Philadelphia, PA – 2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: For the first time since 2006, BYU opened a season with a loss last year, bowing to Virginia by a score of 19-16.
But before the Cougars could start considering their misstep as a damaging move, they had to remember that seven years earlier they were 1-2 after three games and ended up 11-2 after defeating Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl.
However, back in 2006 BYU was a member of the Mountain West Conference, which meant the competition generally played below the level of the Cougars. As is the case this year, the Cougars were an Independent in 2013 which provided a mixed bag of foes, from nationally-ranked teams (Texas and Wisconsin) to a Football Championship Subdivision program in Idaho State.
With a setback to instate rival Utah (20-13), following what at the time was a stunning win against the Texas Longhorns at home (40-21), the Cougars were just 1-2 after three games, but this time around there was no lengthy winning streak awaiting them to close out the campaign. The team did manage to string together five consecutive victories against the likes of Middle Tennessee, Utah State, Georgia Tech, Houston and Boise State, games in which they scored at least 31 points, but the run came to an end in November.
The Cougars had plenty of time to prepare for the trip to Madison, Wisconsin, but even so the squad still came up short in a 27-17 decision. A dominating performance versus Idaho State a week later (59-13) did little to convince people that BYU was back on track before only a short time later Notre Dame took down the Cougars in South Bend, 23-13.
A 28-23 win against Nevada in Reno to close out the regular season gave the Cougars an 8-4 record and an opportunity to take part in the Fight Hunger Bowl versus Washington in late December. Unfortunately, the Cougars were not up to the task and bowed to the Huskies by a score of 31-16.
OFFENSE: Reprising his role as the field leader for the BYU offense, quarterback Taysom Hill is generating quite a bit of excitement in Provo these days following his exploits last season. Hill, who most recently had his name added to the Manning Award Watch List, to go along with his inclusion on the Heisman Trophy, the Walter Camp Award, the Maxwell Award, and Davey O���Brien Award Watch Lists, was simply electric for the Cougars as a junior, recalling the dominant play of former Heisman Trophy winner, Ty Detmer.
Hill managed to throw for 2,938 yards and 19 touchdowns, completing 53.9 percent of his pass attempts, but unlike Detmer, Hill also used his legs to contribute heavily to the BYU offense. A starter in all 13 games, Hill led the Cougars in rushing with 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns, although he was often putting himself in harm's way with all of the additional hits he was taking down the field.
Available to take some of the pressure off Hill coming out of the backfield is running back Jamaal Williams, a candidate for the 2014 Doak Walker Award. Williams ran for 1,233 yards and seven TDs on 217 carries a year ago and now only needs 1,447 yards to become the all-time leading rusher for BYU, although that sounds like a taller order given how much Hill plans on controlling the action himself.
Ross Apo, Kurt Henderson and Mitch Mathews are all receivers who bring some level of starting experience to the offense moving forward, while Michael Davis, a former defensive back, is someone the Cougars are hoping to turn into a wideout in order to give Hill even more options.
DEFENSE: The Cougars generally have a solid defense, a group of hard hitters that aren't afraid to get physical, but the team may have lost some of that identity when Kyle Van Noy left to join the NFL. Third on the team in total tackles with 70, Van Noy was the heart and soul of the defense for a number of years. Always around the ball, Van Noy had more than twice as many tackles for loss (17.5) and was tied for the team lead with four sacks. Of the 26 quarterback hurries registered by BYU, 14 came from Van Noy.
Another critical loss on this side of the ball is Uani Unga, who was one of the most dominating tacklers in the country last year with a massive 143 stops.
Hoping to make the transition as smooth as possible moving forward, defensive backs Craig Bills and Robertson Daniel are assuming some leadership positions in the secondary. Bills, who appeared and started in 12 games last season, was second on the team in tackles with 79 and also tied for the team lead with a couple of forced fumbles, while Daniel was the fourth-leading tackler (66) and matched Bills with those two forced fumbles.
Linebackers Bronson Kaufusi and Alani Fua will have trouble making fans forget about Van Noy, but hopefully they can elevate their efforts in the middle of the field in order to strike just as much fear into opponents.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A huge piece of the puzzle last season, kicker Justin Sorensen was responsible for 108 points, thanks to an impressive 21-of-26 effort on field goals. But while Sorensen was knocking through almost everything set in front of him, that also meant the offense for the Cougars was being stumped a few too many times.
While it is always a positive to have someone like Sorensen ready to complete tasks, the Cougars now have to deal with replacing him. Early depth charts show sophomore Moose Bingham, a member of the scout team last season, as his replacement.
Senior Scott Arellano has the punting responsibilities locked up yet again. Last season, Arellano averaged 41.0 yards per kick and had a total of 13 stretch beyond 50 yards, but at the same time he had three blocked, clearly an area that needs to be addressed.
OUTLOOK: If fall practice was any indication of how the Cougars plan on attacking opponents, those foes had better be ready for a rough season.
"We have more balls going downfield maybe in the first practice today than I had seen maybe all spring," head coach Broncos Mendenhall said. "More weapons, more depth, more athleticism, more speed, more ball skills. Now add the consistency, the diligence, the character and the maturity to handle the BYU workload to go with it. In terms of the athletic ability - that's certainly there."
The Cougars will be put to the test right out of the gate this season as they travel across the country to challenge UConn on Aug. 29, and just eight days later will be hitting up the Longhorns once more, this time in enemy territory. The squad does enjoy three straight home dates (Houston, Virginia and Utah State) after that, but has to be careful with trips to Boise State and California in the second half of the season.