As an early look at USU's out-of-conference schedule, I'll be examining each opponent in-depth to give you a better feel for who we're going up against. Our final preview takes a look at the Brigham Young Cougars:
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall. BYU is Mendenhall's first and only head coaching job. He has led the Cougars for the past nine years, and has accumulated an overall record of 82-34 (71%). He has had five teams in those nine years that ended the year ranked in at least one of the major polls, and has never failed to make a bowl game. The past two years have been relatively down years for him, as his team posted back-to-back 8-5 records. Prior to coaching at BYU, Mendenhall had coaching positions at several other institutions (in reverse chronological order): UNM ('98-'02, Defensive Coordinator), Louisiana Tech ('97, Secondary Coach), Oregon State ('95-'96 (fired after '96 season), DC), Northern Arizona ('93-'94, DC), Snow College ('91-'93, DC).
Location: Provo, UT
Stadium: LaVell Edwards Stadium (Capacity: 63,725)
Mascot: Cosmo the Cougar. Cosmo first appeared on the BYU scene in 1953 and has been around ever since. He did change his appearance in 1997 when, according the BYU's Athletic Media Relations, he fell 100 feet in Rock Canyon while hunting Red-Tailed Hawks. Why they would admit that their rival school's mascot dropped him off a cliff is beyond me, unless they were going for the pity appeal.
Conference: Independent. BYU decided to go independent in 2011 after several changes in conference alignment nationwide left the MWC in rocky territory (no pun intended), and after working out a beneficial TV contract with ESPN. There are multiple arguments for BYU to remain independent, and multiple arguments for them to rejoin a conference; BYU fans will staunchly defend the decision, while many MWC fans would like to see them return to the fold.
2013 Record: 8-5
Bowl game: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, 16-31 loss to the Washington Huskies
Five key players:
Taysom Hill: Any talk of the Cougars this year will include their now-junior QB, who racked up the yards on the ground last year, and earned a reputation as a dual-threat. Hill ranked 24th in the country among all players for rushing yards per game, and 19th in total rushing yards on the season (1344 yards), scoring 10 times on the ground. His arm was more questionable than his legs, however; he threw for 2938 yards, and recorded 19 touchdowns, but only completed 53.9% of his passes, and added 14 interceptions. If BYU wants to have a shot at busting the first college football playoff (they're one of a handful of teams with a shot this year), Taysom will need to improve his passing game.
Jamaal Williams: Williams was also a 1000+ yard rusher, accumulation 1233 yards on 217 attempts, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He added 7 touchdowns on the ground, and caught 18 passes for 125 yards. Having him return only adds to Hill's threat on the ground.
Alani Fua: Fua returns as a senior this year at the linebacker position. He will have quite a task ahead of him in trying to replace Kyle Van Noy as a menace to opposing offenses. He was sixth in tackles on the team last year, notching 64 total, 5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. He added 9 pass break-ups and 1 QB hurry. If he can step up and create a similar level of chaos, the defense will be in a much better situation post KVN.
Craig Bills: The senior safety is the team's leading returning tackler, placing second on the team last year with 78 total tackles, 50 of which were solos. He also had 2.5 tackles for loss, and added 2 interceptions. He and Robertson Daniel (who also had 2 interceptions and other impressive stats) will lead the way for the Cougar secondary.
Mitch Matthews: Matthews is the Cougars leading returning receiver, with 397 receiving yards and 4 TD catches last year. If BYU wants to open up the run game to its full potential, Hill will look to Matthews to step up and be a big-play receiver this year.
Offensive overview: With a number of returning linemen and Hill and Williams back, the Cougars rushing attack looks to be as effective as ever. The main concern comes in the receiving corps, where BYU lost their top three targets from last year. Mitch Matthews will need to step up, as will UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie, a solid talent who will compete with Matthews for the top receiver spot. If the receivers can up their game, and if Hill can suddenly become an accurate throwing QB in addition to what he brings to the table with his run game, this could be a dangerous offense (think Northern Illinois from last year).
Defensive overview: Losses on the line, and more especially in the linebacker group, will mean a probable loss of ground in terms of overall defense for the Cougars. With Mendenhall at the helm, it's hard to think it'll drop off too much, but the losses of KVN, Uani Unga, Eathyn Manumaleuna, and others will definitely take their toll. The secondary is in great shape, though, and should take a little bit of the edge off the larger losses in the front seven.
Early prediction: After taking out Chuckie Keeton last year, the Cougars will be on the receiving end of some satisfying payback, as the Aggies defense completely shuts down Hill and Co., and Keeton comes back with a vengeance to recreate the scene that brought him to Utah State in the first place (watching Diondre Borel, et al, destroy the Cougs in 2010). USU wins in a big way: USU 38 - BYU 17.