USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
There's something different about Brigham Young.
The color scheme remains the same, the jerseys seem identical, the helmets the status quo. Bronco Mendenhall has spoken of making sure the Cougars enjoy the entirety of the college experience, true, but that's on days other than Saturday – having fun is great and all, but wins still matter.
Perhaps it's the quarterback, Taysom Hill, who last fall became the first player in program history to pass for at least 2,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000 yards in the same season; BYU has had passers, has had runners, but rarely – ever, actually – has BYU had this sort of dual-threat athleticism.
Better yet, perhaps it's the schedule. BYU dropped its conference affiliation to join the ranks of the Football Bowl Subdivision's independents in 2011, if you can recall, trading the fair share of winnable in-league games for a rowdy September-to-December slate.
From 2011 through last season, the Cougars played 16 opponents then aligned in a major conference: Mississippi, Washington State, Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington, Texas twice, Oregon State twice, Notre Dame twice, Georgia Tech twice and rival Utah three times.
Then there's 2014: BYU takes on Texas, Virginia and California – and that's it from a Power Five league. Yeah, UCF's a handful, Utah State's a menace and Boise State is, well, Boise State, but still: BYU has dialed down the level of difficulty.
This is a good thing, of course, if a touch confusing. BYU went the independent route – and remains happy with the decision – because of the ability it gave the program to broaden its national reach. This fall, at least, that doesn't seem to be the case. The two lessons:
It's nice to get a breather. It's also difficult to predict the changing landscape of conference alignment.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Here's what I feel: BYU wins eight games during the regular season, dropping four dates with terrific competition, and heads into the postseason on the edge of a national ranking. Two things to consider: one, winning eight games against this schedule would be impressive, and two, BYU could achieve much more should its offense develop ahead of schedule.
In a nutshell: BYU was a bunch of marauding barbarians when everything clicked, as seen in victories against Texas, Georgia Tech, Utah State and Boise State. The Cougars still struggled against high-quality competition, dropping games to Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Washington after stepping into the fringes of a national ranking. This has become fairly standard: BYU's a tough bunch, continuing the Mendenhall-led trend, but the Cougars' total package – the balance of offense and defense – sputters against teams of greater talent. Consider that BYU averaged less than 5.34 yards per play five times last fall; each time came against a major-conference foe, and each time ended in defeat.
High point: Running ragged over Texas in September. BYU could've been forced to play offense on a 200-yard field and still won by two scores – and Hill would've run for 800 yards, but now we're getting ridiculous.
Low point: Another round of losses to elite competition.
Tidbit: Mendenhall is the only coach in BYU's history to have never suffered a losing season – though his debut, a 6-6 finish, did mark a non-losing finish. Every other coach in program history suffered at least one losing season; yes, this includes even the legendary LaVell Edwards, who went 5-6 in 1973.
Tidbit (Holy War edition): Another thing that's different about this coming season: Utah. The Cougars and Utes won't meet this fall or next after matching up every season since 1922 outside a three-year break from 1943-45, when the Cougars didn't field a team during World War II.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Strange results of Week 1, 2013
1. Virginia 19, BYU 16
2. Eastern Washington 49, Oregon State 46
3. Eastern Illinois 40, San Diego State 19
4. Washington 38, Boise State 6
5. North Dakota State 24, Kansas State 21
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Taysom Hill is one of these things or all of these things: a bowling ball given legs and pads; an angry wolverine given the same; the next Eric Crouch; the hardest-running man in show business; death to all would-be tackling things; an unproductive passer far too prone to physical and mental errors; one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country; a borderline Heisman Trophy contender; a work in progress; the key to the Cougars' season. The last is true, at least, since no single offensive player will decide BYU's fate more than Hill – to be specific, more than Hill's ability to add a stronger grasp of the passing game to his skills as a runner. He's getting there: Hill had a near-brilliant midseason stretch, though he bracketed this month with an uneven September and disappointing November. So he's not really a Heisman contender, due to this lack of balance, but his career's still young; Hill has two years to work out the kinks, and it seems as if he gains more strength with each passing Saturday. In the interim, he's just going to bulldoze.
His backfield mate, junior Jamaal Williams (1,233 yards), will miss the first game of the season due to a team suspension – but he'll be back soon after, charging again at the 1,000-yard mark. When it comes the Connecticut game, BYU has the depth to survive Williams' short absence. Adam Hine (224 yards) has effectively matched Williams' production in a smaller sample size, perhaps drawing the junior top-dog duties for the opener. The Cougars will also lean heavily on senior Paul Lasike (351 yards) and sophomore Algernon Brown (234 yards), the two bigger backs, and will use all three projected reserves in fairly heavy doses even when Williams returns. In total, the combination of Hill, Williams and these backups is fairly intimidating.
The offensive line is one of the nation's most experienced – both in terms of age and returning career starts – and could, should the staff make the necessary tweaks in August, stand as one of the program's best of Mendenhall's tenure. It's still a little unsettled, though not necessarily in a bad way: BYU will shift senior De'Ondre Wesley from right to left tackle, which is smart, but could go with one of four viable options in his former spot – Brock Stringham, Ului Lapuaho, Michael Yeck or Ryker Matthews, the latter only if healthy. Stringham could even start at right guard, though redshirt freshman Tuni Kanuch seems entrenched in the role; the staff loves Lapuaho, however, so there are some questions still on BYU's plate on the strong side. There's even competition under way at center, between Terrance Alletto and Edward Fusi, and at left guard, between Alletto, Kyle Johnson and Solomone Kafu. The basic story: Don't be fooled by the competition – it's a good thing, and the cream is going to rise to the top. This is a strong group.
Defense: The Cougars' defense could remain a top-25 unit nationally thanks in large part to a smoother schedule, but BYU is lacking some weapons on the second level. It's not just Kyle Van Noy, of course, though he looms largest; it's the majority of the two-deep, so this staff needs to get to work with the position during fall camp. But it's not all bad: Bronson Kaufusi (37 tackles, 7.0 for loss) could be a total star on the weak side, Manoa Pikula has tasted the starting job in the middle and Alani Fua (63 tackles) is ready to roll with the full-time job on the strong side. I know Van Noy leaves a huge void, but my bigger concern comes in the middle: Pikula, Zac Stout, Austin Heder and Jherremya Leuta-Douyere must be up to the task of replacing Uani 'Unga – so underrated last year – and Tyler Beck. While Van Noy's wall-to-wall disruptiveness is irreplaceable, remember that BYU notched only 24.0 sacks last fall, one of the Cougars' lowest totals since 2007.
Kaufusi's move up from end – he dropped about 20 pounds to take on the weak side – opens up two spots on the defensive line. Look for Kaufusi to be replaced by a combination of juniors Graham Rowley and Logan Taele, though sophomore Travis Tuiloma – a returning missionary – seems like an option on the outside. It's more likely Tuiloma ends up on the nose, where he'll be the athletic double to Kesni Tausinga's 300-pound frame. In general, however, look for Tuiloma to be a very effective, multiple tool across the entire front. There's no doubt about right end: Remington Peck (38 tackles) is back as the line's lone returning starter. As always, this line won't put up jaw-dropping numbers but will do an effective job occupying blocks, moving the line of scrimmage and keeping BYU's linebackers clean.
The arrival of Nebraska transfer Harvey Jackson will have a really nice impact on the Cougars' outlook in the secondary. Jackson is the starter at free safety, I'd predict, with that development helping in three ways: one, by giving BYU a really nice talent at the position; two, by allowing BYU to play senior Craig Bills (79 tackles) at strong safety, replacing Daniel Sorensen; and three, by allowing BYU to shift senior Skye PoVey to cornerback, where he'll battle with junior Trent Trammell and redshirt freshman Jordan Preator on the field side. It'll be Robertson Daniel back on the boundary side, though BYU seems to have stronger depth at the position than at this point a season ago.
Special teams: The kicking game will struggle in the move from Justin Sorensen to sophomore Moose Bingham. Likewise with the return game and JD Falsev, though Hine has shown himself to be a very dangerous returner on kickoffs.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receivers: There's some serious talent at receiver to go with some seriously large shoes to fill: BYU doesn't lack for options, but I wonder if any returning contributor – or any newcomer – will be able to singlehandedly fill the do-everything void left by Cody Hoffman. One newcomer very well could: Nick Kurtz, a JUCO transfer, has the size and recruiting pedigree to begin his BYU career as a red-zone threat before developing a well-rounded game. While he has some ground to make up, I'd put Kurtz in BYU's top grouping, joining junior Mitch Matthews (23 receptions for 397 yards), senior Ross Apo (14 for 204), junior Kurt Henderson, senior Brett Thompson, junior Terenn Houk, UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie and fellow JUCO transfer Devon Blackmon. At some point this season, don't be surprised if Kurtz and Blackmon become the Cougars' best pass-game options. There's more: BYU will land production from tight ends Devin Mahina and Bryan Sampson, while Thompson could also flex back into a pure-receiving role at the position. Again, two crucial factors: one, the Cougars must rely on a group-wide approach to replicate Hoffman's impact, and two, the staff must get Kurtz and Blackmon up to speed before the end of August.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Texas: The Longhorns have this one circled, as you might expect. It also doubles as a key early game for BYU, which can't afford to fall behind against a very tough first-half schedule. If BYU can make noise early, however, a smooth close could put this team in position to claim double-digit wins before the postseason.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: If thanks in some part to a smoother schedule, BYU seems poised to break past the eight-win mark and challenge for nine-plus victories during the regular season. It's not all because of the schedule, mind you: BYU is punishingly effective on offense and again stout on defense, though slightly weaker than last season, and should ride this blend of physicality to an uptick in the win column. It's a good group with some flaws, yes, but in total a solidly balanced team that could eventually work its way into a national ranking by the end of the season.
Whether BYU can do so – and this program hasn't really been a national factor since enlisting as an independent – hinges on a few undecided factors. One is whether Hill is ready to take the next step as a passer, giving this offense the throwing aspect it needs to roll in conjunction with a terrific ground attack. The second is whether the front seven is up to the program's recent standard: BYU has lost some explosiveness and disruptive behavior, so it's on a slightly reworked cast to pick up the slack. The third involves the secondary, and whether this unit is ready to stick with receivers should the pass rush struggle in the transition to new personnel. Finally, I do worry a bit about the Cougars' kicking game.
This is still a team that should set the absolute baseline at eight wins during the regular season. To me, it's very realistic to envision a scenario where BYU wins nine and challenges the double-digit mark, perhaps upsetting one of those big-name opponents to hit 10 wins for the first time since 2011. But the schedule cuts both ways: BYU needs a big win to earn some national attention, since a nine-win season with losses to Texas, UCF and Boise State – or Utah State, or whatever – won't necessarily impress the masses. I don't doubt the Cougars' ability to make some noise.
Dream season: BYU loses only to Boise State.
Nightmare season: The Cougars slide to seven wins despite the easier slate.
Who's No. 33? This team inked five of its home state's 20 best players in February's recruiting class, according to Rivals.com.