The season hasn't even started and BYU is already hearing the whispers.
Shhhhh. Listen closely and you can hear those three magical little letters.
|Max Hall is poised to lead the Cougars to the MWC crown ... and a BCS berth? (Getty Images)|
Sorry BYU faithful, there is no getting around it. When you finish 11-2 and enter the season with a 16-game conference winning streak, the public and media start talking about that ultimate goal. And for teams in "mid-major" conferences, a BCS bowl is the icing on the cake.
Utah did it, then Boise State and last year Hawaii. Is it BYU's time?
"It's something we think about; It's a goal we want to reach, but at the same time we have a lot of other stuff we are focusing on," said quarterback Max Hall. "Having a successful season, no matter if its a BCS game or not, and winning a conference championship, representing our faith and our institution the way it should be. If we get a shot to play in a BCS game that's awesome and we'll give it our all, but it's the home victories and conference championships that define our program."
Winning conference championships are nice, but let's be real here.
The Mountain West title gives you another trophy to place in the athletic department, a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl and a payout of close to a million dollars.
But a BCS bowl can do so much more.
Hawaii made $4.4 million from the Sugar Bowl last year. It got to share that money with every team in the conference, which not only makes the program better, but the rest of the conference too. The boost can also be felt in recruiting the following years. Imagine a kid deciding between BYU and Utah, knowing that BYU just got to play in the Fiesta or Orange Bowl.
This season has all the makings of BYU making that possible.
Hall is the centerpiece on a team loaded with potential all-conference candidates. In his first season as a starter, the junior threw for 3,848 yards and 26 touchdowns. Add in an excellent offensive line, led by Dallas Reynolds and Ray Feinga, and offensive weapons that any team in the nation would want, and this team should improve on its 30 points a game it scored last year.
|OL||Nick Charles||Jr.||Air Force|
|DL||Ryan Kemp||Sr.||Air Force|
|LB||Russell Allen||Sr.||San Diego State|
|DB||Chris Thomas||Jr.||Air Force|
|DB||DeAndre Wright||Sr.||New Mexico|
Running back Harvey Unga rushed for 1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman. Tight end Dennis Pitta led the team with 59 catches, while Austin Collie had 946 yards receiving and seven TDs.
"We have a great team," said Hall. "Our main focus is staying humble, working hard and making sure we are doing all the right things to have a successful season."
A favorable schedule is also very important as Hawaii found out last season. BYU's schedule isn't a killer, but does have some possible stumbling blocks. It plays two Pac-10 teams -- at Washington on Sept. 6 and UCLA on Sept. 13. It played UCLA twice last season, losing during the regular season, but then beating them 17-16 in the bowl game. If it gets past those two, the biggest game of the season could come against its biggest rival at Utah on Nov. 22.
Good offense ... check.
Non-killer schedule ... check.
If this team has any question mark, it's the defense. Only three starters return for a team that ranked 10th in the nation in total defense and ninth in points allowed (18.5 ppg). The front seven will be just fine with the return of DE Jan Jorgensen and LBs Shawn Doman and David Nixon, but the secondary is inexperienced. This could be troublesome against pass-happy squads.
One thing is for sure, coach Bronco Mendenhall has his players focused and not thinking about what everybody else is whispering.
"At BYU we are competitors, we want to be the best and succeed, so its talked about, but we still know we have to put in the work, take every practice and every game before we can even think about getting there." said Jorgensen.
Offensive Player of the Year
Max Hall, BYU: Can he be primed for a better season than last year? That would be quite an accomplishment after throwing for 3,848 yards and 26 touchdowns. Hall compiled a league-high five 300-yard passing games, including a 537-yard effort in the loss to Tulsa. With another monster season, Hall can join the likes of the other great BYU quarterbacks -- Ty Detmer, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jan Jorgensen, BYU: One of the top defensive ends in the nation after recording 77 tackles, including 20 for a loss and 14 sacks. Jorgensen has already been named to the Lombardi Award and Lott Trophy watch lists to go along with preseason All-MWC honors. He will continue to anchor a defense that ranked 10th in the nation in yards allowed last season. Only a junior, he needs 19 more sacks to become the school's all-time leader.
|2008 Conference Previews|
|Mountain West||Big 12|
Predicted order of finish
1. BYU: All the chips are in the right place for the Cougars to make a serious run. National championship? Probably not, but this team is very good. The offense is the best in the MWC. The defense must step up so the Cougars don't end up in many 51-45 shootouts. If the Cougars get past the Pac-10 duo in non-conference play, that BCS dream could become a reality.
2. Utah: If BYU is No. 1, Utah is 1b. The Utes are loaded and will be right there if BYU stumbles. Leading the way is one of the most underrated players in running back Darrell Mack. He racked up 1,204 yards rushing and 12 TDs, averaging 100.3 yards per game. Combine Mack with an excellent offensive line and senior quarterback Brian Johnson and Utah might be headed for a 10-win season. The defense is strong, led by cornerback Brice McCain. Louie Sakoda is the best kicker/punter in the conference.
3. TCU: The defense, which led the conference in sacks last year, should be strong again with six starters back. Linebacker Jason Phillips is back after recording 87 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss. The secondary will be one of the best in the conference with Stephen Hodge, Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest all returning. Aaron Brown is back after rushing for 490 yards in nine games, while quarterback Andy Dalton is ready to improve on last season's numbers (10 TDs, 11 INTs).
4. New Mexico: The Lobos are coming off a very successful season, going 9-4 with a victory in the New Mexico Bowl last year, but that will be tough to top in 2008. Rodney Ferguson is back for one more year after rushing for 1,177 yards and 13 TDs, but gone are two 1,000-yard receivers. The defense is anchored by an excellent secondary, including potential Defensive Player of the Year DeAndre Wright. New Mexico could find itself in a 0-4 hole with a schedule of TCU, Texas A&M, Arizona and at Tulsa to start the season.
5. Wyoming: The Cowboys could be the sleeper of the conference with eight starters back on offense and seven on defense, but will need to improve in two very important areas -- turnovers and running the ball. Karsten Sween is back for his junior year, but must cut down on the interceptions (17), while the Cowboys ranked second-to-last in the conference in rushing yards per game (129.8). The defense is led by lineman John Fletcher, who recorded 10.5 sacks last season.
6. Air Force: The Falcons should expect a drop-off from last season after losing two of the best players in school history -- Shaun Carney and Chad Hall -- to graduation. Only three starters are back on offense and the Falcons will break in a new quarterback, either Eric Herbort or Shea Smith. The defense is thin on returners too, but safety Chris Thomas is back after recording 110 tackles.
7. UNLV: The Rebels should be improved after last year's 2-10 season, especially with the return of wide receiver Ryan Wolfe (784 yards) and tight end Casey Flair (622 yards). While the offense might be better, the defense needs to get better in a hurry. It will be difficult to replace the departed LB Beau Bell, but Starr Fuimaono will do his best. The junior had 68 tackles and 1.5 sacks last year.
8. Colorado State: Steve Fairchild, a former assistant under Sonny Lubick, takes over as head coach and will have his hands full. Gone is quarterback Caleb Hanie, meaning Billy Farris looks ready to take over the reigns. He could potentially have a great rushing attack with Gartrell Johnson (957 yards, 6 TDs) and Kyle Bell (691 yards, 4 TD), if Bell is healthy. The defense is anchored by linebacker Jeff Horinek, who led the team with 94 tackles.
9. San Diego State: The Aztecs might be in for a long season as coach Chuck Long lost his leading passer and rusher in Kevin O'Connell. Redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley looks like he will get the start at quarterback and he'll be playing behind three freshman on the offensive line. The defense will have some work to do too, giving up 498.2 yards per game, including 241 yards on the ground. The conference schedule doesn't do San Diego State any favors either as two of its toughest games -- BYU and TCU -- are on the road.