In the latest US News and World Report ranking of "America's Best Colleges," BYU was placed at No. 71 in the nation - a 42 position leap, up from No. 113 in the previous publication. This would seem to suggest that the university is improving in areas such as enhanced acceptance criteria, class sizes and alumni contributions. Whether you feel this is a good transformation or not, these facts lead to an inference that BYU is becoming an "elitist" institution.
One could argue that BYU football has gone in a similar direction. While the program has yet to reach the BCS, as the Utes were able to accomplish in 2008, it is somewhat remarkable to reflect on 2008 as a major disappointment - but that is the general consensus. Last season the Cougars beat two PAC-10 opponents, won ten games, reached a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season, finished with their highest BCS ranking ever (16th) and third year in a row in the Top-25 (AP - 25th; Coaches - 21st).
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If 2008 had occurred in the Edwards era it might have been regarded as one of Coach Edwards' top-10 teams. Yet, because UCLA and Washington had horrific years, and because BYU was stomped in Fort Worth, Salt Lake and Las Vegas (versus Arizona), in many fans' eyes the season was dismal.
In several ways those points are valid. If Mendenhall is truly aiming to produce a stellar program - not just a top-notch season - a fourth successive Las Vegas bowl isn't particularly inspiring. But still, ten wins is nothing to be scoffed at in college football, especially when at least attempting to schedule marquee opponents. Ten wins with last year's defensive personnel is astonishing really. Outside of Jan Jorgensen and David Nixon, was there anyone that opposing offenses had to give much thought? Can you imagine what would have been the prognosis had the Cougars lost to UNLV at home and Colorado State on the road- both of which were close contests?
However, not since the Detmer-era has the BYU football program been regarded in such a positive light nationally. Sure there was the 1996 season that culminated in the Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State and the 2001 season that ended with a whimper against Louisville in the Liberty Bowl - but neither of those seasons were followed with as much promise as 2008.
All of the big names from 2008, minus Austin Collie, return for 2008. This includes five 2009 Preseason All-Mountain West selections: Hall, Jorgensen, Payne, Pitta and Unga. Last season's defensive secondary was so poor that with multiple JC-transfer additions in 2009 the area can only improve. The defensive line returns three starters and the offensive line returns Matt Reynolds, a Freshman All-American. Also, the 2009 recruiting class was ranked first in the MWC by Scout.com and the 2010 recruiting class (currently ranked No. 11 in the nation) is arguably the most promising in the history of the program.
In 2009 the Cougars have a chance to put together something special. They aren't going to beat OU. But they have a real opportunity against Florida State in Provo. If they can escape their conference schedule unscathed then Mendenhall will have inched the program one step closer to respectability among the NCAA's elite - and possibly even the school's first BCS birth. It's a long road. The Seminoles, Frogs and Utes will all come into Provo with something to prove and playing a decent UNLV team in Las Vegas could be complicated.
Overall it's important to keep things in perspective. Personally I'm not sure that 2009 will end up better than 2008. But I think ten wins in 2009 - meaning BYU's only losses were probably to OU and FSU or OU and TCU - would be yet another indicator that the program is moving in a positive direction. An exceptional direction even. The media has already anointed BYU as a possible BCS buster (déjà vu?) but we'll know a lot more soon - if they can keep the Sooners below 50 points, and then if they can beat FSU at home, then we'll have good reason to be excited. Until then we'll try to offer some opponent previews and position breakdowns.