Brigham Young (8-5)
Date: Nov. 23, at Notre Dame
Outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy was among the nation's leaders last year in tackles for loss (22) and sacks (13).
BYU will be the first team to make trips to Notre Dame Stadium in consecutive years since Navy (1994-95) and Air Force (1983-84). The Fighting Irish lead the series 5-2, with the first meeting occurring in 1992.
The one-time Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West Conference power went the Notre Dame route by becoming independent in 2011.
The Cougars became a college football power under Hall of Fame head coach LaVell Edwards, who won 257 games and the 1984 national title during his reign from 1972-2000. The burden of following a legend was felt by successor Gary Crowton, who was fired after three straight losing seasons from 2002-04.
Bronco Mendenhall has re-established a winning consistency with a 74-29 career record since accepting the position in 2005.
Top Offseason Note
Among the players, far and away the best news was linebacker Kyle Van Noy (22 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, eight QB pressures in 2012), who was projected to go in the first two NFL rounds, and receiver Cody Hoffman (100 catches, 11 TDs) opted to return for their senior years.
Van Noy was the headline performer of a unit that finished last season third in scoring defense (14.0 points per game), and he capped his sensational campaign with two touchdowns in a 23-6 bowl victory against San Diego State. Hoffman, who caught eight passes for 86 yards and a six-yard TD in the 17-14 loss at Notre Dame last season, is the feature performer on a veteran receiving crew.
From a coaching standpoint, there was a housecleaning on offense, which was pedestrian much of 2012. BYU grad Robert Anae, who was the offensive coordinator for the Cougars from 2005-10 before holding the same job for Rich Rodriguez at Arizona the past two seasons (the Wildcats were seventh nationally in 2012 total offense), has returned to replace the maligned Brandon Doman in that role.
Meanwhile, former Cougars quarterback Jason Beck was hired to instruct the QBs, Garett Tujague was brought aboard to assist Anae with the offensive line, Mark Atuaia is the new running backs coach and Guy Holliday will be the new mentor of the receivers.
This program used to be famous for record-setting quarterbacks and prolific offenses, but it has taken on a defensive identity under Mendenhall. BYU finished third in scoring defense last season — behind only national champ Alabama and regular season No. 1 Notre Dame — and Van Noy’s return leads a strong linebacker corps.
The offense will be veteran with nine returning starters, four of them along the line. In addition to Hoffman at wideout, running back Jamaal Williams (775 yards, 4.7 yards per carry in 2012) complements Michael Alisa, who missed the second half of 2012 with an injury, in the backfield.
The defensive front needs to be replaced in the 3-4, as only five starters return on that side of the ball.
More pressing is finding consistency at quarterback. The Cougars platooned two quarterbacks in 2010, which led to the transfer of five-star recruit Jake Heaps to Kansas, where he is projected to start for Charlie Weis this year. Riley Nelson has graduated, leaving sophomore dual threat Taysom Hill as the heir apparent.
Hill put up some pretty good numbers last season prior to a freak lateral collateral injury in a 6-3 October 5 victory against Utah State that sidelined him the balance of the year. He had completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 778 yards and eight scores and rushed for 336 yards, 6.1 yards per carry and four more scores. Can he rebound from the injury and adapt to the new staff?
As an independent, BYU will have a Notre Dame-like national schedule that will challenge them. The Cougars open at Virginia on Aug. 31, and then host Texas Sept. 7 and Pac-12 member Utah Sept. 21.
In October it hosts Georgia Tech and Boise State, and then in November it travels to Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
This will be Senior Day at Notre Dame, and Brian Kelly and Co. will have an extra week to prepare for the contest.
BYU was the popular “upset special” pick last year because the game was sandwiched in between Notre Dame’s showdowns with Stanford and at Oklahoma. The Cougars did take a 14-7 lead into the halftime locker room before Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, starting in place of the injured Everett Golson, rallied Notre Dame to a 17-14 victory. The winning score came on a two-yard run by George Atkinson III with 12:52 left in the contest.
The Cougars won’t be an easy out again, especially if their offense can find itself. Our pre-season projection might have Notre Dame as maybe a 10- to 13-point favorite, but another white knuckler entering the fourth quarter wouldn’t surprise us.