By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
(Sports Network) - The Cougars finished 7-6 overall and 5-3 in their final season as members of the Mountain West Conference. They also earned a sixth straight bowl invitation, but only after turning things around from a painfully slow start. BYU topped Washington in the opener, but another month would pass before the Cougars tasted victory again. They lost four in a row to Air Force, Florida State, Nevada and Utah State, with seemingly no end in sight. BYU finally got back in the win column by beating San Diego State, only to get routed the following week at league powerhouse TCU.
The loss to the Horned Frogs sparked a revival for the Cougars' season, as they responded by winning each of their next four contests to become bowl eligible. Along the way, they also held three straight opponents to 10 points or less. BYU toppled UTEP, 52-24, in the New Mexico Bowl. The 52 points set a program bowl record, as BYU became one of only 11 schools to win four bowl games over the last five years. It also provided invaluable experience for quarterback Jake Heaps, who was named MVP of the game as a true freshman.
By season's end, the Cougars had played eight teams that qualified for bowl games in 2010. They finished their 12-year tenure in the MWC with 64 conference wins -- the most of any league school.
OFFENSE: The offense returns every starter from a year ago except for right guard. Jake Heaps took over at quarterback three weeks into the season as a rookie, and he went on to break Ty Detmer's freshman school record for touchdown passes, along with a number of other records. With a year under his belt, Heaps and company will be operating under new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, who is expected to utilize the same pro-style offense.
Behind Heaps, the backfield is loaded. Senior J.J. Di Luigi averaged 5.2 yards per carry while rushing for 917 yards, adding another 443 yards as a receiver. The shifty Di Luigi, a Second Team All-MWC selection, had a team-leading eight touchdowns on the ground and one more through the air. He'll be complemented by fellow senior Bryan Kariya, a north-and-south runner who added 550 yards and six TDs (4.0 ypc), along with Joshua Quezada, who ran for 518 yards (5.1 ypc) and five scores.
BYU is also pretty stacked at wideout with the return of starters McKay Jacobson and Cody Hoffman, redshirt freshman Ross Apo and several other key contributors. Hoffman (42 rec, 527 yds) led the team with seven receiving TDs and had a big game in the New Mexico Bowl.
All four starting linemen return, including junior all-conference left tackle Matt Reynolds. Coach Bronco Mendenhall noted the offensive line's performance in the team's first scrimmage.
"I think the offensive line was the most cohesive and stuck out to me the most," Mendenhall said. "I liked how physical they were."
DEFENSE: After a 1-4 start, Mendenhall took over a 101st-ranked defense for the final eight games, and the Cougars finished 24th nationally in overall defense. Mendenhall will continue to run the unit in 2011, and seven starters return on that side of the ball. However, he must replace a pair of all- conference players in defensive end Vic So'oto and safety Andrew Rich.
Defensive tackle Romney Fuga was arguably the team's best defender through the first four games of 2010 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Now healthy, Fuga will anchor the defensive line and will be joined by Ian Dulan, a three-year starter who returns after completing his missionary service.
The Cougars also boast a ton of starting experience at linebacker, and perhaps the most talented of that group is Jordan Pendleton, who was limited to just six games last year because of an injury. Jameson Frazier is a team captain who also notched a pair of interceptions from his outside linebacker spot a year ago.
The secondary is where BYU has undergone some changes, although fellow captain Travis Uale should provide some leadership from his free safety position. Keep an eye on sophomore Daniel Sorensen, who played linebacker in 2008 before spending the past two years as a missionary in Costa Rica. Back in his original position at strong safety, Sorensen turned lots of heads in the spring, perhaps answering the question of who will replace Rich.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sorensen doubles as a kicker, and he'll try and replace Mitch Payne, the school's all-time leading scorer. Sorensen handled kickoff duties as a freshman in '08 before his missionary work. Elsewhere, junior punter Riley Stephenson has a big leg, as evidenced by his BYU bowl record 60-yard punt in the New Mexico Bowl. He also has some touch, as he placed 20 kicks inside the 20. Hoffman will once again handle kick return duties after averaging an impressive 27.1 yards in 2010, while J.D. Falslev is back after averaging 9.1 yards per punt return.
OUTLOOK: Coach Mendenhall has the highest winning percentage in school history at .731 (56-21), and his 56 wins are the most by a BYU head coach in his first six years at the helm. But while the Cougars have become accustomed to 10-win seasons (four of the last five years), they are now stepping out of their element and will face some new opponents. Mendenhall said he is anxious to get several position battles sorted out sooner rather than later.
"There are some pretty good battles going on at a couple different places which is great, but the sooner we can get those settled the better," Mendenhall said. "We can then get a little more continuity with the same people playing the same people."
Branching out as an Independent, BYU's schedule gets underway with a pair of tough road games against Ole Miss and Texas. The Cougars will still play at former MWC rival TCU in late-October, two weeks after another challenging road tilt at Oregon State. However, with the talent in place, the Cougars won't back down to any opponent from a BCS conference. If Heaps can pick up where he left off, and Mendenhall's defense can build on how it finished last year, BYU will certainly have a good shot at extending its bowl streak.