The Cougars are first and foremost a passing team. It's been that way since the early days of LaVell Edwards and will likely remain that way for quite some time. With an impressive lineup of returning players which includes two-year starting wideouts Austin Collie and Michael Reed, along with last year's reception-leading tight end Dennis Pitta, the Cougars look to be as prolific as ever through the air.
Throw in returning starter Max Hall and his offensive line, which should add plenty of prime protection, and most predictions would have to be sky-high. Oh, and the Cougars throw it to their running backs more so than most teams, with Harvey Unga hauling in 50 passes over the course of last season. So yeah, there are lots to predict here on the passing front, so let's get started.
Will Max Hall throw for more or less than 4,000 yards?
Last season saw Hall exceed everyone's expectations by throwing for 3,848 yards. Hall is certainly capable of eclipsing the 4,000-yard mark, but an improved Harvey Unga and Fui Vakapuna, along with the promising prospects of J.J. DiLuigi and Wayne Latu, may limit what production he'll have in the air this coming season.
G-man: More than 4,000. This offense will be humming and while I believe the run game will see more production from a year ago, it won't detract from the passing attack even one bit. Cougar fans can expect more long passes down the field and Hall increasing his completion percentage while cutting down on turnovers.
Zionslion: With a year of experience and behind an offensive line Mendenhall considers to be one of the best he's been around as an assistant or head coach, it's hard to not imagine Hall throwing for more than 4,000 yards. Every aspect of this offense indicates a greater production from every facet of the team.
Who will lead the team in receptions?
Last season it was tight end Dennis Pitta with 59 total receptions, giving him the top spot by a hair over wideout Austin Collie, who finished up with 56. Both players obviously return and it should be a two-horse race should they remain healthy.
G-man: Austin Collie. I still believe this will be a monster year for Austin Collie despite his minor setback this August, having to sit out with a stress fracture. Collie's symmetry with Hall is about as good as it gets, which should lead to some staggering production by Hall's number one target on the outside.
Zionslion: It's going to be a tossup between Collie and Pitta, with Unga again being the leading receiver out of the backfield. BYU's offensive coaches know full well what they have and how to use it. Cougar fans can expect more yardage and bigger catches from Collie as the Cougar coaches open things up downfield. However, Pitta will more than likely be isolated with linebackers, allowing him to be the recipient of quicker and more frequent passes.
What can Cougar fans expect from exciting freshman O'Neill Chambers?
True freshman O'Neill Chambers has certainly become one of the top stories of the preseason practice session. Chambers made his way up through the depth chart and ended the practice session getting just about all of his reps with the first-team offensive unit. He looks to be the first or second wide receiver option on the team right now behind Collie and Michael Reed.
G-man: Twenty-six receptions for 450 yards and four touchdowns. Chambers can play ball and he can play right now. He has responded to just about every practice challenge thrown at him and his athleticism and potential are very high. Chambers will get some good work in and should see most of his production during the latter half of the season as he further melds into what the Cougars do offensively.
Zionslion: Cougar fans can expect the talented Floridian wideout to be grafted more into the offense as the season wears on. In time Chambers will gain in-game trust from coaches, eventually giving way to more minutes on the field. Cougar fans can expect Chambers to catch about two passes a game for a season total of about 400 yards as the freshman gets acclimated to Division I football.
With four returning starters on the offensive line, the Cougar offensive front should be plowing some large holes for Harvey Unga and company this coming season.
Harvey Unga will run for more or less yards than he did last season?
Unga was the Cougar running attack by and large last season, running for 1,227 yards, 13 touchdowns and an average of 5.0 yards per carry. Unga's game has only gotten better since then and he's fully healthy entering the 2008 season.
G-man: Less. Unga will be every bit as good as he was last season, but improved play from Fui Vakapuna and the rise of J.J. DiLuigi will allow Cougar coaches to give Unga some more rest, which they wanted to do last season but couldn't due to lack of depth. The Cougar ground game will increase its overall numbers, while Unga's numbers will be slightly down from a year ago.
Zionslion: Unga is and will remain the primary running back option in the Cougar offense. As the best Cougar running back option at this point in time, Unga will receive the bulk of the carries. With a year under his belt and behind a more experienced o-line, it's hard to argue that Unga's numbers will drop off. Cougar fans can expect Harvey Unga to have a similar season to last year's performance.
How productive will Fui Vakapuna be?
A better Fui Vakapuna is needed immensely in the Cougar backfield due to the absence of Manase Tonga. Vakapuna certainly has the ability, but after his under-performing 2007 season, Cougar fans are curious as to what type of contribution Vakapuna will make in 2008. Vakapuna's numbers last season were 283 yards rushing and a single catch for four yards, and he'll certainly have to improve upon those numbers in his increased role as starting fullback.
G-man: Vakapuna will run for 400-to-500 yards and come close to 20 receptions this season. Vakapuna may not have quite regained the form he showed in 2006, but he certainly looks better than he did in 2007. Vakapuna ended fall camp running strong and catching the ball better, which I believe will be his biggest improvement as he looks to take some of the load away from Unga.
Zionslion: Fui Vakapuna is more improved and thus will have a more productive season this year than his 2007 outing. With Manase Tonga redshirting this year, more of his responsibilities will be placed on the shoulders of Vakapuna as a blocker, ball carrier and ball catcher out of the backfield. One can expect Vakapuna to have about 80 carries for 450 yards and about 27 receptions for 250 yards.
Fearless Prediction for the Offense
G-man: BYU will average more than 35 points per game. The biggest difference between the Cougar offense last season and the one this season will be their ability to finish drives. Last year saw the Cougars whiff on too many scoring opportunities. As Hall and company mature, so will their ability to cap off drives with touchdowns rather than settling for field goals.
Zionslion: Last year's Cougar offense averaged 30.l points per game. It's hard to imagine a more experienced offense not surpassing those numbers. Cougar fans can expect the offense to average about 31 points a game.
On the Defense
While the Cougar offense should be humming, there remains a lot of questions on the defensive side of the ball. While there is some good returning talent, most of that talent is relatively unproven, particularly in the defensive backfield.
How many yards will the Cougar defense allow this season?
The Cougar defense was very stingy last year, allowing opponents to only make 205 yards per game and holding them to less than 15 points per game. This year's defense has a lot of work to do in hopes of matching last season's defensive production.
G-man: The defense will give up more yards than they did a season ago. I believe that the Cougar offense will be scoring faster and with greater frequency than they did a year ago, leading to more time and opportunities for the opposition's offense in most games. I don't expect much of a drop-off, but expect BYU's defense to allow about 235 yards per game and about 18 points per game this season.
Zionslion: The defense will be more athletic and faster, but it may also lack the physicality of last year's squad. BYU fans can expect the defense to be out on the field more than its offensive counterpart, which will give opponents more opportunities to score. Expect the defense to give up more points - about 21 points per game.
Who will lead the team in sacks?
Last year it was Jan Jorgensen not only leading the team but also leading the entire conference in sacks with 14. This year Jorgensen may inherit a lot more double-teams due to his pass rushing performance of a year ago.
G-man: I predicted that it would be Vic So'oto leading the team before the fall practice session, but I'm changing my mind. While I still feel that So'oto will get his, it's become hard for me to believe that Jorgensen won't be leading the team again in this area and maybe even improving upon his sack total from a year ago. Credit Russell Tialavea demanding double-teams for Jorgensen remaining the sack king at BYU.
Zionslion: It will be a tossup between outside linebacker Vic So'oto and defensive end Jan Jorgensen. Having Russell Tialavea back in the middle is a blessing for the two defenders simply because it helps free both up for greater opportunities to make sacks. The only difference is Jorgensen will be rushing every down, whereas So'oto will be rushing the quarterback in selected circumstances. Cougar fans can expect Jorgensen to be the Cougars sack leader for the second year in a row, with So'oto not too far behind.
Who will lead the team in tackles?
Last year it was Kelly Poppinga with 113 total tackles from his Mike linebacker position. Kehl was next with 91 tackles recorded from the critical Sam outside linebacker position.
G-man: David Nixon. While it will be hard to beat out any Mike linebacker for the highest tackle total, I believe that Nixon will end up leading the team in overall tackles. Nixon has thrived in his new outside linebacker position this past August and has looked improved in his ability to defend against the run, which will earn him the most overall tackles by a nose over Matt Bauman.
Zionslion: David Nixon will become the defense's tackle leader. He's quick, smart and was selected as a defensive team captain for a reason. Nixon will be the leading tackler for the Cougar defense this season.
Who will lead the team in interceptions?
Last season saw four defensive players tie for the team lead with three apiece. Will this season again see the interceptions equally distributed by and large, or will a clear leader emerge?
G-man: I'm going with David Nixon again, this time to lead the team in interceptions. With how defensive coordinator Jaime Hill calls his defense, Nixon will be in coverage a lot. Nixon can cover a lot of ground and knows how to cover and defend in the open field. It will be Nixon by a nose, as he'll intercept only four passes this year, but it will be enough to give him the overall lead in this category.
Zionslion: Tied with Corby Hodgkiss, Quinn Gooch and Kayle Buchanan, outside linebacker Bryan Kehl was one of the defensive leaders in interceptions last year. However, let's spread the love around here a little. It can be argued that Nixon could take the place of Kehl and could have similar results, but with three secondary players tying Kehl in interceptions last year, my selection will go to senior safety Kellen Fowler. Fowler is a smart defender with game experience in the Cougar secondary.
The team just completed its best fall practice session ever under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, and they're poised and ready to run the table and bust the BCS. They're mature and they'll get over the hump of losing close road games, which has kept them from running the table the last two years. Cougar fans expect a lot from this team and what Mendenhall has done since becoming head coach, is meeting almost everyone's expectations. The expectations of most fans this year is for BYU to bust the BCS, and Mendenhall and his team will again meet their expectations.
G-man: For the 2008 Cougars, I'm going with 12-0 and a berth into their first BCS bowl game. The two key games this year will be on the road against Washington and on the road to finish up against Utah. A lot of people have pointed to TCU as a potential loss, but I love how BYU's offense matches up against TCU's defensive system every year, which again will lead to a road win against TCU. UCLA will be down this year and the Cougars should handle them without too much trouble at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Zionslion: With the experienced Cougar talent coming back, and after taking a look at the strength of the teams on the schedule, it's hard to see how the Cougars don't have the capability to go 12-0 this year. UCLA won't have the firepower it had last year with incoming head coach Rick Neuheisel and first-year offensive coordinator Norm Chow. The toughest games will come from in-conference teams Utah and TCU, both of which the Cougars play on the road. However, an undefeated season is what players and coaches within the program expect, given the talent coming back and the matchups. In the end the Cougars will extend their nation's longest winning streak of 10 by adding 12 more.