This is an archived article that was published on in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Provo • From head coach Bronco Mendenhall to new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman to the thousands of fans who watched either the open-to-the-public scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium or one of the four open practices on campus, almost everyone agrees.

The BYU Cougars are a much better football team than they were at the conclusion of preseason practice this time a year ago. The question of whether that translates into something better than a 7-6 season in the school's first year as a football independent is a little more difficult to answer.

With independence comes BYU's most-difficult September schedule in recent memory. It is full of land mines, beginning Saturday when the Cougars travel to hot, humid and football-passionate Southeastern Conference country to take on Ole Miss.

"We will be tested early, so we've prepared for that all offseason," Mendenhall said. "We can't afford to start slowly. Our preparation has reflected that."

Certainly, the Cougars have the personnel in place to make this a magical season — if a few breaks go their way. They emerged from preseason practice with just one major, season-ending injury (fullback Iona Pritchard's fractured leg), meaning that 10 starters return on offense and seven are back on defense from the team that crushed UTEP 52-24 last December in the New Mexico Bowl.

"You look around, and you see a lot of guys who have been here a long time, and have played a lot," said senior running back J.J. Di Luigi.

History suggests that whenever BYU has a returning starter at quarterback, it thrives. That's the case in 2011, as Jake Heaps returns for his sophomore year having broken every BYU freshman quarterback record around, including passing yards (2,316) and passing touchdowns (15).

"Everything seems to be in place for us do to something special if we keep working hard and stay level-headed, stay hungry," Heaps said.

A massive, experienced offensive line and plenty of weapons are at Heaps' disposal, although most of the receivers are still on the young side. The tight ends are unproven and the group of running backs is solid, but not flashy, and lacks a star.

Defensively, it is the same story as almost every year for the Cougars: a solid front seven, with question marks all over the secondary.

Running the ball against BYU should be more difficult than ever before, but if an opposing quarterback gets time to throw, watch out.

BYU will break in a new strong safety in sophomore Daniel Sorensen. Last year's free safety, Travis Uale, is back, but has been just shaky enough that he's been pushed for the starting job by a junior who was a fullback last year, Mike Hague.

Senior Corby Eason has some experience at the boundary corner position, having spelled Brandon Bradley frequently in 2010, but on the other side the Cougars will rely on Preston Hadley, a transfer from Snow College.

"We are going to be a really aggressive defense that's always on the attack," said linebacker coach Kelly Poppinga. "We'll play to our strengths, rushing the passer and bringing pressure every chance we get."

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BYU Schedule

Sept. 3 at Mississippi; ESPN, 2:45 p.m. • Cougars are favored to topple scandal-ridden Rebels in a rare visit to SEC country

Sept. 10 at Texas; ESPN2, 5 p.m. • Who knows? Cougars and Longhorns could be conference mates soon in the Big 12

Sept. 17 vs. Utah; ESPN2, 7:15 p.m. • Rivalry game comes two months sooner this year for revenge-minded Cougars

Sept. 23 vs. Central Florida; ESPN, 6 p.m. • A Friday night special in Provo could be more difficult than expected. UCF picked to win Conference USA

Sept. 30 vs. Utah State; ESPN, 6 p.m. • After losing to Aggies for first time in 20 years last year, Cougars eager to start new streak

Oct. 8 vs. San Jose State; ESPN Networks, TBA • Part of the deal BYU has with the Western Athletic Conference to provide opponents this year and next

Oct. 15 at Oregon State; TBA, TBA • After five straight home games, Cougars venture into Pac-12 territory to test the Beavers

Oct. 22 vs. Idaho State; BYUtv, TBA • Expect one or two FCS opponents a year in Provo, starting with the Big Sky's Bengals

Oct. 28 TCU at Arlington, Texas; ESPN, 6 p.m. • No longer a conference game, this one still carries intrigue since Frogs have owned Cougars in last three tilts

Nov. 12 vs. Idaho; ESPN Networks, TBA • Vandals have a colorful coach in Robb Akey, but a rather bland football history. Still, they're 1-0 vs. BYU.

Nov. 19 vs. New Mexico State; ESPN Networks, TBA • Former BYU assistant DeWayne Walker brings Aggies to Provo for first-ever meeting with BYU.

Dec. 3 at Hawaii; ESPN2, 5:30 p.m. • Cougars are 19-8 all-time against Warriors, but teams haven't played since 2002, a 35-32 BYU win The Basics

BYU begins its first season as a football independent with plenty of returning starters on both sides of the ball, and plenty of momentum after going 5-1 to finish the 2010 season and pummeling UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl. Most of all, there's no quarterback controversy in Provo; this is Jake Heaps' football team.

The Big Question

Can the Cougars handle an ultra-difficult early schedule that takes them to SEC country, then Texas, then Provo for their home opener against rival Utah? And where will the motivation come from as an independent, if they stumble out of the gates for the second-straight year?


No question about it, sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps' play will determine whether the Cougars have a successful season, or something short of that. He has looked sharp in preseason camp, and appears poised to put up huge numbers if some young, talented receivers live up to expectations.

Best Case Scenario

The Cougars win four games out of five in September, before the schedule turns dramatically easier. They roll into Dallas Cowboys Stadium for a late-October showdown with TCU with plenty of momentum, exact some revenge on the Big East-bound Horned Frogs and head into the regular-season finale at Hawaii with just one loss.

Worst Case Scenario

The Cougars can't handle the heat — literally and figuratively — at Ole Miss and Texas to open the season, and never get back on the winning side of the ledger, repeating the 2010 season start when they went 1-4. The only suspense in the latter half of the season is whether they can get six wins and keep their bowl-appearance streak alive.