by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We doubt that history is going to compare BYU’s recent exodus from the Mountain West Conference to the abandonment of Nauvoo, Illinois by LDS members on their way to Utah in the 1840s. But the Cougars’ decision to bolt from the Mountain West for independent status in football last September is at the least a landmark occasion in the history of athletics at the school founded by church president Brigham Young in 1875. And unlike events from the middle of the 19th century, nobody was forcing BYU to make the move, which also includes joining up with the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga, Santa Clara, etc.) for non-football sports beginning with this upcoming school year.

The decision to drop the MWC affiliation was not arrived at lightly in Provo, because BYU was perhaps the most-influential member of the original group of five (also including Utah, Air Force, Wyoming, and Colorado State) to orchestrate the breakaway from the old WAC in 1999. But the Cougar administration was looking more warily upon its association with the MWC in recent years, especially the conference’s The Mtn. TV network that the Provo-based institution believed was neither a proper nor an effective vehicle to promote the school and its athletic teams. If it wished, BYU could utilize its own cable TV network (BYU TV) and production facilities on campus to do its own promotion, better and more efficiently, it believed, than what The Mtn. provided. But a possible and long-discussed escape route to the Pac-10 was nixed when it became apparent that some Pac schools were not about to invite a faith-based institution into the fold. And the Pac-10's invite of in-state rival Utah further fueled BYU’s discontent and desire to make its own special deal if it could.

There were no shortage of suitors for the Cougs, including an apparent near-agreement with the WAC that would have seen the Cougs unofficially aligned with the conference on the football side and a full-fledged member in other sports. But the subsequent bolting of Fresno State and Nevada from the WAC to the Mountain West (for 2012) made that switch less desirable for BYU. The Big XII, in its own state of flux after Nebraska and Colorado left the fold and nearly the victim of a hostile takeover bid by the Pac-10, was another possibility, and word has it that the Big East (which eventually stole TCU from the Mountain West) was also poking around. In the end, however, the Cougs opted for the independent route in football and an affiliation with the WCC for other sports.

Eventually, what helped make the decision for BYU was its ability to secure a lucrative deal with ESPN to televise all of its home games on at least one of the network’s many dedicated channels over the next eight years, coverage to be supplemented by BYU’s own TV network. Future scheduling arrangements with Texas (which, with ESPN’s help, will begin this year) and a renewal of a spirited series against Notre Dame (with six games slated up to 2020) have further helped to enhance the profile. And, given that the Mormon church values the Cougar football team as one of its most effective vehicles to promote the LDS, any platform to give the BYU gridders more exposure was deemed worthwhile.

Still, there are critics of the move who wonder if the Cougar support base really is going to be able to make the sort of impression on the college sports frontier as have other faith-based schools, especially Notre Dame, over the past century. LDS population in the United States is approximately 5.5 million; worldwide, it is said to be just north of 14 million, numbers that some believe do not translate into the sort of wide-ranging popularity that the church’s leaders seem to believe is a baseline for support. Doubters suggest it might be more of a ceiling. Whatever; stay tuned for further developments, including the possibility that BYU could eventually make another move and be lured into some other alliance as the college sports map continues to undergo various adjustments and alterations.

Amidst all of the commotion, HC Bronco Mendenhall begins his 7th season in Provo with 18 starters back from the most-uneven campaign in his tenure. The Cougs stared slowly in 2010 by losing five of their first seven games, as the adjustment phase to new QBs Riley Nelson (a former Utah State transfer) and Jake Heaps, a true frosh from the Seattle area, contributed to a very choppy first half of the season. Things weren’t much better on the stop end, either, where Mendenhall removed d.c. Jaime Hill after a particularly humbling early October loss at Utah State and reassumed coordinator duties himself, as he had done earlier in his career. BYU then made an about-face in the second half of the season, nearly running the table after a mid-October setback at unbeaten TCU, with the only blemish in the last five weeks being a last-second loss to the rival Utes. And the Cougs even earned a bowl bid that seemed very unlikely for much of the campaign, and made the most of that postseason adventure in Albuquerque by routing New Mexico Bowl foe UTEP, 52-24, thanks in part to four TD passes by Heaps, who became the first frosh to start at QB for BYU in a bowl game.

Still, not everyone in the mountain region was completely sold by the Cougar rebound, noting that the late-season wins were all against the lower-echelon of the Mountain West (Wyoming, UNLV, CSU, and New Mexico), while the credentials of bowl victim UTEP were also dubious. Nonetheless, the strong finish and lopsided bowl win created a feel-good vibe through the offseason.

Heaps’ considerable improvement over the last half of 2010 is a reason for much of the optimism at the foot of the Wasatch range. After struggling (not unexpectedly) early in the campaign when throwing just 1 TDP and 7 picks in the first seven games, Heaps tossed 14 TDs and just 2 interceptions the rest of the way while also passing for over 200 yards in his last five games. Although some of the improvement could also be attributable to the downgraded slate of opponents during the second half of the season, Heaps finally seemed to get the hang of things by the time the season concluded. Likewise, the OL jelled as last season progressed; again, was it simply a diet of UNLV, Wyoming, and New Mexico that made things seem better than they were, or did the forward wall really begin to turn the corner? Four starters return, including mammoth All-American candidate 6'6, 322-lb. LT Matt Reynolds, and the blockers were eventually opening good-sized holes last fall for a plethora of versatile RBs, the top three of which return, led by quick-hitters J.J. DiLuigi (917 YR LY plus 45 catches) and Joshua Quezada (5.1 ypc). As is the case elsewhere offensively, most of the main contributors in the pass receiving ranks return, including rangy 6'4 soph Cody Hoffman (42 catches and 7 TDs LY), who doubles as an explosive kick return threat and burned UTEP with 8 catches for 137 yards in the bowl win. A return to pre-2010 form from sr. wideout McKay Jacobson, and someone emerging as a go-to target at the TE position the productive Dennis Pitta (now with the NFL Ravens) left behind after 2009, would come in handy. Replacing reliable PK Mitch Payne, who hit 17 of 21 FGs LY, will be another key development to watch in fall. The offense is now being coordinated by longtime QB coach Brandon Doman, a former Coug QB himself who replaces Robert Anae, who departed for Arizona in the offseason.

Meanwhile, Mendenhall is expecting better production from a stout defensive interior in his 3-3-5 looks that are inspired by mentor Rocky Long, under whom Mendenhall served on New Mexico staffs before arriving in Provo. (Long, ironically, has surfaced as San Diego State’s new HC.) Getting thick, 307-lb. run-stuffing NT Romney Fuga back from last season’s knee injury will be crucial, otherwise another dump truck-sized but less-seasoned Polynesian, 316-lb. RS frosh Travis Tuiloma, will have to step into the breach immediately. Regional sources cannot underestimate Fuga’s presence, which figures to tie up multiple offensive linemen and help a pass rush specialist to emerge to replace last year’s most disruptive force from the edge, DE Vic So’oto. Mountain area insiders believe the LB corps will be the strength of the platoon, especially if explosive OLB Jordan Pendleton, sidelined six games by a shoulder injury last fall, is back at full strength. He could team with 225-lb. jr. Brandon Ogletree, who mans the Brian Urlacher-like hybrid position for the platoon, in a pair of dynamite playmakers. Southern Cal transfer Uona Kavienga, a 5'11, 255-lb. destroyer, could also emerge as a force at MLB. The situation is a bit less settled in the secondary, where the departure of S Adam Rich means that no returning BYU DB has recorded an interception. There is not much size on the corners that are manned by 5'10 (and that’s being generous) types Robby Buckner and Corby Eason, although it is hoped that RS frosh CB Jordan Johnson can make an immediate impression and perhaps move into the starting lineup.

Summary...Things look better than a year ago for the Cougs, who unlike last season enter this fall with plenty of experience at several key positions, not to mention at QB with soph Jake Heaps, who late in 2010 finally began to flash the sort of potential that made him one of the nation’s top recruits the year before. And Mendenhall has usually been able to field competitive defensive platoons. Still, some doubts remain about just how much progress the Cougs really made late last season, and whether BYU’s improvement down the stretch a year ago was legit or simply a mirage created by suspect opposition. That question is likely answered by a tough slate in the first month of the season with challenging road games at Ole Miss and Texas, then home games vs. rival Utah and Liberty Bowl winner UCF, right out of the chute; however, when adding in later road games at Oregon State, TCU (at Arlington), and Hawaii, the Cougs might be wishing for the days of the Mountain West when there were always some soft touches to help boost the W-L record. BYU should nonetheless again get bowl-eligible for Mendenhall, but the demanding slate likely precludes any wild BCS speculation in Provo.

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