The following article titled “Five keys for BYU to go bowling in 2006″ was published last August before the start of the 2006 regular season. As it turned out, the five keys were accurately identified, so we thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the prognostic elements of this article and add commentary where appropriate.

Five keys for BYU to go bowling in 2006

BYU should contend for the MWC title and give fits to every defensive unit it encounters 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 its 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.

Commentary: BYU certainly did challenge every defensive unit it faced this year and both the Arizona and Boston College games were “close and exciting.” The Cougars lost to Arizona on a last-second field goal and had a sure touchdown pass called back by Pac-10 officials for offensive interference (that even the TBS announcers hired by the Pac-10 to call the game disagreed with). The Boston College game was lost in overtime, but BYU clearly outplayed the Eagles in Boston.

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 year-ending ones during the regular season. Some coaches lay off heavy scrimmages in the middle of the week as the season wears on. Legendary USC coach John McKay never allowed his players to 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 it would like at several positions, most notably at cornerback, receiver and the defensive line, so the team has 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.

Commentary: Shortly after this was written, the Cougars lost promising 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive lineman Tom Sorensen, a post-mission transfer from Vanderbilt University. Running back Fui Vakapuna suffered an ankle injury and saw limited action through the second half of the season. Freshman defensive lineman Ian Dulan broke his leg early in the campaign and was lost for the rest of the season. John Beck sat out the Utah State game to rest his injured ankles and then toughed it out the rest of the season. Three defensive backs went down in the final regular-season game against Utah, and ultimately, Ben Criddle was lost for the Las Vegas Bowl game versus Oregon. All in all, BYU had one of its healthiest campaigns in memory and the general health of the team played a significant role in its season-ending 10-game winning streak.

2. 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 beloved 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.

Commentary: The Cougar defense was far better than anyone anticipated and it all started with the rock-solid linebacker corps and the young, inexperienced linemen who stepped up and got the job done in the trenches. Ian Dulan, Matangi Tonga, Jan Jorgensen, Brett Denney, Romney Fuga and Russell Tialavea are all underclassmen who will be holding down the front line for several years to come as they cycle in and out of the lineup (Dulan, Tonga and Fuga intend to serve missions within the next year or two). The defensive backfield managed to stay pretty healthy throughout the season, until the Utah game, and their coverage was drastically improved from the previous seasons. Much of the credit has to go to new defensive backfield coach Jaime Hill.

3. Manage the Schedule Effectively.

Shame on the MWC for allowing TCU a 12-day prep time for its conference home opener against BYU, while the Cougars have fewer than five days to prepare for the Horned Frogs on the road. Road games don’t come tougher than that. Mendenhall 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 versus Air Force on Oct. 28 and Colorado State on Nov. 4. There are also two stretches where the battle weary and wounded Cougars can heal: They’ll have two weeks off after the Oct. 7 home game vs. SDSU and a nine-day break following a Nov. 9 home game versus Wyoming. One non-conference game that must not be underestimated is the Sept. 9 home opener against a wily Tulsa team that is sandwiched between the Arizona and B.C. road contests.

Commentary: Quick–name one national college football analyst who picked the Cougars to beat TCU on the road with just four days off last September. Was there really anyone so bold? Mendenhall and his staff managed the most dangerous twist in the schedule in Fort Worth with flying colors and BYU was off to the races for the remainder of the season.

4. 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 Web site 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.

Commentary: The Cougars’ special teams play improved tremendously from recent years. Opponents failed to score on kickoff or punt returns in 2006, while McKay Jacobson registered a 77-yard TD punt return and Nate Meikle ripped off an 84-yard kickoff return that replays later showed should have been ruled a touchdown. BYU blocked one punt and had one blocked. There were no field goals blocked on either side of the ball. Jared McLaughlin was 14 for 18 in field goal attempts. Two of those misses came in the overtime loss to Boston College on the road. In that game he connected on a 50-yarder, a 45-yarder and a 25-yard FG, while missing on tries from 44 and 49 yards. The Cougars forced 28 turnovers and ended up plus-14 in that all-important category.

5. 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 against Arizona and Boston College could make for a very giddy Cougar Nation, but if that happens, BYU needs to make sure it doesn’t have any letdowns in the games it’s expected to win. All too often in the Gary 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.

Commentary: Dead on. The Cougars won all the games they were expected to win, and then they took care of the most difficult conference business by defeating both TCU and Utah on the road. They ended up 10-2 and won the MWC championship outright with an undefeated record in conference play. They ended up just a couple or three plays shy of an undefeated regular season; and had that happened, they would have played in the Fiesta Bowl instead of Boise State.