"Our coaching staff has stepped up the urgency," said a candid Brandon Doman, the Cougars' offensive coordinator. "It's totally different than what we've done in the past. Hopefully, that will transfer onto the field. It's in the strength room, in the nutrition, in the way we prehab and rehab, in the way we take care of ourselves after practices, in coaching execution, in the amount of individual time we spent at NFL camps this year.
"We realized that football needed to improve here. Looking at last year, we've been able to simplify and increase volume and identify who we are. We didn't have an identity last year. That's hard on a group of guys, so we've worked hard as a staff this year. It's been an exhausting process, but I'm having a great time. I feel different than I did last year. The preparation is significantly better, we've worked harder, we've spent a lot of time preparing."
Better late than never.
Another adjustment the Cougars have made is dialing in on every practice and every game, as opposed to setting big-picture goals.
"We've done that in the past and it's hurt us," Doman said.
2 • Will Brian Johnson smooth straight into his duties as Utah's offensive coordinator?
Think back. What were you doing when you were 25? Burping and scratching, being an idiot and waking up with a lampshade on your head? Well, Johnson is running a Pac-12 offense. And, so far, he's doing it with the same cool and calm that characterized his play as a senior quarterback in the Utes' undefeated 2008 season. "It's good, it's good," he said after a scrimmage during preseason practices. "It's coming along real good."
On the other hand, there hasn't yet been a live snap in any action that counted.
Johnson appears comfortable with the back-to-the-future spread offense he's installed and his players seem pumped to execute it. He wants to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers as efficiently as possible, much the way he did when he delivered spirals around the field in '08.
A lot of observers wonder whether it will take a season for Johnson to get his mind fully around his responsibilities, but a study of the way he understood and executed the spread as a player gives solid hints that he already gets it. In Utah's win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and throughout the season leading up to it, Johnson often called or adjusted the plays, and did so deftly. Now, he has to control the offensive flow from the booth, inspiring others to do what he did.
As for his leadership qualities, Johnson has always been notably mature and advanced in that regard. And he'll have to be. As offensive coordinator, it's not just what he knows that counts, it's the way he is. And while there may be a few rough spots in his first go-round, he's got that last part nailed.
3 • Is Riley Nelson ready in his senior year to lead the Cougars to an extraordinary season?
That's what a lot of senior quarterbacks have done in the BYU tradition, but Nelson is outside the ordinary. He doesn't have the complete experience and he does not possess the arm of many of his predecessors, either in strength or accuracy. If the Cougars find themselves in a tough situation against a strong opponent, say Utah or Notre Dame, is Nelson's set of skills, his pluck and mobility, along with his compromised arm, enough to boost BYU to victory?
Doubts still linger. We'll all believe it if we see it.
4 • Can Jordan Wynn stay healthy?
Nobody, not even Wynn, knows. He's like china in a bull shop. He's messed up his right shoulder and his left shoulder. He's had a tired arm, at one point, in fall camp. His last two seasons ended in injury, last year putting the Utes in an offensive hole from which they never really climbed out.
Kyle Whittingham knows and has repeatedly said Wynn's ability to go is paramount: "It's a big, big deal. We've got to keep him healthy. His body is maxed out at 210 pounds. He's got a good record as a [starter]. If we can be more prolific on offense and not be so one-dimensional, we'll be a lot better off."
To keep Wynn healthy, Utah's offensive line will have to come together, the primary Ute concern being the replacement of tackles Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. Only games played will reveal whether it's been properly addressed.
5 • Will Chuckie Keeton be the best college quarterback in the state?
First, it has to be determined whether the sophomore is the best quarterback at Utah State. He and Adam Kennedy have repeatedly beaten each other over the head with socket wrenches in fall camp. Gary Andersen said both Keeton and Kennedy will play some. But Keeton is the right QB to run the Aggies' new offense, which Andersen wants to be explosive, balanced and efficient.
Last season, USU was more about pounding the ball and bubble screens. Now, the ball will find its way all over creation. "An area where we've improved," Andersen said, "is in pass protection. We're a lot better there."
So, there's that.
"Our offense will be strong," said Keeton. "It's going to be good, high tempo and with big weapons. We'll make big plays. My confidence level is better than it was last year. It's completely different."
If Keeton stays on the field, the Chuckster will have a huge year.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.