Provo • BYU football players and coaches said after their 24-21 win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl last month that they were proud of reaching the 10-win plateau in their first year as an independent.
If the Cougars can repeat that kind of success in 2012 with a schedule that is markedly more difficult and includes road games at Utah, Boise State, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame and home contests against the Pac-12's Oregon State and Washington State, that pride will be twice as justifiable, maybe more.
"I like our chances," coach Bronco Mendenhall said Wednesday.
There are two primary reasons for Mendenhall's optimisim.
Chiefly, the Cougars believe they have found a quarterback, senior Riley Nelson, who gives them an identity and a purpose that was missing at the start of the 2011 season, when they dropped two of their first three games and looked inept on offense.
Nelson isn't a work of art, Mendenhall allowed, but he's effective, plucky and easy to rally around. He finished 16th nationally in pass efficiency and threw for 1,717 yards while rushing for 392, albeit against lesser opponents than he will face in 2012 if he stays healthy.
"I think we are more solidified [at quarterback] than we were a year ago, even though I thought we were at this same spot a year ago," Mendenhall said. "I think we are maybe the next step forward from that. ... We will continue to help [Nelson] continue to improve in his skill set and the offensive design and play-calling that will maximize what he can do."
When they have a senior quarterback calling the shots, the Cougars historically have been tough to beat.
Secondly, Mendenhall will welcome back one of the most experienced teams in his eight years as BYU's coach. It will include 29 seniors such as OL Braden Hansen, OL Braden Brown, DT Romney Fuga, DE Eathyn Manumaleuna, LB Brandon Ogletree, LB Uona Kaveinga and CB Preston Hadley and a trio of blossoming underclassmen in LB Kyle Van Noy, WRs Ross Apo and Cody Hoffman and RB Mike Alisa.
"I think our football team will be a very good team," Mendenhall said, referencing how BYU has finished the season in the rankings in five of the past six years. "We have got 29 seniors, just that alone, that's a third of our team. And we have a lot of good players. ... We are winning a lot of football games, more than almost anyone in the country. Our peers in college football, the coaches, believe we are one of the best teams in the country, as they are voting us [in the top 25] almost every year."
The entire coaching staff is expected to return intact. Mendenhall did some major shuffling at this time last year after the 2010 season produced a 7-6 record. Wednesday, he said he was "really comfortable" with offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, who came under fire early in the season when the offensive sputtered against the likes of Ole Miss, Texas and Utah.
"I believe the reason we have success at BYU is the people I am able to surround myself with, that's players and coaches," Mendenhall said. "I consider that basically the secret to consistency. While we still have room to grow and improve and we look forward to that the future looks bright."
But measurably more difficult.
If the Cougars are going to post their sixth 10-win season in the past eight years in 2012, they are going to have to figure out a way to beat top-quality opponents, something they've been mediocre at, or worse, in Mendenhall's tenure.
"I like the body of work," Mendenhall said while expressing his happiness and job satisfaction at BYU and noting that he had an offer to leave the school for another head coaching job at a Football Bowl Subdivision school but turned it down. "I like the direction of our program, and I like the consistency. I think it is recognized sometimes more out of state than in state."
In addition to the aforementioned juniors and seniors, BYU will welcome back one of the largest groups of returned missionaries ever at least 14. Of those, receiver Brett Thompson, defensive tackle Russell Tialavea and safety Craig Bills made the biggest impacts before they left. Mendenhall said the two quarterbacks transferring in after missions Stanford's Taysom Hill and Southern Utah's Ammon Olsen have already enrolled and found favor with their teammates for their workout habits.
However, he said senior James Lark will go into spring camp, which begins on March 5, as Nelson's backup.
BYU footballin 2012
Back for winter semester/spring camp in March:
• WR Brett Thompson (Louisville, Ky.)
• OL Terrance Alletto (Riverside, Calif.)
• WR Mitch Mathews (Orlando, Fla.)
• OL Fono Vakalahi (Washington, D.C.)
•*QB Taysom Hill (Sydney)
•**QB Ammon Olsen (Mexico City)
•***DT Russell Tialavea (Santiago, Chile)
Back for preseason camp in August:
• S Craig Bills (Ventura, Calif.)
• S Trevor Bateman (Fort Worth, Texas)
• DT Tui Crichton (Houston)
• DE Remington Peck (Rochester, N.Y.)
• S Jacob Hannemann (Little Rock, Ark.)
• DE Bronson Kaufusi (Auckland, New Zealand)
• OL Brad Wilcox (San Bernardino, Calif.)
* - Transferring from Stanford
** - Transferring from Southern Utah
*** - Left after junior season, only one year of eligibility remaining
Key losses on offense • OL Matt Reynolds, OL Terence Brown, RB JJ Di Luigi, RB Bryan Kariya
Key returners on offense • QB Riley Nelson, WR Cody Hoffman, WR Ross Apo, RB Mike Alisa, OL Braden Hansen
Key losses on defense • DE Hebron Fangupo, CB Corby Eason, S Travis Uale, LB Jameson Frazier, LB Jordan Pendleton
Key returners on defense • NT Romney Fuga, DE Eathyn Manumaleuna, LB Uona Kaveinga, LB Kyle Van Noy, LB Brandon Ogletree, CB Preston Hadley