Yahoo Sports Minute:

Team countdown: No. 32 BYU

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

BYU finished 10-3 last season, its first as an independent, and while this season's team could be more talented than the 2011 version, a tougher schedule might make it tough to reach double-digit victories.

The defense again should finish in the nation's top 20, and the offense should be better than it was last season – assuming the Cougars get production from their tailbacks.

The particulars

Last season: 10-3 overall
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (66-24, 8th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – T Braden Brown, G Braden Hansen, TE Austin Holt, WR Cody Hoffman, QB Riley Nelson, G Houston Reynolds (moving to C). Defense (7) – T Romney Fuga, CB Preston Hadley, LB Uona Kaveinga, E Eathyn Manumaleuna, LB Brandon Ogletree, SS Daniel Sorensen, LB Kyle Van Noy. Special teams (2) – K Justin Sorenson, P Riley Stephenson.
Fast fact: BYU has a winning percentage of .754 in the past five seasons, a mark that places it 10th nationally in that span.

Offense

BYU improved after Riley Nelson became the starting quarterback, going 6-1. Nelson threw for 1,717 yards and 19 TDs last season; he also rushed for 392 yards and a TD. The bulk of his yards came in six games, but five of those came against teams with shoddy defenses.

Nelson is a good athlete who can improvise, and coaches plan to throw the ball more this season. But

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QB Riley Nelson's mobility should be an important part of BYU's offense. (AP)

Nelson is not a pure dropback passer, and it will be an interesting to see how the offense performs as the season progresses.

RB Michael Alisa also blossomed in the second half of the season. He had just three carries in the first five games and missed the bowl win over Tulsa, but finished the season with 455 yards and three TDs. Alisa (6 feet 1 and 213 pounds) isn't a breakaway threat, but he is a tough runner. Depth at running back and fullback looks fine; none of the backs are going to scare opponents, but each fits well into BYU's scheme.

The Ross Apo-Cody Hoffman wide receiver duo is a good one. Both are big, physical guys (Apo is 6 feet 3 inches and 206 pounds; Hoffman is 6 feet 4 inches and 208), and Hoffman also has the speed to get deep; he averaged 15.5 yards on his 61 receptions last season. J.D. Falslev is a solid No. 3 receiver, and coaches hope TE Marcus Mathews can become a more important part of the passing attack. Mathews had 27 catches last season.

Senior G Braden Hansen will be a four-year starter and senior T Braden Brown is heading into his third season as a starter. C Houston Reynolds started at guard last season and is moving inside. The other two starters? That's a good question. The left tackle likely will be redshirt freshman Ryker Mathews; he was a four-star recruit and the No. 11 offensive tackle nationally in the 2011 signing class. The other guard spot should go to sophomore Brock Stringham. He signed with BYU in 2008, redshirted that fall, then went on a two-year Mormon mission; he played in eight games last season as a redshirt freshman. Depth is unproven across the line.

Defense

This was a solid unit last season, ranking 13th nationally overall and 19th against the run, and it should be at least as good this season.

Mendenhall serves as his own coordinator. BYU uses a 3-4 set, and returns five starters in the front seven. NT Romney Fuga and E Eathyn Manumaleuna are solid run-stuffers, and senior E Ian Dulan – who redshirted last season after returning from a two-year mission – will fill the lone open spot on the line. Depth is good, too, thanks to the return of T Russell Tialavea from a mission. Tialavea, a sixth-year senior, signed with BYU in 2005.

The linebackers should be even better than the front three. Junior Kyle Van Noy was a big-play guy last

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Uona Kaveinga is a physical presence in the middle of the defense. (Getty Images)

season, his first as a starter. He finished with seven sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, three interceptions, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups, three forced fumbles and a blocked kick. Senior ILBs Uona Kaveinga, who began his career at USC, and Brandon Ogletree are the other returning starters at the position; they combined for 133 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Spencer Hadley moves into the starting lineup after making 45 tackles as a reserve last season. Expectations are high for some of the backups, though none really has made a mark yet.

Two starters return in the secondary: SS Daniel Sorensen and CB Preston Hadley. (Though both Hadleys are Eagle Scouts, they aren't related.) Sorensen is a big hitter who had six pass breakups and Preston Hadley made 51 tackles and had 14 pass breakups (though no interceptions) last season.

The new free safety should be Joe Sampson, who was a key reserve as a JC transfer last fall. The other cornerback spot could be problematic. Sophomore Jordan Johnson is the likely starter, and he should expect a lot of passes to come his way as opponents try to avoid Preston Hadley.

Special teams

K Justin Sorensen, Daniel's cousin, has a strong leg but can be erratic. He was 15-of-25 on field-goal attempts last season; three of his misses were from beyond 50 yards, but he also missed four kicks between 30 and 39 yards.

Senior P Riley Stephenson is a four-year starter; he averaged 42.2 yards last season and dropped 20 of his 47 punts inside the 20.

Falslev (punts) and Hoffman (kickoffs) are solid return men who each took one back for a TD last season. While the kickoff coverage was good, the punt coverage was weak and needs to improve.

Schedule

Five of the first seven games are at home, where the Cougars are 33-4 in the past six seasons.

But the four toughest games are on the road, and those come in sets of two. BYU is at Utah on Sept. 15 and at Boise State on Sept. 22, then is at Notre Dame on Oct. 20 and at Georgia Tech on Oct. 27. There also is just one home game after Oct. 13.

Each of the home games is eminently winnable (two are against Pac-12 teams), and the final two road games are against San Jose State and New Mexico State.

Overview

BYU should win at least eight games. Winning more than eight is going to depend on how the Cougars fare in those four tough road games.

BYU has won at least 10 games in five of the past six seasons. To get to that plateau again, the Cougars are going to have to pull at least one upset. Unless BYU makes it to the BCS, it already knows it will end the season in the Poinsettia Bowl because of a contract with that postseason game.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 59th nationally
The buzz: BYU landed a stud quarterback in Tanner Mangum, a savvy, intelligent four-star recruit from Eagle, Idaho, who turned down offers from Pac-12 and SEC schools to play for the Cougars. The staff also did a nice job keeping Kaysville (Utah) Davis DE Troy Hinds in the class even though he had about 15 other offers. Nice additional pieces such as three-star WR Dylan Collie and three-star LB Butch Pau'u are important as BYU continues to build its program. – Adam Gorney, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

FB Iona Pritchard. Pritchard saw some playing time at fullback and linebacker as a true freshman in 2008. After returning from a two-year mission last year, he was set to be the starting fullback. But he fractured his fibula and dislocated his ankle on the first play of the spring game. This year, Mendenhall did away with the spring game and Pritchard is healthy and ready to get back on the field. BYU does a good job utilizing the fullback in pass situations, and Pritchard will be a key in blocking for TBs Michael Alisa and Josh "Juice" Quezada. – Kacey Robbins, CougarNation.com

For more on BYU throughout the season, check out CougarNation.com

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