The winds of change have come and gone. The excitement generated by the novelty of BYU football’s independent affiliation and ESPN television contract has gradually faded, replaced by the high, demanding expectations of the team’s devoted fan base.
You want more. They are ready to give it.
One year into its Independent Era, this year’s Cougar football squad displays a self-assured poise, sharply contrasting the overall air of last year’s team — a squad that lacked a leader and an identity for much of the season.
Unlike last year, there are far less question marks surrounding this year’s squad. Wideouts Ross Apo and Cody Hoffman are now potent playmakers, not just potential. Quarterback Riley Nelson is now a proven leader, not just a glorified punt team participant. Second-year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman is now a practiced strategist, not just a premature play caller.
“We are who we are, and we like who we are,” BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe said.
With five 10-win seasons in the last six years, seven straight bowl appearances and consistent finishes in the top 25 national rankings, its no wonder the Cougars are feeling confident in where they are as a program.
The Cougars, however, insist there is no ceiling in sight.
“There is another level that we are anxious to pursue. While we have been in the top 25 for five of the last six years, I would like to be in the top 10,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We have reached one kind of summit, now its time to look around and see that there is something more to achieve.”
Pivotal to ascending to that next summit this season is the play of senior quarterback Riley Nelson.
Attending a school with a rich tradition of producing heralded drop-back passing quarterbacks, Nelson is not a perfect fit to the school’s quarterback mold. Nelson is a dual-threat signal caller who is just as likely to beat you with his legs as he is with his arm.
After a disappointing 2-2 start last year, including an especially humiliating 54-10 loss to their bitter rival Utah, Nelson re-energized the Cougars, leading them to victory in eight of their last nine games. Nelson’s hard-nosed, aggressive play excited the fans and endeared him to his teammates and coaches.
Despite the Cougars being thin at the quarterback position, Nelson isn’t planning on playing it safe by dialing back his aggressive play.
“If I start trying to change who I am and the way I play now, its going to be disastrous,” Nelson said. “I am doing everything I can to be as big, fast and strong as I can be, and I will continue to play the way I play.”
With seven returning starters, the Cougar’s defense is committed to improving upon last year’s stellar squad, ranked 13th nationally in total defense. Anchoring BYU’s solid defense is junior linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a one-man wrecking ball who is being predicted by many to be an All-American candidate.
As a leader on the team, Van Noy is devoted to helping the Cougar defense develop a feared reputation.
“You just got to hit people in the mouth,” Van Noy said. “That is how you have to go about every game. That is how we prepare. That is our mindset.”
Increased exertion on both sides of the ball will be vital for the Cougars, as this upcoming season’s schedule is significantly tougher than last year’s.
The Cougars open at home against Pac-12 opponent Washington State. Over subsequent weeks, the Cougars must then travel to face several formidable foes on the road, including Utah, Georgia Tech, Bosie State and Notre Dame.
Despite having no conference affiliation, the Cougars hope they will be able to consistently schedule more and more reputable opponents. Though the BCS bowl system, as we know it, has been officially canceled as of 2014, a strong schedule is still required for mid-major teams, such as the Cougars, to garner national attention.
“We have a great tradition at BYU,” Holmoe said. “Right now, the most important thing we can focus on is this year. If we’re good, we’ll be recognized by the nation.”