For five of the last six years, the BYU football team has finished in the top 25 in the polls, finishing as high as 12th in 2009. During that six-year span, the Cougars have a combined record of 60-16, a winning percentage of 73.3 percent. There aren’t many other teams in Division I FBS football that can boast such a consistent pedigree.
However, in just two of the preseason polls the following seasons, the Cougars have started in the top 25 twice, in 2008 and 2009. The Mountain West Conference affiliation and the relatively easy schedule may have forced BYU to fly under the radar of the elite college football teams. However, the days of playing easy teams are over.
In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Cougars have games scheduled against the likes of Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Boise State, Utah, Texas and Wisconsin. With these games against elite opponents and the assistance of a national ESPN contract, the Cougars are in a position to prove they consistently belong in the top 25 or better discussion.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall didn’t waste any time emphasizing the conviction that BYU not only belongs in the top 25 discussion, but in the top 10. His vision and conviction has motivated the rest of the team.
“I believe it with all my heart,” junior running back Michael Alisa said. “Every one of these guys on this team believes it too. After you start believing it, you start working, and that’s the key. The more you work, the more that belief grows.”
The preseason rankings aren’t as important to senior quarterback Riley Nelson and others on the team. Their focus is on performance and production, not on predictions or polls. When asked what BYU would need to do to prove they belong in that discussion, Nelson’s reply was “absolutely nothing.”
The Cougars have been plagued with slow starts each of the last two seasons, as personnel has been figured out and the players have attempted to gel as a team. In 2010, BYU began its first four games with a record of 1-3, and began last year 2-2. With early games at home against Washington State and on the road at Utah and Boise State, BYU must avoid that slow start to have any place in the experts’ minds near the end of the season, where the important discussions take place.
“It’s really taking one game at a time,” Alisa said. “The tough thing about taking one game at a time is actually doing it. Washington State,Utah and Boise are definitely not teams to overlook. If we want to have a good season, we can’t take a risk and look past them at all.”
The key element the BYU team has this year which was absent at the beginning of the last two is the continuity and structure of the offense. The quarterback carousel is over, with Nelson being the unanimous starter after taking over the reins against his hometown team and former school Utah State last year in the miraculous comeback victory.
“We just have to get our minds right,” junior wide receiver Cody Hoffman said. “It’s a lot easier now with just a single quarterback. He’s a competitor. We’re going to come out strong because he won’t let us be lazy.”
The rest of the offense is equally set with a running game which features a powerful herd of running backs led by Alisa, senior David Foote and sophomore Iona Pritchard, and the twin towers of wide receivers Hoffman and sophomore Ross Apo, both measuring 6’3” or taller.
“When you can remove drama from everything else, relax and play calm and motivated, everything’s going to look better for you,” Alisa said. “Taking care of all the drama with the personnel that went on last year is a relief. There’s still guys fighting for positions like we were last year. The difference is we’re a team. There’s no drama. We respect each other.”
At the first day of fall camp, Mendenhall set the tone of his expectations with an intense warm-up that seemed to wake the players up to what this season could mean for the Cougars.
“We have to learn to meet his expectations,” Nelson said. “We’ve asked him to hold us to the highest standard possible, which includes attention to detail, precision and effort.”
Equipped with the strongest and most consistent team in recent years, the Cougars appear ready to take on quite possibly the toughest schedule they’ve ever seen. To come out of the first four games with a winning record will go a long way to prove they belong in upper echelons of college football’s best.