BYU's Top Priorities for 2004 Closer to Home

<b><i>(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is a sampling from the September issue of TOTAL BLUE SPORTS magazine. Order your TBS subscription online today.)</b></i> <br><br> I believe BYU's best chance to atone for the figurative "sins" of 2003 is to dominate the Mountain West Conference again. They've won some nice out-of-conference games, but then the Cougars have stunk it up in conference play.

It's time to turn that around. At this juncture, I'd almost rather BYU stink it up against the BCS schools they play this season, but finish the season as MWC champs.

Here's my preview of the Cougars' most important games this season: the conference games. It was a dirty job reading Utah's media guide (it was pure agony), but someone had to do it.

COLORADO STATE:
After beating BYU by a combined score of 94-23 the last two seasons, it is no wonder some Colorado State fans now say the Cougars is the "creampuff" on the Rams schedule.

I'm sure BYU fans were thinking the same thing going into the 2002 season. Big mistake…

Rams' fans are staking their hopes on new starting quarterback Justin Holland's ability to hook up with MWC's first team wide receiver sensation David Anderson. With BYU's susceptibility to the deep pass, they may have a point. However, Rams' fans overlook how different their offense looks this season. They don't have a dual threat at the line of scrimmage anymore. Regrettably for CSU, they have become one-dimensional without quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt and, therefore, predictable. Look at what losing Brandon Doman did to the BYU offense.

BYU will not have to stack the line of scrimmage against CSU. I think the Cougars would be foolish to try. Colorado transfer Marcus Houston has yet to prove he's something special as a running back threat, but they are not anymore as potent without Van Pelt's running threat.

This is a Rams team that BYU should focus on stopping the pass. With its strength on the defensive line, BYU has the tremendous luxury to drop its "Katbacks" back in coverage most of the time. This will make up for any perceived weaknesses at corner. BYU did not have this luxury last season and Van Pelt made us pay.

Colorado State will try to open up its passing game with some runs into space, but they will find it difficult to escape the Cougars' Aaron Francisco, Cameron Jensen and Paul Walkenhorst. Those three should be sufficient to wrap up the running back. Bryant Atkinson, who is very quick, should be able to keep up with All-MWC halfback/tight end Joel Van Dreesen.

Finally, with some legitimate offensive weapons of its own, the Cougars should be able to score on CSU for the first time since 2001. Defense was not the Rams' strong point last season and they lost what talent they did have.

Unless BYU's offense really takes off, I expect a moderately-scored game in the 20s. This will be a close game for the first time since 1995. Usually, BYU and CSU just take turns blowing each other out.

CSU's chances of beating BYU: 59 percent

UNLV:
According to UNLV observers, the Running Rebels team is loaded at every position—except at quarterback and in the trenches.

Rebel fans fail to mention theirs is one of the few teams in the MWC with the luxury of returning a starting quarterback. He just isn't a very good quarterback. Despite having one of the MWC's best receiver targets in Earvin Johnson, Kurt Nantkes finished with just a 106 quarterback rating. Those aren't the kind of numbers you want to see from a junior.

UNLV plays four linebackers and returns every member of a talented, productive group. They also return three of their four defensive backs, including nationally acclaimed Jamaal Brimmer. That's really good news for a UNLV defense that was fairly stingy.

Unfortunately for the Rebels, they must completely re-tool their defensive line. An inexperienced defensive front with average talent will force head coach John Robinson to blitz Brimmer and a lot. Robinson likes to do that anyway, but if they get blocked, he's taking them out of play and leaving the defense vulnerable. I think it's something that coach Robinson will be forced to do more often than he wants to. To shore up depth on the defensive line, UNLV signed four JC defensive linemen, none of which are highly touted. The Rebels will have to hope they are enough.

UNLV is a team with enough talent to give the BYU offense fits, but I think they'll have trouble scoring with a run-first offense and a quarterback who hasn't proven he can throw well consistently. That's playing right into BYU's hands.

UNLV's chances of beating BYU: 31 percent

WYOMING:
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Those words were never more accurate for Wyoming. Under new coach Joe Glenn, they beat their two most-hated rivals in BYU and Colorado State, but still ended up last place in the conference.

The media returned the favor by picking Wyoming to finish last again this season, a feat they have accomplished every year since placing fourth in 1999.

The worst news for Wyoming is the loss of their three greatest offensive weapons in Casey Bramlett, Ryan McGuffey and Malcolm Floyd – not to mention their best defender, Tyler Gottschalk. If Wyoming wanted to move up in the conference, last year was the year to do it. Not now.

Perhaps Wyoming sneaks up on some teams again, but if they want to beat BYU again, breaking in a new quarterback with a depleted receiving corps is not the way to do it.

Jovon Boughknight is a nice receiver for Wyoming, but not dominant enough to take over a game. Joseph Harris was an excellent junior college transfer signee, but he could be running behind a porous offensive line. Wyoming returns four of last year's starters, but they were, by far, the worst line in the conference. Even worse than BYU's offensive line. Wyoming started freshmen at both tackles positions and had Bramlett running for his life.

BYU will score early and often going up against Wyoming's new cornerbacks with their newly-acquired receivers. The defense will create havoc for Wyoming's rebuilding offense. It's another long season for the Cowboys.

Wyoming's chances of beating BYU: 1 percent

AIR FORCE:
Anthony Schlegel may have been wise to transfer from Air Force after the 2002 season. Had he stuck it out with the Zoomies, he'd be returning for his senior year as one of only six returning starters. Instead, Schlegel will be playing for Ohio State, which has a much brighter season ahead. Air Force could sure use him right now.

The big story with Air Force is how paper-thin their depth chart is. None of their six starters are in the critical positions of quarterback or in the trenches.

The Falcons return one linebacker, a couple of ball carriers, a wide receiver and two defensive backs, neither of which play cornerback. They are going to need at least one good corner to play BYU (read Todd Watkins) this year.

To add injury to insult, Air Force's heir apparent to Chance Harridge tore his Achilles tendon in spring practice and will just be getting healthy for the BYU game. In my mind, that disqualifies him from playing. You just don't recover from that kind of injury and pick up where you left off.

The Falcons' undersized defensive line (averaging 250 pounds) is completely re-tooled. They'll probably lack push and savvy from their front four.

BYU's talented-yet-developing offensive line should match up quite well. The Cougars risks too much in pass protection for the Falcons to not pressure the quarterback. BYU's base offense sends three receivers, a tight end and a running back out into the flat. That's supposed to leave the quarterback exposed yet provide him numerous options. If Air Force – or any team – is not pressuring the quarterback, BYU will pick them apart.

Falcon head coach Fisher DeBerry's coaching talent, wisdom and two weeks to prepare for the Cougars are the only saving graces for Air Force in this matchup. However, that's just not enough to make up for the deficiencies they must overcome. They will not execute the option with anywhere near the efficiency of the last two years and there are no known heroes on defense.

Air Force's chances of beating BYU: 20 percent

SAN DIEGO STATE:
Like UNLV, quarterback looks to be the lone failing of a very talented San Diego State team. Matt Dlugolecki's quarterback efficiency (103) was even lower than the Running Rebels' Kurt Nantkes'. His inexperienced play can be directly attributed to Aztec losses, including a monumental chance to stun Ohio State at home.

Unlike Nantkes, Dlugolecki was only a sophomore last year so there is time and room for improvement. If Dlugolecki can put it together, San Diego State could be extremely formidable in conference play. There is too much talent on both sides of the ball to not keep them in every game they have on their schedule. However, that has been the proverbial story of the Aztecs since the LaVell Edwards-Al Luginbill WAC wars. San Diego State always had much better talent on paper, but BYU usually beat them. As a Cougar fan, I hope the Aztecs can steal one from Utah at Qualcomm Stadium.

Despite their offensive skill, San Diego was barely able to score more points per game (18) than BYU's anemic offense (16) last season. Dlugolecki was replaced mid-season by senior Adam Hall who returned from an ankle injury and he didn't do any better with a 104 rating.

Considering the talents of standout receiver Jeff Webb, the smooth running of Lynell Hamilton and the anemic quarterback ratings, it's obvious where the blame lies.

Were San Diego State able to field a quarterback with Alex Smith's (Utah) credentials, they would be the clear favorite to win the conference. Since they don't have such a quarterback, no one has any idea how good San Diego State will be this season. They could be awfully good, or they could be barely average as they were last season. Right tackle Mike Kracalik and the rest of the offensive line should help give the offense some pop.

The Aztec defense, meanwhile, could be as formidable as last season with two NFL-bound linebackers and eight starters returning.

The scheduling gods have smiled on BYU for their game against a potentially dangerous Aztec team. The Cougars have a bye week before the game, which happens to be at Provo in November.

As a former Californian, I can tell you playing in cold weather will bother San Diego State. With a bye week, home field and a weather advantage (notwithstanding a team as talented as the Aztecs), I favor BYU in this game. If the teams were in San Diego, I could envision the Aztecs pulling off the upset. This game could be close.

San Diego State's chances of beating BYU: 48 percent

NEW MEXICO:
The Lobos shouldn't be too much different in 2004. Though they only return nine starters, they return them at the most important positions that match their style of play. Even though New Mexico is a ball-control run-oriented offense, they still led the conference in scoring with 30 points a game. If BYU had produced that many, they could have won 10 or more games. That's why it's very critical for New Mexico to return their stud running back Dontrell Moore and three offensive linemen from possibly the league's best run blocking unit. New Mexico also returns its nose tackle and two cornerbacks, including standout Gabriel Fullbright. If they were able to keep "Loboback" Brandon Ratcliff one more season, they'd be set.

Breaking in a new quarterback and receivers, New Mexico will likely cling to its ground game. The Lobos played a fairly balanced game style last season. This season I expect them to run as much as possible. Moore has a chance to become the best running back in the short history of the Mountain West Conference. Why not use him?

The good news for Cougar fans is New Mexico's style of game plays right into the hands of the BYU defense. If I were one of BYU defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall's players, I would relish the chance to play against a team that didn't stretch the field or didn't try to make me guess. In an attacking and aggressive style defense, the Cougars definitely prefer to play a team that lets them know what they are doing and dares them to stop it.

Inexperience won't be a factor in this game because it is in mid-November, but overall talent and style of play will. New Mexico's cornerbacks could help keep this one close, but I don't expect much from New Mexico's offense. This game could end up being close for the fourth year in a row, but BYU should win.

New Mexico's chances of beating BYU: 30 percent

UTAH:
Utah is a Top-10 team. They are the outright conference champs and they have a ton of outstanding players coming back. Urban Meyer is a fantastic coach who is destined to do great things at Utah… If you listen to coach Meyer and the Utah media, you'd think the Miami Hurricanes had relocated to Salt Lake City.

You have to hand it to him, though: Meyers and the Utah athletic department are doing a heck of a job marketing his team and his emerging football program to Utahns unaccustomed to this much success in Salt Lake City. BYU should take note.

Meyer would disagree, but I think the strength of Utah's team is definitely on the offensive side of the ball. They return four players with starting experience from a pretty good offensive line and add the No. 2 rated JC offensive line recruit Paul Soliai. They may have to start an inexperienced player at center, but that is the only potential weakness.

Quarterback Alex Smith didn't throw for a ton of yards. He only threw for more than 300 yards in one game (Oregon). His strength was he just never did anything to hurt the team, throwing only three interceptions and he came through in big nationally televised games. As a sophomore, he gave Utah fans everything they could want. If John Beck, Matt Berry or whomever BYU's starting quarterback will be can duplicate that performance, everything will be right again in Cougarland.

The wide receiver position, the weakest spot last season, is now the assumed strength of this year's Cougar offensive squad. Still, the Utes have the best receiving corps of proven starters in the conference with Paris Warren, Steve Savoy and the less flashy Travis LaTendresse. Warren is the player that makes the offense work, providing clutch first downs whenever Utah needs them. Utah might be in trouble at running back. They are thinner than BYU, who suffered significant setbacks with the off-season loss of two potential fall starters in Reynaldo Brathwaite and Marcus Whalen.

As a freshman, Ute 2004 starter Mike Liti showed little reason to believe he will emerge as a dominant runner and the talented-but-troubled Marty Johnson has proved anything but reliable. If Johnson has a solid season for Utah, he'll make a pleasant human-interest story. However, at this point he is hardly one to take to the bank.

The Utes have no one to replace Ben Moa. Moa was the X-factor and a backbreaker at tight end. Expect little production from his replacements this early. This will hurt Utah because Moa accounted for six touchdowns and 26 receptions.

Utah's best player on defense is Morgan Scalley. This is where reality needs to settle in for Utah's coach Meyer, who called Scalley one of the top five safeties in the country in a recent interview.

That must make the Mountain West Conference college football's safety heaven. Aaron Francisco and Jamaal Brimmer, who are clearly better, would then have to be listed among the nation's top four. Scalley racked up 73 tackles last year. Francisco had more than that after the eighth game of the season and finished with 116 tackles. To me, there is no comparison between the two.

Playing alongside Scalley are three defensive backs Meyer swears will comprise one of the nation's best secondaries. When you think of great secondaries, you think Miami, Ohio State, Michigan, UCLA and Florida State? And Utah's now part of that elite group?

Not only do the Utes have Scalley, they also have Eric Weddle who got bumped from corner to safety to make room for Gerald Fletcher, who had six tackles last season. Also at left cornerback is Bo Nagahi, who has a "three-point-five inch vertical" leap, according to Utah's athletic department, but that's obviously a typo. You're right, Meyer. That looks like one of the best secondaries in the nation. How Miami and Florida must eye your team with envy.

Meyer considers his linebackers to be the best in the conference. He might want to check MWC linebacker statistics first. I think the Utah linebackers are lucky to be at the U because I don't know what other team would start them.

Corey Dodds, a player Meyer promises will be an all-conference performer had 42 tackles last season. Spencer Toone, who starts alongside Dodds had 65. I'll be sure to tell Kirk Morrison (115 tackles), Adam Seward (119 tackles) and Matt McCoy (125 tackles) they won't be all-conference this year to make room because of Dodds and McCoy.

Even if Utah's defense isn't the world-class unit that Meyer embellishes, it is still a solid defensive group and will still turn out good performances because of longtime defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham. I don't think there is anyone better at getting the most out of mediocre talent.

Utah's chances of beating BYU: 50 percent

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