That's the most-asked question around Provo these days as the independent, 5-4 Cougars prepare for their final three regular-season games with not much left for which to play. BYU, which needs just one more win to get bowl eligible, plays host to 1-8 Idaho and its 112th-ranked offense, on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
"I haven't coached [a defense] like this yet," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, in his eighth year.
Actually, the 2007 BYU defense, coached by Mendenhall and coordinated by Jaime Hill, comes close statistically. While the current defense is ranked No. 4 in the country and allowing just 263.5 yards per game, the 2007 iteration led on the field by current outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga finished the season ranked 10th and gave up only 307.9 ypg.
"I think we are going to have to wait until the season is over [to say for sure]," Poppinga said. "That's what I tell my players every day … the book will be written at the end of the season for this defense."
Heading into three of the easier games on the schedule with the possible exception of a Nov. 17 test at 7-2 San Jose State the defense has a goal of moving into the top three in the nation in total defense, and perhaps to No. 1, according to its emotional leader, outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
"We are not satisfied with where we are at, by any means," Van Noy said. "We watch everybody play around the country. We look at stats and we want to be just as good, if not better, than the No. 1 team. It is a balance of [excellent talent, scheme and coaching], and we have it."
Florida State currently leads the nation in total defense, allowing just 227.11 yards per game. Catching the Seminoles seems unrealistic, but Mendenhall said anything is possible from a group that includes playmakers Van Noy and left end Ezekiel Ansah, tackling machines Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga, and lockdown corner Preston Hadley. Seven of the starters are seniors and three are juniors.
"I think anything is realistic for them," Mendenhall said. "They have proven to be capable in about every category, if you look statistically. I don't spend a ton of time on that, but I think they have really high goals and expectations, and I wouldn't put anything by them right now."
The only time BYU's defense looked overmatched this season was against Oregon State, which racked up 450 yards.
"It is definitely a goal of ours [to reach No. 1 in total defense]," Ogletree said. "Statistically, we think we have a chance to be. But that's not the focus. The focus is to play our best football. If we play our best, we can have a chance to be the best."
If the unit has a shortcoming, it is that it has only forced 11 turnovers six interceptions and five fumble recoveries in nine games. It is seventh in scoring defense, allowing 14.3 ppg., but that number is inflated because 35 of the 129 points allowed were given up by BYU's offense or special teams.
"As far as turnovers, they will come," said Van Noy, a junior who said Monday he has not decided yet whether he will return for his senior season or enter the NFL Draft. "I think all the four-and-outs, the three-and-outs we have had this year, are turnovers in our eyes."
Since the LaVell Edwards era began, BYU's highest finish in total defense came in 1998, when the Cougars gave up just 273.9 yards per game and finished fifth. They've been 10th twice in 1986 (277.8) and in 2007 (307.9) when Poppinga was a senior and led the Cougars in tackles with 113.
"I think we have better athletes on defense than we have ever had," said Poppinga, noting that nine of the 11 defensive starters in 2007 began their careers as walk-ons. Only NFL players Bryan Kehl and David Nixon were not.
"We have guys that know what they are doing [more] than when I was here. Not that we didn't know. Just the understanding of the defense is at a higher level. And then the athletes that we have doing it are better. … So that just goes to show where the program has come, and the type of athletes we have playing for us now."
BYU's 2012 defense
Category Nat'l rank Actual
Total 4th 263.56 ypg.
Scoring 7th 14.33 ppg.
Rushing 7th 95.78 ypg.
Pass 9th 167.78 ypg.
BYU's best defenses
Year Total defense Ypg. Scoring defense PPG Record
1984 32nd 321.3 10th 13.8 13-0
1985 18th 297.9 12th 13.5 11-3
1986 10th 277.8 24th 17.1 8-5
1996 25th 316.6 25th 18.7 14-1
1998 5th 273.9 25th 19.2 9-5
2007 10th 307.9 9th 18.5 11-2
2010 24th 330.8 32nd 21.6 7-6
2011 13th 312.9 22nd 20.4 10-3