For the first time since 2001, BYU appears to be as loaded on offense as they were during Lavell Edwards’ heyday.  The program is experiencing a resurgence of confidence led by Bronco Mendenhall, a youthful, second-year head coach who holds his troops accountable to some of the highest off-the-field standards in the country thanks to the university’s student honor code.  The Cougars managed to avert a fourth straight losing season in 2005 with Mendenhall guiding them to a 6-5 regular season record, second place in the MWC, and a bowl bid.

Not many critics gave the Cougars a chance against a veteran, top-ten ranked Cal defensive unit in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, but the Bears had their hands full as BYU became the only team to mount two 80-yard plus scoring drives on them last season.  With just a few minutes remaining in the game, BYU was driving inside Cal territory for the tying touchdown when QB John Beck was picked off.

Although that game ended 35-28 in Cal’s favor, BYU is anxious to build on that effort heading into 2006.  Never before has the BCS looked so inviting in the preseason to the Cougar faithful, many of whom believe the Cougars can run the table this year by outscoring their opponents.  While a BCS berth is certainly within the realm of possibility this year, it is rather unlikely with the defense making a transition from a 3-3-5 scheme to a 3-4, and a young, untested front line.

BYU should contend for the MWC title and give fits to every defensive unit they encounter this year, but two road games against BCS opponents might easily take a little wind out of the Cougar sails early in the season.  An increasingly dangerous Arizona Wildcat team will have first taste of Brigham Young this year in their home lair, followed by Boston College two weeks later.  Both games will be nationally televised, on TBS and ESPN2, respectively.  Look for the Cougars to make both games close and exciting before they turn their attention toward winning the conference and securing another bowl berth.

Following are five keys to BYU making a successful challenge against TCU and Utah for the MWC title this year:

  1. Avoid/Minimize injuries.

Easier said than done.  As much as luck is involved, this also has a lot to do with strength and conditioning in the preseason, and preventing minor ankle, hamstring, and shoulder injuries from festering into season-ending ones during the regular season.  Some coaches lay off heavy scrimmages in the middle of the week as the season wears on.  USC’s legendary coach John McKay never allowed his players have serious contact between the last regular season game and their nearly annual Rose Bowl appointment, explaining, “If they don’t know how to hit by now, they never will.”  BYU doesn’t have the veteran depth they would like at several positions, most notably at cornerback, receiver and the defensive line, so they have to stay healthy to remain competitive deep into the regular season.  Just one day into their August camp, the Cougars have lost promising Louisville transfer cornerback Brandon Bradley to a season ending knee injury.  The players the Cougars can least afford to lose this year, based on depth: QB John Beck, any of the defensive backs, and any defensive lineman who proves to be a real showstopper.

  1. Get veteran-like performances from a very young, inexperienced D-line.

It’s no secret BYU’s defensive strength is in its solid linebacker corps, hence Bronco Mendenhall’s change from his trademark 3-3-5 to a 3-4 setup this year.  The linebackers need to play mistake-free and help the youngsters on the D-line gain quick confidence in their capabilities.  At least one of the incoming freshmen or juco transfers has to step up and assume a starting role.  Don’t think it can’t be done.  Haloti Ngata started as a freshman at Oregon a few years back and gained all-conference honors for his play.  The Cougar defensive backfield is not what you would call a “strength,” by any stretch of the imagination, but if they can remain healthy, and the D-line can create enough consistent pressure on the opposing QB, they are athletic enough to provide adequate coverage.  If the D-line cannot deliver, the floodgates will be wide open and the pressure on the offense will be enormous.

  1. Manage the Schedule Effectively.

Shame on the MWC for allowing TCU a 12-day prep time for their conference home opener vs. BYU, while the Cougars have less than five days to prepare for the Horned Frogs on the road.  Road games don’t come tougher than that.  Bronco and his staff will need to be creative in resting and prepping the team for TCU on the road, while not allowing Utah State to sneak into Edwards Stadium and snatch an upset victory.   Another challenging spot on the schedule comes with back-to-back road games in Colorado vs. Air Force on October 28 and Colorado State on November 4.  There are also two stretches where battle weary and wounded Cougars can heal:  They’ll have two weeks off after the October 7 home game vs. SDSU and a 9-day break following a November 9 home game vs. Wyoming.  One non-conference game that must not be underestimated is the September 9 home opener vs. a wily Tulsa team that is sandwiched between the Arizona and B.C. road contests.

  1. Special teams need to become a positive factor.

Ask Texas coach Mack Brown or Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer how important special teams are.   They’ll tell you it’s impossible to even challenge for their own conference titles without a top notch special teams unit.  In fact, Beamer even insists on handling the special teams for the Hokies himself.  Special teams play is an element of the game that can quickly swing momentum in your favor.  BYU hasn’t fielded an all-round terrific special teams unit since the 14-1 team back in 1996.  Take a look at the Cougar coaching staff assignments on their official team website and you won’t find a designated special teams coach.  Hopefully, that means Mendenhall is pulling a Beamer and personally handling the special teams from now on.  With the offensive firepower BYU can field this year, a solid kicking game and a bevy of clutch turnovers by the defensive special teams will go a long way in helping make up for some of the points the defense is sure to yield.

  1. Win the games you are expected to win.

In the words of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s famous blue collar ballad, it’s called “Takin’ Care of Business.”  If the Cougars can do this, at the very least, they’ll be 8-4 and bowling at the end of the year.  Add road wins at TCU and Utah and they’ll be 10-2 and MWC champs.  Win ‘em all and they’ll secure that coveted BCS slot, for sure.  Improbable early season road wins vs. Arizona and Boston College could make for a very giddy Cougar Nation, but if that happens, BYU needs to make sure they don’t have any letdowns in the games they are expected to win.  All too often in the Crowton years, the Blue and White coughed up humiliating losses to inferior opponents like UNLV and Wyoming when they should have been slam-dunk, straight deposits into the win column.