BYU football preview: Bar is raised for Cougars in Sitake's second season

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake shouts in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Southern Utah, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Provo • Former legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards will be memorialized often in 2017 following his death at the age of 86 last December.

Patches bearing Edwards’ likeness with the block letters “LAVELL” will adorn players’ jerseys and coaches’ shirt sleeves, and several other tributes are planned for the man who put BYU football on the map.

It is entirely fitting that one of Edwards’ former players, current coach Kalani Sitake, is using one of his mentor’s favorite lines to describe BYU’s prospects in 2017. “I really look forward to the season, and like LaVell would say, ‘I think we have a chance to be pretty good,’ ” Sitake said.

No quests for perfection, no talk of going undefeated, making the college football playoffs or ending the six-game losing skid to rival Utah. No way. Not from this guy. Edwards would be proud.

“Like I said before, I don’t think anything has really changed, other than just trying to get the best team out there and play and compete,” Sitake said, referencing some remarks he made during June’s media day about being a lot more comfortable in his second season. “I want our players to enjoy the process. I want them to enjoy the game. I think we play a lot better when we are loose and having fun, and I have been really impressed with the team.”

The Cougars will succeed if • Their defense remains stout against the run and becomes more adept at pressuring passers and their offense develops some big-play ability to overcome the loss of running back Jamaal Williams and quarterback Taysom Hill. With little experience behind him, junior Tanner Mangum must stay healthy and have an above average season for it all to click.<br>The Cougars won’t succeed if • They get wrecked, mentally and physically, by a killer September schedule that includes LSU, Utah and Wisconsin and a deceivingly difficult Friday night road game at Utah State. Another loss to Utah could derail the honeymoon period that coach Kalani Sitake, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki continue to enjoy.<br>Bottom line • Once again, BYU’s season will be made, or broken, by the time the middle of October rolls around and the usual killer first-half schedule turns considerably easier. If the Cougars can beat Utah for the first time since 2009 and win four or five of their first seven games, there will be partying in Provo and dreams of a lucrative bowl bid.

Whatever the case, the honeymoon for Sitake and his new Cougars went 9-4 with losses to four teams — Utah, UCLA, West Virginia and Boise State — by a total of eight points last year.

However, if the Cougars lose to the Utes on Sept. 9, those positive vibes might dissipate. Sitake, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer and his staff are well aware of that.

“Trust me, we all know how much that game means to everyone,” running backs coach Reno Mahe said.

Like last year, BYU faces a killer first-half schedule — sans the opener vs. FCS Portland State — that also includes LSU, Wisconsin, Boise State and Mississippi State. The schedule softens considerably after Oct. 14, but far-flung games at East Carolina on Oct. 21 and Hawaii on Nov. 25 won’t be picnics.

Unlike last year, BYU’s bowl destination has yet to be determined, a bit of a gamble by athletic director Tom Holmoe but one that could pay off handsomely if the Cougars somehow manage to get to double-digit wins.

They have an experienced quarterback in place, even if junior Tanner Mangum threw only 33 passes last year, completing 22 for 241 yards. He was 267 of 446 for 3,377 yards as a freshman in 2015.

“We have high expectations for ourselves, high goals,” Mangum said. “I really believe the sky is the limit for us. … So it is just up to us. A lot of that falls on me. I recognize that as a quarterback I need to take responsibility for the offense to move the ball and put points on the board and put our team in a good position to win. So that’s exciting to me.”

How Detmer’s offense performs probably will make or break the Cougars because Ilaisa Tuiaki’s defense returns most of the key pieces from a unit that was in the top 30 in total defense last season and welcomes back 2015 star defensive end Sione Takitaki, a potential difference-maker.

BYU schedule analysis

Aug. 26 vs. Portland State, 1 p.m. • Shrewd move by athletic director Tom Holmoe to add FCS Vikings.

Sept. 2 vs. LSU at Houston, 7:30 p.m. • Ty Detmer’s offense will be tested quickly by an excellent, stingy SEC defense.

Sept. 9 vs. Utah, 8:15 p.m. • Utah has won six straight, and its fans have made sure Cougars know it.

Sept. 16 vs. Wisconsin, 1:30 p.m. • Big Ten favorite will make its first trip to Provo without star LB Jack Cichy (ACL).

Sept. 29 at Utah State, 6 p.m. • Aggies went 3-9 last season but always get fired up for the hated Cougars.

Oct. 6 vs. Boise State, 8:15 p.m. • Home team has won every game since the series resumed in 2012.

Oct. 14 at Mississippi State, TBD • Bulldogs get a chance for revenge after Cougars won 21-14 in OT last year.

Oct. 21 at East Carolina, TBD • This will be Cougars’ first game in the state of North Carolina.

Oct. 28 vs. San Jose State, TBD • Spartans always seem to play well against the Cougars.

Nov. 4 at Fresno State, TBD • Bulldogs’ coach Jeff Tedford coached Cal to 38-35 win over BYU in 2005 Las Vegas Bowl.

Nov. 10 at UNLV, 8:30 p.m. • Cougars and Rebels renew an old Mountain West Conference rivalry.

Nov. 18 vs. Massachusetts, 1 p.m. • Minutemen say they’ve improved after 51-9 drubbing last November.

Nov. 25 at Hawaii, 7 p.m. • Last time Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich went against BYU was 72-45 win in 2001.

(File Photo . | . The Salt Lake Tribune) . BYU's 2017 depth chart

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