2011 Season Preview: Independence, Improvement And The BYU Cougars

BYU has always had an obvious independent streak. In 2011, they commit fully to their independence, striking out on their own with a series of tough, high-visibility road games. They unquestionably improved later in 2010; can they sustain that momentum in trips to Oxford, Austin, Corvallis and Dallas?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

I've been to Las Vegas just once, in March 2007, for (what else?) a bachelor party. Because I'm me, and because I have at least one like-minded friend, I spent a couple of hours of that trip at the Thomas & Mack Center, watching Wyoming and Brigham Young University play in the Mountain West Tournament. Who needs another night at the club atop the Rio, or dollar Michelobs at Casino Royale, when you can go watch two basketball teams, to which you have no allegiance, play in an arena that was hopping 20 years earlier?

Anyway, BYU won (they always do), and as we left the arena, we saw a cute, young couple decked in brown and yellow (Wyoming's gruesome school colors). The cute girl turned to her boyfriend and said, with plaintive sadness, "I hate those motherf*****s."

This year, there is no more reason for cute girls from Laramie to hate their overlords to the West (at least, not for any reason other than pure principle). BYU, always an outsider even while mostly dominating their conference foes, first in the WAC, then in the Mountain West, has made themselves official outsiders. While everyone else has been plotting out ways to end up with the "haves" in a BCS conference when the Armageddon of conference realignment truly does come down (last summer was just a tease), the Cougars decided they had had enough of conference life (in football, at least). In the absence of a playoff that requires conference membership (and in the absence of the oft-rumored Big 12 invite), BYU decided independence was the way to go.

One has to think the initial fallout has been exactly what BYU hoped for: after years ruled by an egregiously bad Mountain West TV schedule, the Cougars will have their first five games of this season televised by either ESPN or ESPN2, with two more games picked up by The WWL later on. They head to Oxford to take on Ole Miss, then Austin to take on Texas. They jump on up to Corvallis to face Oregon State in mid-October, then butt heads with TCU at Jerry World two weeks later. Throw in home games against Utah and Central Florida, and you've got an incredibly interesting, exhausting schedule, complete with quite a few national television appearances.

Now they just have to win some of these games.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 53
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Washington 23-17 W 25.9 - 27.8 L
11-Sep at Air Force 14-35 L 27.7 - 31.0 L
18-Sep at Florida State 10-34 L 15.1 - 32.7 L
25-Sep Nevada 13-27 L 19.7 - 23.2 L
1-Oct at Utah State 16-31 L 13.0 - 37.2 L
9-Oct San Diego State 24-21 W 33.1 - 26.3 W
16-Oct at TCU 3-31 L 20.3 - 19.1 W
23-Oct Wyoming 25-20 W 21.9 - 11.5 W
6-Nov UNLV 55-7 W 27.1 - (-5.0) W
13-Nov at Colorado State 49-10 W 35.3 - 26.7 W
20-Nov New Mexico 40-7 W 31.6 - 26.2 W
27-Nov at Utah 16-17 L 19.0 - 7.5 W
18-Dec vs UTEP 52-24 W 34.5 - 17.6 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.2 70 21.6 32
Adj. Points Per Game 24.9 80 21.7 25

It rarely goes as you would expect it to. In your head, the rebuilding process means you throw some young guys into the fire, and after getting overwhelmed for a little while, suddenly the switch gets flipped, and they're as good as you hoped they would be. It is not usually that clean and linear.

Nobody told that to BYU. The Cougars had to replace quarterback Max Hall, running back Harvey Unga and go-to tight end Dennis Pitta and faced crafting an entirely new identity in 2010. After splitting time with Riley Nelson early on, true freshman quarterback (and blue-chip recruit) Jake Heaps took over when Nelson got hurt in the third game. Freshman receiver Ross Apo was injured after one game and replaced by fellow freshman Cody Hoffman. Youth reigned at the skill positions, and, predictably, things went very, very poorly early on. The Cougars crept by Washington, then lost four in a row; the time is never right for a 1-4 start, but when you're striking out on your own, leaving your conference and attempting to woo some TV dollars, the timing of this 1-4 (and then 2-5) start was particularly poor.

The timing of BYU's five-of-six win streak to end the season, then? Like a Roger Federer forehand. Or a James Jamerson bass line. One day, BYU simply stopped being a bad team and started being a good one. They fired their defensive coordinator (a rushed, freaked-out move to me considering how good the defense had been in 2009 ... but it evidently worked), sneaked by San Diego State with help from some dubious officiating, took their medicine from an untouchable TCU squad, got by Wyoming, then took off. And it resulted in what was really two or three seasons in one.

First Five Games: Opponents 30.4 Adj. PPG, BYU 20.3 (-10.1)
Next Four Games: BYU 25.6 Adj. PPG, Opopnents 13.0 (+12.6)
Last Four Games: BYU 30.1 Adj. PPG, Opponents 19.5 (+10.6)

For the season, a minus-10.1 Adj. Scoring Margin like what they managed in the first five games would have placed BYU 101st in the country. On the other hand, the plus-11.6 margin of the last eight games would have ranked them 18th. One day, they were a bad football team; the next, they were good.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 84 73 85
RUSHING 70 60 78 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 86 82 85 55
Standard Downs 83 70 83 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 76 72 75 30
Redzone 82 80 80
Q1 Rk 82 1st Down Rk 82
Q2 Rk 64 2nd Down Rk 86
Q3 Rk 84 3rd Down Rk 43
Q4 Rk 73

Jake Heaps (2,316 yards, 6.0 per pass, 57% completion rate, 15 TD, 9 INT) threw just two passes against Air Force; removing that game from the equation, he played an even 12 games.

Jake Heaps, First Four Games: 93.8 Avg. QB Rating
Jake Heaps, Next Four Games: 107.2 Avg. QB Rating
Jake Heaps, Final Four Games: 166.6 Avg. QB Rating

Opposing defenses got much worse as the season progressed, which accounts for some of the astounding improvement, but not all of it. Heaps took his lumps, then began to look like the blue-chipper he was supposed to become. The emergence of freshman receiver Cody Hoffman (527 yards, 12.5 per catch, 58% catch rate) didn't hurt.

Cody Hoffman, First Five Games: 13 catches, 142 yards, 1 TD
Cody Hoffman, Next Four Games: 8 catches, 56 yards
Cody Hoffman, Last Five Games: 21 catches, 329 yards, 6 TD

Hoffman caught eight passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns in the New Mexico Bowl versus UTEP, and while I'm the first person to typically tut-tut bowl output, it did nicely punctuate what had been a strong surge for him through November and December.

Looking at the improvement that took place over the season, and seeing that four of Heaps top five targets return, it becomes quite easy to get starry-eyed about BYU's potential in 2011. Hoffman, McKay Jacobson (410 yards, 11.1 per catch, 58% catch rate), Marcus Mathews (136 yards, 17.0 per catch, 42% catch rate) and tight end Devin Mahina (118 yards, 10.7 per catch, 69% catch rate) form an interesting, if less-than-explosive, unit, though either Mathews or now-redshirt freshman Ross Apo will need to become the big-play threat the Cougars really didn't have last fall.

One thing is certain: the BYU offensive line is going to be outstanding. They were well-rounded a year ago and particularly good in pass protection, and they return a whopping 119 career starts. All-conference left tackle Matt Reynolds leads the way, but guard Braden Hansen, center Terence Brown and tackle Braden Brown all have at least 26 career starts. A blue-chip quarterback's development typically goes a lot better when he's not spending a lot of time getting knocked to the ground, and Heaps has a significant asset in this line.

Other tidbits:

  • Wonderfully-named running back J.J. Di Luigi (917 yards, 5.2 per carry, +0.4 Adj. POE, 8 touchdowns; 443 receiving yards, 1 TD) had a solid season in replacing Unga last year. He was decent on the ground, but his value came in his versatility. He had a catch rate of 66% out of the backfield and averaged 34 yards per game through the air. Heaps used his checkdowns well, and Di Luigi benefited from it. Joshua Quezada (505 yards, +2.2 Adj. POE) and Bryan Kariya (537 yards, -7.2 Adj. POE) return in the backfield as well.
  • BYU wants to play at a fast pace, but they didn't do their defense any favors early in the season by simply failing quickly. It probably is not a coincidence that when the offense's efficiency finally perked up in October and November, their defensive performance stabilized quickly. In all, with ten offensive starters returning this fall, the pace should be beneficial. I'm not sure this offense reaches the steady peak they saw during the Max Hall years, at least not at first, but this will be a good unit.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 25 20 27
RUSHING 33 48 33 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 12 11 12 13
Standard Downs 43 39 48 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 10 16 7 45
Redzone 27 27 29
Q1 Rk 10 1st Down Rk 51
Q2 Rk 52 2nd Down Rk 5
Q3 Rk 23 3rd Down Rk 22
Q4 Rk 53

As with the offense, BYU's biggest defensive strength came up front. Not only did they stand up to the run rather well, but they psyched opponents into passing a bit more than normal ... which played right into the hands of a solid secondary. BYU has a huge line, even for a 3-4, and it served them well in 2010.

Despite the loss of an all-conference performer in end Vic So'oto (31.5 tackles, 11.5 TFL/sacks), the line should be a strength again. Big end Eathyn Manumaleuna (6-foot-2, 295; 18.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) returns, and tackle Matt Putnam (23.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 7 PBU) moves to the outside to clear the way for Romney Fuga (9.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks in just four games before a torn ACL) and USC transfer Hebron Fanguapo in the middle. In So'oto, BYU loses a star, but in Fuga, they regain one.

Though the line was an absolute strength, the linebackers held BYU back a bit, which is not good in a 3-4. Despite solid line stats, BYU's run defense was not particularly efficient, and the unit ranks in the middle of the road overall. They did a decent job of filtering plays to tackling machines Shane Hunter (62.0 tackles) and safety Andrew Rich (86.5), but they could probably stand to make a few more big plays. Hunter and Jadon Wagner (27.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks) are gone, but six decent options return. Jordan Pendleton's return from injury (27.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks in just six games) sould help, and it's worth watching the development of Kyle Van Noy (29.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 PBU), who put together solid stats for a freshman. If healthy, the unit should be pretty solid and experienced, and considering the defense was decent despite the linebackers last year, this is an encouraging sign.

Other tidbits:

  • BYU was one of the best in the country at preventing big plays on defense, which clearly speaks well of both the aforementioned "tackling machine" positions and the safeties as a whole. Rich (86.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 3 FF, 8 PBU) was both an incredible safety valve and BYU's best playmaker, but he's gone. Free safety Travis Uale (32.5 tackles) returns, but with quite a few redshirt freshmen littering the depth chart here, don't be surprised if the Cougars' efficiency stays the same, but the rate at which they give up big plays increases. Two of three primary cornerbacks also depart, with little Corby Eason (5-foot-8, 172 pounds; 21.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 3 PBU) serving as both the most experienced cornerback and a stick of dynamite.
  • When head coach Bronco Mendenhall fired Jamie Hill five games into the season, he promoted ... himself. Mendenhall was his own D.C. when he first took the BYU job, but he handed the reins to Hill in 2008, then took them back in October. The improvement was both immediate and measurable. As mentioned above, BYU went from allowing 30.4 Adj. PPG in the first five games, to 16.3 in the final eight. Mendenhall seemed to have his defense motivated and well-prepared -- BYU's defense was fantastic in the first and third quarters, then faded a bit as a given half progressed. We'll see if the energy boost he provided can last for an entire season this fall (if not, then I've got to say I'm impressed with the job defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi has done ... he gets my nonexistent vote).

BYU's 2010 Season Set to Music

Because BYU unquestionably got much better later in the season...

"Better by the Pound," by Funkadelic
"Better Dead Than Lead," by Ted Leo / Pharmacists
"Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul," by Charles Mingus
"Better Living Through Chemistry," by Queens Of The Stone Age
"A Better Son-Daughter," by Rilo Kiley
"Better Than Ever," by Kristin Mooney
"Better Than The Sun," by Chris Robinson
"Better Version of Me," by Fiona Apple
"Better Way," by Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
"I Feel Better," by Frightened Rabbit

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 35
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 59
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +1 / +4.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (10, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -1.3

It's worth repeating: BYU played like a Top 25 team over the final two months of the season, and a lot of the reasons why -- good offensive line, potentially great defensive line, quarterback who gets his bearings, skill positions with improving depth -- will remain reasons for optimism in 2011. If they weren't suddenly shaky at the safety position, I'd absolutely think of them as a Top 25 team heading into this fall. BYU is suddenly shaky at safety, though one has to wonder if the early opponents on their schedule can take advantage. Ole Miss and Texas were not exactly known for their passing proficiency (or even their offensive proficiency) last year.

With no conference title to chase, it's easy to begin looking at BYU with the long-focus lens. Heaps, Hoffman and company are super young, and the Cougars have access to a seemingly unlimited supply of quality linemen. That alone is a nice base of talent, though seeing their recruiting rankings above, one quickly comes to understand that the overall base of talent might still need a little work. Enter new recruiting coordinator (and running backs coach) Joe DuPaix, who appears to potentially be looking to expand BYU's recruiting base beyond its LDS framework. In theory, this makes sense -- it's not like Notre Dame recruits only Catholics -- but we'll see how things take shape in practice. BYU is aiming incredibly high with their move to independence, and a nice season in 2011 could mean good things when combined with extra visibility. I see eight wins as the Cougars' baseline, though the ceiling gets raised quite a bit if they win a couple of their early, high-visibility matchups before settling in against WAC opponents late. The future could be bright for BYU, but the present has a chance to be pretty good as well.

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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