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This time of year is often "cupcake" season, top FBS teams easing into their schedule with games against lower division opponents. Don't tell BYU that was an option. The Cougars open 2015 with a tough contest, traveling to Lincoln to face Nebraska right off the bat in the beginning of a four game gauntlet against the Cornhuskers, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan. Taysom Hill is back and the Cougars' offense should be explosive, but defensive question marks remain. On the other side, new coach Mike Riley is adjusting to the Big Ten, but has the talent at his disposal to make some early noise. Here's a position-by-position look at this week's matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday's game:
Hill will determine how far the Cougars go this season with his rare combination of passing and running ability. His rushing attempts will reportedly be dialed back to try to mitigate injury possibilities, but he still has the ability to break a play open at any time. The loss of Jamaal Williams this season hurts, but he has a wealth of receivers to throw to. Tanner Mangum also provides some insurance considering Hill's injury history.
Junior Tommy Armstrong Jr. will be the man under center and is coming into his second season as a starter. However, he's also still adjusting to Riley's pro-style offense and loses some talent next to him in the backfield with Ameer Abdullah's departure to the NFL. He rushed for 705 yards and six touchdowns, along with his 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns passing, but may run less in Riley's system. Hill gets the advantage here.
Williams missing 2015 because of rules violations leaves the running duties to more of a three-headed approach between Adam Hine, Nate Carter and Algie Brown. Brown will likely pick up most of the slack after rushing for 324 yards last season, including a 79 yard performance in the Miami Beach Bowl. Carter has looked good in fall camp and Hine made the most of his opportunities in late 2014.
Abdullah is gone and question marks remain on who, or how many, players it will take to replace him. Terrell Newby was the leader coming out of spring and the junior rushed for 297 yards and five touchdowns last season, but senior Imani Cross also has a claim to the starting job. Adam Taylor could figure into a supporting role and the battle could continue a few games into the season, a good sign for the Cougars who will face a slightly unsettled Cornhuskers backfield.
Wide receiver and tight end
The strength of this BYU team lies with its receivers, who come in all shapes and sizes to move the chains for Hill. First up is the towering Mitch Mathews, who was Hill's safety blanket and looks to improve on a 73 reception, 922 yard effort from 2014. Across from Mathews, Nick Kurtz is explosive and athletic, while Terenn Houk and Mitch Juergens can catch in the middle of the field and on underneath routes. Trey Dye, Colby Pearson, Devon Blackmon and some underclassman will also fill various roles. This offense is rich with targets that is a headache for opposing defenses to stop every week.
The Huskers were dealt a tough blow a few weeks ago when emerging wide receiver and top punt returner Demornay Pierson-El was lost for six to eight weeks with a foot injury. Junior Jordan Westerkamp will be the go-to pass catcher in this offense after nabbing 44 passes for 747 yards and five touchdowns. Freshman Stanley Morgan could also make an immediate impact for a position group still trying to find its ideal mix. BYU has the clear advantage here.
BYU looks to have some of its best offensive line talent in years, improving on a unit that helped the offense score 37 points per game last season. Tejan Koroma could be the Cougars' most valuable player outside of Taysom Hill and will only get better with another year under his belt. However, Koroma may also be suspended for the Nebraska opener, forcing someone else to step up. Outside of him, Ryker Mathews and Kyle Johnson will be strong bodyguards for Hill on the left side, while Tuni Kanuch and Ului Lapuaho anchor the right side. The Huskers will be an interesting test for a unit that could become a big strength for BYU this season.
From left to right, Nebraska appears largely settled for who will protect Armstrong Jr. Alex Lewis, Dylan Utter, Ryne Reeves, Chongo Kondolo and Nick Gates. However, the only player that's received extensive playing time is Lewis. The rest have rotated or are getting their first chance at full-time duty, with Gates slotted to start as a redshirt freshman. The line will also have to adjust for more pass protecting demands under Riley than previous seasons of trying to mow over defenders for a downhill running game. The Cougars have an advantage here.
Defensive line and linebackers
Bronson Kaufusi moves back to his better position at defensive end full-time after the team experimented with him at outside linebacker. Junior nose tackle and the largely unheralded Travis Tuiloma is back and will play a big role as both a pass rusher and taking up blocks to open opportunities for the linebackers. At linebacker, Fred Warner could be a breakout candidate while Harvey Langi looks more comfortable and was a fiery leader in fall camp. The Cougars will miss the pass-rushing ability of Sione Takitaki, who's been suspended for the Nebraska game after he was charged with two counts of misdemeanor theft earlier in the summer.
Randy Gregory is off to the NFL, but Nebraska has plenty of bodies to reload with arguably the most talent on the team located in the defensive front. Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine, Greg McMullen and team captain Jack Gangwish all carry experience on the defensive line. Gangwish is the favorite to breakout, while McMullen racked up 47 tackles and four sacks last season. At linebacker, big things are expected from Michael Rose-Ivey, who returns after missing all of 2014, and Josh Banderas who had 19 tackles in the Holiday Bowl against USC. True freshman Dedrick Young is also expected to start at weakside linebacker. The Huskers have talent and depth, giving them the edge here.
BYU's secondary is at the top of the concerns list heading into 2015 after losing 91 career starts to departing players. Michael Davis is the linchpin at corner after finishing last season with 43 tackles and six pass breakups, with sophomore Jordan Preator starting on the other side of the defense. Safety will see some combination of Eric Takenaka, Kai Nacua, Matt Hadley and Grant Jones. Nacua has also spent some time in fall camp at corner to add to his versatility. With the unit this unsettled, the Cougars are fortunate to face a passing game still finding its identity in week one.
The Cornhuskers are also breaking in some new players in the secondary. Safety Nate Gerry and cornerback Daniel Davie, who racked up 41 tackles and two interceptions in 2014, will be the leaders. The rest of the defensive backfield will be based largely on rotations and formations. The unit finished seventh overall in the Big Ten last season in pass defense with 206 yards surrendered per game and will have its hands full with all of BYU's receivers.
Prediction: Both teams will be dealing with suspensions in the opening game, Nebraska holding out five players and BYU suspending maybe up to seven. Nebraska is adjusting offensively to Riley's style and BYU is unsettled in the defensive backfield. Even with the question marks, the Cornhuskers have won 29 straight home openers and should be able to grind out a 35-30 win.