Sept. 17, LaVell Edwards Stadium
2015 Record: 9-4
2015 Recap: BYU's season got semi-derailed early with the loss of quarterback Taysom Hill, who suffered a Lisfranc fracture in the first game of the season. The Cougars rebounded, though, thanks to some solid play by (non-traditional) freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum, who had a really impressive first year as a starter, completing nearly 60% of his passes for 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The Cougars' offense was stymied against the better teams on the schedule, though, with UCLA, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah all finding ways to shut down BYU. At the completion of the season, long-time coach Bronco Mendenhall left for Virginia, and Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake was hired as BYU's new head coach.
Returning Starters: 15 (7 on offense, 8 on defense)
2016 Projection: BYU should have a better team in 2016 than in 2015, but the Cougars could end up with a significantly worse record. Their schedule is BRUTAL. Typically, we've talked about schedule last in these sections, but it needs to be said up front: BYU is not shying away from competition at all this year.
The Cougars play Arizona, at Utah, against UCLA, against West Virginia, at Michigan State, and against Mississippi State -- within the first seven games of the season! That's not even factoring in a roadie against Boise State. If BYU somehow ends up with another 9-3 regular season record next year, it'll be some kind of miracle -- or a sign that the Cougars are a legitimately very good team.
There's reason to think they might be. BYU returns most of its offensive line from last year, both Mangum and Hill (granted a rare sixth year of eligibility), and its starting running back. BYU does have to replace its receiving corps, which did some damage last year with its size and strength, but there's enough talent there for the Cougars to have a decent passing attack, especially with a talented quarterback at the helm.
On defense, five starters in the front seven return, though the Cougars will have to find a replacement for Bronson Kaufusi at defensive end. BYU returns both starting corners, and a starting safety as well, from what was at least an average defense last year.
In an unscientific assessment that might be completely BS but sounds right, BYU teams that return this many starters are generally pretty dangerous. Already, BYU players are more physically mature at a similar class level than their peers, so when you add in a sprinkling of actual experience, it makes them even more dangerous.
The schedule is tough, though. If you took this year's BYU team and gave them last year's schedule, it's pretty easy to imagine them going 10-2 or 11-1 in the regular season. As it stands, getting through the regular season at 8-4 or so has to be considered a solid performance for Sitake's first year, and anything above that is an absolute win.
Outlook for UCLA: In our estimation, this is actually the toughest game of the non-conference schedule for UCLA. Texas A&M has a lot of problems of its own, and UCLA's understanding of Noel Mazzone's offense should prove to be an advantage. UNLV is not talented enough to loom as a real threat, especially at home. BYU, though, is talented enough to be a real threat, as UCLA saw at the Rose Bowl last year, and these games always turn into physical, brutal affairs. Throw in that this game is in Provo, and it just has the feel of a game where UCLA could have real issues.
Even without Kaufusi, this is going to be a challenge for UCLA's new-look offensive line, though perhaps not as significant a challenge as the opener against A&M's excellent ends. BYU brings an overall physicality, though, that could be an eye-opener to some of UCLA's new starters. Running the ball on BYU, with its returning strength on the interior, could prove to be a significant challenge.
Defensively, there isn't the obvious mismatch that there was a year ago, where BYU's big receivers looked like they'd be able to take advantage of UCLA's corners. This year, we're just not sure who BYU's receivers are going to be, but odds are they won't be the same level of players. Also, UCLA running a 4-3 now should help to mitigate some of BYU's physicality up front.
In other news, scheduling two road trips against good opponents in the same non-conference season remains a questionable choice.
And having to go on the road to Provo a week before hosting UCLA's next opponent is just bad news all around.
Next up: Stanford...