Last year, while programs throughout the country jockeyed for position to either remain or gain residence into certain conferences, BYU decided to take the exact opposite route: They left the Mountain West, which still seemed rather solid and semi-formidable at the time, to attempt to become the Notre Dame of the West. They took the natural leap in their long-standing independent streak and actually went independent.
It wasn't hard to see the logic in the move, ambitious as it was (and still is). With their LDS ties and discipline, they offer something that most schools do not. With their history (national titles, Heisman trophies, etc.), they have always seemed like something more than simply a mid-major squad. And with their facilities and camera equipment, they bring a major-conference aura to everything they do.
None of this guarantees success, however. Recruiting didn't automatically pick up with the move -- according to Rivals, the Cougars pulled in the No. 62 class in the country in 2011, No. 61 in 2012 (sending a few more players to the draft wouldn't be a bad idea when it comes to improving this number) -- and their visibility eroded considerably after their first three games: a one-point win over Ole Miss, a one-point loss to Texas and a jarring, 44-point loss to Utah. Pressure appeared to take its toll on the BYU players during a slow start, but the Cougars righted the ship. There was no undefeated season or recruiting surge, but BYU did celebrate its fifth season of double-digit wins in six years and improve from 55th to 37th in the F/+ rankings despite losing its blue-chip "quarterback of the future."
Where BYU's independence goes in the future, we have no idea. They could avoid joining a conference ever again, they could end up in the Big 12 in about 2013-14, or they could end up in the Big East in 2015. But if nothing else, Year One of independence did not treat the Cougars too poorly. In Year 2, the schedule ups the ante a bit.
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. … Now they just have to win some of these games. […]
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.
In 2010, BYU was hampered by a slow start.
First Five Games of 2010: Opponents 30.4 Adj. PPG, BYU 20.3 (minus-10.1)
Last Eight Games of 2010: BYU 27.9 Adj. PPG, Opponents 16.3 (plus-11.6)
In terms of real results, the Cougars started the season 2-5, then rallied to finish 7-6. The 2011 season saw a similar, albeit less extreme, narrative.
First Five Games of 2011: Opponents 26.5 Adj. PPG, BYU 25.1 (minus-1.4)
Last Eight Games of 2011: BYU 29.9 Adj. PPG, Opponents 25.9 (plus-4.0)
Former blue-chip quarterback Jake Heaps struggled to get rolling last fall, completing just 54 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and five picks in the first five games; Riley Nelson came off the bench and saved the Cougars in Game 5 against Utah State, and aside from when he missed time in November with injury, he never relinquished the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. BYU went 6-1 in games Nelson started, with only a respectable loss to TCU marring the perfect record, and capped a solid campaign with a 24-21 comeback win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.
BYU's 2012 season could be defined by whether the Cougars are able to figure out how to cure their five-game doldrums. Among their first five games this fall are a visit from Washington State (in Mike Leach's debut as Wazzu head coach) and trips to Utah and Boise State.
It took a little while, but in the same year that a famous BYU quarterback gets inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the Cougars' quarterback situation seems to be settled and happy. In 2010, true freshman Jake Heaps replaced Riley Nelson atop the depth chart; in 2011, Nelson did the same to Heaps. With Nelson's solid play (which won him some converts) and Heaps' transfer to Kansas, things are beginning to take shape as they did in 2006, when two seniors (John Beck and Jason Beck) filled out the depth chart and an exciting freshman (Max Hall) spent the season waiting his turn. Nelson and longtime backup James Lark are Nos. 1-2 this year, and a pair of exciting freshmen -- one-time Stanford recruit Taysom Hill and four-star signee Tanner Mangum -- wait their turn. (Evidently Mangum is likely to begin his Mormon mission this summer, so he will be waiting a little longer. The job is Hill's in 2013 if he is up for the challenge.)
For the season as a whole, BYU's offense was amazingly average. They ran when you are supposed to run, passed when you are supposed to pass, played at around the same level versus good and bad defenses, and ranked 53rd in Rushing S&P+ and 53rd in Passing S&P+. Those numbers did improve a bit with Nelson behind center, but in general BYU lacked the big-play ability requisite for ending up with a Top 20-30 offense.
That likely won't change in 2012, with a similar cast of characters filling primary roles. Three of last year's top four running backs return (gone: J.J. Di Luigi), as do three of the top four wideouts (gone: McKay Jacobson) and the top four tight ends. Unless a newcomer to the two-deep, like receiver Mitch Mathews or running back Iona Pritchard, can add a big-play presence (and since both of them are rather large, they probably won't), BYU is going to remain what they were last season: a rather efficient offense that has to sustain drives to score.
We should take a moment to celebrate the best big-play threat on the offense, by the way: junior receiver Cody Hoffman led BYU's primary targets with a 66.3 percent catch rate and a per catch average of 15.5 yards. Once a middling recruit (Rivals gave him a low two-star rating), Hoffman will once again serve as Nelson's rock this year, just as he will for either Hill or Mangum next fall. He needs some help, but he is fantastic.
It is difficult to know what to make of the offensive line. The Cougars ranked just 61st in Adj. Line Yards and 34th in Adj. Sack Rate and must replace a three-year starter in center Terence Brown and a four-year starter (and bowl game hero) in tackle Matt Reynolds. Still, multi-year starters Braden Hansen (guard) and Braden Brown (tackle) return, and a batch of interesting sophomores (none more interesting than four-star tackle Ryker Mathews) could make sure the Cougars do not regress in this area.
BYU has developed a personality through the years. The explosive offensive identity it built as an early spread innovator has faded a bit (it's amazing to remember that Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer all piloted the BYU offense over the course of a single decade), but they have crafted a defensive identity, good and bad, in its place. The Cougars are going to run a 3-4 defense with huge linemen and stout run defense, and they are going to struggle with athleticism in the secondary. Strong safety Andrew Rich was a wonderful asset for them in 2010, playing the "safety valve" role beautifully and assisting in BYU's No. 12 Passing S&P+ ranking. Without him, BYU's ranking sagged to 64th, but it wasn't all the secondary's fault. While the line was wonderful against the run (16th in Adj. Line Yards, 18th in Rushing S&P+), the pass rush was nonexistent (107th in Adj. Sack Rate). Big end Eathyn Manumaleuna and bigger tackle Romney Fuga stood up to run blocking and cleared tackling lanes for linebackers, but they somehow combined for just 2.0 tackles for loss. In fact, only one lineman had more than 3.0: since-departed end Hebron Fangupo. A 3-4 line isn't tasked with serious playmaking -- that's for the linebackers -- but you have to make some plays, even if just accidentally.
Manumaleuna and Fuga, the leading tacklers on the line, both return for their senior seasons in 2012, but the depth up front has taken a hit. The Nos. 3-7 tacklers on the line have all departed Provo. There is a bit of a boost on the way, with both end Ian Dulan and tackle Russell Tialavea each returning to the rotation after two-year missions (Dulan had 4.0 tackles for loss in 2008), but this year's line will be tasked with both maintaining its run-defending form and improving what was truly a dreadful pass rush. And if they succeed on both counts, it might be because of a man named Ziggy. Ziggy Ansah, a walk-on and former track team member, came out of nowhere this spring. His is a fascinating story -- native of Ghana, didn't understand English very well, took to football very late, but just kept showing up and eventually began to get it -- and he showed some serious potential this spring.
Though head coach Bronco Mendenhall promises a more athletic, well-conditioned secondary this year, the Cougars might not have to improve much in this regard if the pass rush improves. Safeties Daniel Sorensen and Joe Sampson return; Sampson was a backup who, strangely, logged 5.0 tackles for loss among his 19.5 tackles last year. Sampson's aggressive presence could work well with similarly aggressive cornerback Preston Hadley (2.5 tackles, 14 passes broken up).
The linebackers were the strength of the BYU defense in 2011, and that should be the case again this fall. Kyle Van Noy is easily the team's best playmaker -- his 15.0 tackles for loss were more than the top six linemen combined, and he also defended six passes. He is a missile from the weakside, and he is one of four returning starters. With the returning personnel, it is rather easy to assume BYU will once again field a Top 20 run defense; the question is whether the pass defense will hold them back again.
Even if BYU improves over last year's full-season form, returning to double-digit wins might be tricky. The Cougars face road trips to Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, along with potentially tricky home games versus Washington State, Utah State and Oregon State. Because of the road slate alone, an 8-4 record should potentially be considered a solid success. BYU fans might disagree with that notion.
Over the last six seasons, Bronco Mendenhall's Cougars have gone 60-18 and finished ranked in the AP polls four times. After a short drought (BYU went just 20-27 from 2002-05), he has reestablished BYU's credentials as a solid player in college football. With 29 seniors and no quarterback controversy, BYU could be a threat to field a Top 25 team this fall, even if their record doesn't end up reflecting that.
The future is, for better or worse, undefined for the BYU Cougars. As we attempt to reflect on how independence might continue to work out for them, they might just turn around and join a conference in the next year or two. Assuming for the moment that they don't, however, we know that the 2013 squad will experience serious turnover, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but the overall trajectory of the program should remain solid, at least as long as the marquee matchups continue (and as along as they win some of them). Independence might not lead to national titles and recruiting riches, but it should continue to treat BYU relatively well.
For more on Cougars football, visit BYU blog Vanquish The Foe.
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