding. The second team offense, led on this day by Cooper had "more success," failing to score but at least picking up a few first downs, which the first team unit evidently could not.

A good broken nose never hurt nobody.
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In the all-important quarterback race, Hall and Cooper are busy alternating with the first team during the first few days of practice, and though Mendenhall said he's not ready to call one guy ahead of the other - don't look now - the coach did say "confidence is growing" in Cooper after he "looked sharp" in scrimmages Tuesday despite some formidable wind. Don't overlook, though, that this guy has a cousin who knows Hall and thinks he's the guy, and his cousin knows his shit.

What this competition really needs: an old-fashioned, Texas Tech-style "flare up". The starter would be the one without the broken nose...unless he's forced to transfer in shame. But your problem is solved either way.

BYU on YouTube: Sometimes examining the behavior of others can be a valuable learning experience. Do you take road trips to your favorite team's home games? Watch and learn, then, from Cougar partisans in this video, titled with appropriate sarcsam, "When you're too old to say DUDE! - Crazed BYU Football Fans":

In some way, posting this seems unfair, almost perversely voyeuristic, but these grown men have apparently seen fit to offer the embarrassing mundanity of their trip to the world as a cautionary tale for the benefit of its own future social interaction. How very brotherly of them. Their saving grace: making fun of Mississippi State, however awkwardly. There is no wrong way to mock MSU (do opposing teams make fun of Southern Miss in the same way? Undoubtedly. But in State's case, they're right).

See also: Those guys probably weep when they watch this, and SMQ would, too, if he were affilliated BYU; an old-fashioned big hits montage from the last ten years; Jim McMahon leads the ridiculous comeback against pre-death penalty SMU in t he 1980 Holiday Bowl.

Best-Case: Hard to see the Cougars getting by Arizona, UCLA and Tulsa with a new quarterback in the first few weeks of the season, but if they can manage to win two of those, it's a straight shot to a Thursday night shot at TCU that figures to decide the conference championship (this entertaining, likely decisive struggle will be broadcast by...Versus. What is that?). The other key game on that front is Utah, as always, to end the season. New quarterback tells SMQ this team's very unlikely to exceed last year's two-loss championship run, but it will be favored in all but two games, at most, so it could match it. Not that you will get to  see them play or anything, unless you're springing for the MountainWest Sports Network.

Worst-Case: Two non-Stanford teams from the Pac Ten and a successful mid-major preparing to revolutionize offense as we know it is not a way to get off on the best foot; 0-3 is a very plausible reality entering conference play. From there, though, even if BYU drops a game it shouldn't, anything short of an absolute collapse - i.e. losses to New Mexico, San Diego State, Wyoming, Colorado State and the like, all teams the Cougars destroyed in '06 - ought to still be good enough for 7-5.

Non-Binding Forecast: SMQ does not like the opening stretch with a new quarterback; Arizona beat BYU to open last year by playing the best defense the Cougars saw all season (only 303 yards) and is revamping its offense with a decent, experienced passer. UCLA is flatly more talented. Who knows what to expect from Tulsa. It's also hard to expect any team in this league to beat both TCU and Utah two years in a row. This has the makings, with some unexpected bump - San Diego State or Wyoming on the road, maybe - of an 8-4, Armed Forces Bowl kind of season en route to slightly bigger fish (but only slightly) in '08.