The BYU Cougars are on the hunt for 10-plus wins in 2014 — a haul fans have been starving for in recent seasons.
Consecutive 8-5 finishes and a combined 1-7 record against top-25 opponents during that stretch has been rightfully unsatisfying for all connected with the program, but there are more than a few reasons to be optimistic about the Cougars in 2014.
Let’s examine how things look for BYU on offense, defense and with their schedule.
There is plenty of returning offensive talent to suggest BYU could be even better than last season, which featured plenty of big plays but not enough consistency. The Cougars’ up-tempo attack returns its top-five rushers from 2013, all of whom totaled more than 200 yards on the ground and 4.9 yards-per-carry or better.
The offensive line could also be dominant — which is really saying something considering the Cougars finished seventh in the nation in Adjusted Line Yards in 2013. Nine of the 11 players who gained starting experience during last season’s constant shuffling return, giving BYU plenty of depth and enough justification to claim the running game will go from dangerous to deadly.
Despite all that potential, fans should still be somewhat wary of the Cougars’ offense. Dual-threat QB Taysom Hill (2,938 passing yards, 1,573 rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns in 2013) tried to do a bit too much at times last season, and for all of the impressive stats, Hill and the rest of the offense simply did not show up in big games. The unit’s issues with catching up after falling behind could also be exacerbated by the departure of the top-three receivers from 2013.
However, there is a glass half-full perspective on the situation. 6-foot-6 junior Mitch Mathews (23 catches for 397 yards and four touchdowns) emerged as a consistent pass-catcher during BYU’s five-game win streak. His return will also be aided by the arrival of graduate transfer and former UTEP standout Jordan Leslie, who will be expected to fill in immediately after averaging 16.7 yards-per-catch with a less talented team in 2012. If these two can help fill the void left at the top of the depth chart, there are a few more intriguing players who will fill in for whatever else BYU needs out of their passing game.
The most notable departure from the Cougars’ stellar 2013 defense is undoubtedly OLB Kyle Van Noy, but the loss of three other starters up front and five of last year’s top six linebackers will be a constant reminder for fans this season that the group wasn’t a one-man act. While no one can possibly expect BYU to immediately reload and play at the same level as they did defensively, it’s difficult, however, to imagine there will be much of a drop-off with a defense under the tutelage of Bronco Mendenhall and Nick Howell.
The Cougars’ defensive front will miss Eathyn Manumaleuna, but senior Marques Johnson and junior Remington Peck should help keep things from regressing much. Although junior Logan Taele is only other player up front with game experience following Bronson Kaufusi‘s switch to OLB, there are plenty of big bodies who will get their opportunities.
The linebacking corps will be led by senior Alani Fua and the 6-foot-7 Kaufusi, who will be imposing, to say the least, taking over for Van Noy. Like the defensive line, there are a variety of talented candidates who will emerge, with juniors Manoa Pikula (23 tackles) and Jherremya Leuta-Douyere (13 tackles) looking ready for bigger roles.
While the BYU secondary lost a few key players from the 2013 rotation, it looks to be the strongest defensive unit. The return of cornerback Jordan Johnson, who was lost for all of last season, Craig Bills (64 tackles and two interceptions in 2013), Robertson Daniel (56.5 tackles and two interceptions), Skye PoVey (39 tackles and one interception) and the addition of Nebraska Cornhuskers transfer Harvey Jackson suggests the Cougars are going to get their hands on a lot of balls.
If there’s any reason to believe in BYU in 2014, it’s because of their schedule.
While there are some concerns on both sides of the ball, BYU has the talent to be in every game they play. Plenty of power conference opponents dot the schedule, but it appears the Cougars may only play one or two ranked squads in 2014 — opening the door for that elusive double-digit win season fans have been teased with since their last taste of it in 2009.