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Provo • With an experienced quarterback in Riley Nelson, a couple dozen fellow seniors around him and returning starters at virtually every position, the BYU Cougars should be better in 2012 than last year, when they capped off their first year of independence with a 10-3 record and a 24-21 win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Ironically, a better football team might not translate into a better record, because the Cougars' schedule while going it alone in year two is more difficult, especially on the road. To match last year's mark of nine regular-season wins, BYU must win all six of its home games — not an insurmountable task — both the road games it will be favored to win (New Mexico State and San Jose State) and at least one road game where it will be a decided underdog: at Utah, at Boise State, at Notre Dame or at Georgia Tech.

"We have to be hitting on all cylinders right out of the gate, because our early schedule demands it," Nelson said. "We've emphasized that all offseason: We can't afford another slow start."

Complicating matters for the Cougars is the fact that their road games are bunched together in packages of two: They play Boise State just five days after playing at Utah; they make long trips to Indiana (Notre Dame) and Atlanta (Georgia Tech) in successive weeks in the middle of October, and they wrap up November with a trip to the Bay Area (San Jose State) followed by a trip to Las Cruces (New Mexico State).

If the Cougars win six games or more and become bowl eligible, they will play in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Thursday, Dec. 20, against an opponent from the Mountain West Conference. In all likelihood, that will be San Diego State.

Bronco Mendenhall said this is the deepest, "possibly" most talented BYU team in his eight-year tenure as head coach, and the program went to extra lengths in the offseason to ensure players will be ready by stressing conditioning work and fitness more than ever before.

"We will have to play, but I think so," Mendenhall said. "One of the biggest [places] where it is showing is special teams. There are very few walk-on players on our special teams. Usually, they were the heart of it, based on how hard they were trying. ... Now, our scholarship players and our best players want to do it. I just noticed, maybe for the first time, that our two-deep guys are [on special teams]. It is hard to get on it. Man, I think that will help us."

If there is a major concern for the Cougars, aside from a rugged September-October schedule that will get even more difficult in 2013, it is that kicker Justin Sorensen has a bad back. His status for the opener Thursday against Washington State is uncertain, although he started to kick for the first time last Tuesday. Punter Riley Stephenson or backup quarterback Taysom Hill, a kicker in high school, could be pressed into action.

Mendenhall said that's about the only issue keeping him awake at night.

"In terms of my biggest concern, that's probably it," he said.

BYU schedule

Date Opponent Location Kickoff TV

Aug. 30 Washington State Provo 8:15 p.m. ESPN New WSU coach Mike Leach makes long-awaited return to Provo

Sept. 8 Weber State Provo 1 p.m. BYUtv In-state foes have not met since 1979, a 48-3 BYU win in Provo

Sept. 15 at Utah SLC 8 p.m. ESPN2 Cougars out for revenge in last BYU-Utah meeting in SLC until 2016

Sept. 20 at Boise State Boise 7 p.m. ESPN Thursday night special for ESPN comes five days after rivalry game

Sept. 28 Hawaii Provo 6 p.m. ESPN Norm Chow brings his Warriors to Provo, where Hawaii is 0-9 all-time

Oct. 5 Utah State Provo 8:15 p.m. ESPN Aggies return to the scene of their epic meltdown and Riley Nelson's rise

Oct. 13 Oregon State Provo TBA TBA Series is tied 5-5 after Cougars walloped Beavers last year in Corvallis

Oct. 20 at Notre Dame South Bend 1:30 p.m. NBC First of six scheduled meetings between the independents in next 10 years

Oct. 27 at Georgia Tech Atlanta TBA TBA A week after lengthy trip to Indiana, Cougars must make a longer trip to East Coast

Nov. 10 Idaho Provo TBA TBA Vandals are going independent, too, and will make trip to Provo for second straight year

Nov. 17 at San Jose State San Jose 2 p.m. TBA Spartans played Cougars tough in Provo last year, could surprise at home

Nov. 24 at New Mexico St. Las Cruces 1:30 p.m. Altitude

This will be BYU's first-ever trip to the home of the "other" Aggies

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