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Q&A: The state of BYU football in 2015, with Mitch Harper

BYU football has always been intriguing to me. The program has a unique identity in the world of college football, as well as a rich history that often gets overlooked. During the conference realignment phase of a few years ago, BYU was left out of the power conference shakeup that saw in-state and Holy War rival receive an invite to the Pac-12. BYU, with no such invitation, opted to pursue football independence rather than stay with the Mountain West Conference. At the time I applauded that decision, calling it a bold new direction for a program. I envisioned a positive effect on the football program but always felt BYU would need a conference to call home in order to provide long-term stability.

Here we are, five seasons later, and BYU is still trying to flirt with power conferences to receive a spot at the big boy table. The Big 12 would seem to be the most logical destination, but the Big 12 has yet to really dig deep into the idea of expansion (well, depending on whom you ask). BYU’s exclusive deal with ESPN is just a few years from expiring. Since going independent the power conferences have gotten even stronger through autonomy and larger payouts from the College Football Playoff. BYU may be seeing fewer benefits to being independent than initially envisioned. Will this alter BYU’s thinking moving forward? Also, what’s in store for the team on the field this upcoming season, which includes one of the most difficult September schedules anyone in the nation will face?

Mitch Harper of the Cougar Center Podcast is a friend of No 2-Minute Warning. He has been on the podcast in the past and is always willing to shed some perspective from the BYU side of things, and he’s not afraid to go against the grain at times when it comes to talking BYU football. Mitch was generous enough to answer a handful of questions about the state of BYU’s football program as the power divide continues to grow in the sport, as well as take a look at what to expect from the Cougars in 2015.

No 2-Minute Warning: We are now entering the fifth year of BYU’s independence since the Cougars left the Mountain West Conference during the massive realignment shift in college football. Has independence been positive to BYU football, or would BYU have been better off in the MWC when you look back on the past four seasons?

Mitch Harper: First off, isn’t it crazy to think we are five years removed from realignment Armageddon? Time flies.

Independence for BYU has had its up’s and down’s, but the Cougars are getting used to this strange world that leaves them on their own island in the world of college football.

One of BYU’s original goals with the move to independence from the Mountain West Conference was to gain exposure and improve the brand of Cougar Football. I feel that continues to improve. We are seeing BYU viewed more and more as a Power 5 rather than a Group of 5 afterthought. The SEC and the ACC view the Cougars as a Power 5 opponent for their member institutions to schedule now.

In a sport that is built around image and perception, you need to be a “have” rather than a “have-not” and that image is getting better for BYU as an independent.

The downside has been no access to the College Football Playoff. BYU doesn’t qualify for the automatic bid for Group of 5 teams, and they don’t have a partnership with a major conference like Notre Dame does with the ACC. So if that magical season was to ever happen for the Cougars, there’s no guarantee they would be rewarded with a spot in the Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl. That’s one of the downsides to independence, but as a whole, everything else has improved. Now it’s a matter of BYU’s on the field product improving before they start talking about playoff’s and New Year’s Six games.

Bronco Mendenhall

N2MW: BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has left no doubt he thinks BYU should be in a power conference, but it does not seem as though the Big 12 is going to be calling anytime soon. Is Mendenhall fighting a losing battle, or should he continue to stick by this sentiment?

MH: I think he should stick to the sentiment. If Bronco doesn’t, who is going to vouch for BYU?

Bronco has always said that he views independence as a “launching point” to a power 5 conference. Independence isn’t sustainable financially if they want to keep up with power five programs.

Mendenhall has indicated that BYU needs to get in a power five conference within the next three years. Sadly for Bronco and BYU, I don’t think that’s going to happen. The Cougars are going to have to grind it out as an independent until this 12-year contract of the College Football Playoff is completed in my opinion. At that point, then we possibly see another shift of realignment. There’s just no incentive for the Big XII members to expand at this point when they are cashing some of the fattest checks in the sport due to only having 10 mouths to feed.

N2MW: Navy is abandoning its longtime status as an independent this season by joining the American Athletic Conference. Is this something that is being watched by BYU moving forward, and what lessons could be learned by Navy’s new conference membership?

MH: Navy’s move to the AAC is definitely something BYU is keeping their eyes on. But at the same time, Navy’s independence was much different than BYU’s independent path.

BYU has ESPN as a committed partner. The World Wide Leader goes to bat for the Cougars when scheduling games. Look at the 2015 schedule for instance. Nebraska, Michigan, and Missouri were all games that were brokered by the WWL.   With Navy, they had CBS Sports Network. Solid network that all of us college football junkies are aware of, but I have to imagine the Midshipmen were struggling to get games to Annapolis more than ever.

No incentive for a good program to play an October or November road game against a quality opponent like Navy on a channel that the general sports fan has ever heard of. Not to mention, the Midshipmen were probably making peanuts compared to what BYU makes financially with ESPN, and BYU’s money with the WWL is peanuts compared to power 5 schools. So let that sink in.

The Midshipmen had to make the move to shore up their scheduling with the guarantees of a conference and they now get a bigger cut of that College Football Playoff money. BYU can still navigate the independent waters with ESPN in their corner, but at what point will they be faced with a similar decision to what faced the Midshipmen? Time will tell on that. For now, the Cougars are all in to make independence work, and going back to a group of five conference is not something they are considering.

N2MW: BYU’s season ended last season in ugly fashion. The Miami Beach Bowl Brawl was an embarrassing situation for BYU, Memphis and the AAC. What impact has that had on BYU’s image since, and what happens next as a result of that situation as far as suspensions go?

MH: BYU is an image conscious school. So naturally, the Miami Beach Bowl wasn’t something that the administrators at BYU were too thrilled with.

But in the general public’s eye, I don’t feel the image of BYU has been drastically impacted by this brawl. In this era of Vine and Twitter, it almost feels like the public was celebrating that BYU had some scrap in them for once.

Since the brawl, safety Kai Nacua –probably best known for laying the sucker-punch on national TV- called Memphis head coach Justin Fuentes directly to apologize. Mendenhall has said that up to 11 players could receive discipline from the brawl, but the discipline won’t be determined until game week against Nebraska. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that Nacua is going to miss the opener against Nebraska. After that, I don’t know how Mendenhall will approach the discipline.

N2MW: BYU will once again set forth on a challenging schedule in 2015, especially in the first month of the year. What should be the realistic expectation for BYU in the first month of the season, and how important is it to come out of it with their heads above water?

MH: Phil Steele has dubbed these first four games for BYU as the toughest September schedule in all of college football this season. As exciting as that sounds for BYU fans, it’s also one of the difficult things about independence. When most Power 5 teams are playing FCS or Group 5 patsies, BYU has to play their best opponents to open the season because that’s when teams have the most flexibility to schedule.

At Nebraska, Boise State at home, at UCLA, and then at Michigan. What’s realistic with that slate? I’d say 1-3 or 2-2.

BYU went 5-8 (including bowls) against Power 5 teams away from Provo since going independent, and I’d argue none of those teams compare to the three that the Cougars will face away from home in September. Are all the games winnable? Yes. But we also have to realize that BYU is an 8-5 football team the past three years. That’s their identity at this point, and those records came against schedules that are far inferior to this 2015 slate. It’d be foolish to expect anything different at this juncture until BYU proves the doubters wrong.

Taysom Hill

N2MW: Quarterback Taysom Hill being healthy is obviously a plus for BYU, which also leads us to another possible debate about Hill and Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton. We’ll save that for another time. How much should we expect from Hill this season and how is his supporting cast looking in 2015?

MH: First off, I’ll make it quick. I don’t think there’s any debate between Hill and Keeton anymore. I’d argue that Utah State was better off with Darell Garretson who transferred to Oregon State. Just watch the film from Utah State’s game against Tennessee last year, and watch BYU last September. Keeton is no longer the same player we saw prior to the knee injury he suffered against BYU in 2013.

N2MW: BYU’s defense has generally been pretty good over the years, but last season seemed to lose a little bit of edge from the defensive side of the ball. Will we see the Cougars get back to playing some stingier defense in 2015? Who will be BYU’s defensive leaders?

MH: Last season was BYU’s worst defense statistically since 1993, which was strange to see because like you said, BYU has been not only a good defense, but also one of the best in college football.

Many point to the failures from last year’s defense as a reflection of defensive coordinator Nick Howell. Last year was Howell’s first season calling all the defensive plays, and as mentioned, it didn’t go well.

Entering 2015, Mendenhall will handle play-calling duties again for the defense. Mendenhall has always been a defensive mastermind dating back to his days working with Brian Urlacher and New Mexico. Bronco’s strengths are on the defensive side of the ball. The problem is that BYU doesn’t have the NFL talent this year like they did with those defenses a few years ago.

Players who I would expect to emerge, as leaders would include DE/LB Bronson Kaufusi.

Kaufusi has NFL size at 6’7” 265 pounds, and he has a high ceiling from the defensive end spot. The problem is that we don’t for sure if he will play from the DE spot. Last season Kaufusi spent the majority of his time at linebacker where he was lost from the beginning. Kaufusi said in the spring that he views himself as a defensive end, but will he play there? Time will tell.

Fred Warner, BYU

Another guy to watch is true sophomore outside linebacker Fred Warner. Warner picked BYU over USC on Signing Day in 2014, and showed flashes of his potential as a true freshman last year. This season, I’d expect Warner to emerge as a playmaker of this defense, in the same mold of a Kyle Van Noy who’s now playing with the Detroit Lions.

As far as expectations go, folks should expect Taysom to be the explosive playmaker that the country saw hurdle over Texas in Austin last year.   Yes, he suffered a devastating leg injury to cut his 2014 campaign short, but from what I saw in spring ball, he’s going to be every bit as good as he was last season. And with the type of schedule he’s facing this year, if he leads BYU to some upsets it’s going to put him squarely in the Heisman discussion.

N2MW: Aside from the schedule itself, what will be BYU’s biggest concern this season? Biggest strength?

MH: Depth is the biggest concern for BYU this season, most notably at the quarterback position. Taysom Hill is a star but the two guys behind him are true freshmen who are talented –projected #2 Tanner Mangum was Co-MVP with Jameis Winston at the 2012 Under Armour All-American game- but have never taken a D-1 snap.

The concerns with depth also stem from how much the production dropped from last year’s team when injuries piled up. BYU lost four straight to group of five teams, are they ready for the rigors that 2015 poses?

Biggest strength? Taysom Hill is the easy choice here, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say the offensive line. They’ve been ridiculed the past few seasons for their lack of protection, but they are rounding into form led by FWAA Freshman All-American Tejan Koroma at center and Ului Lapuaho at right tackle who has NFL potential; both are only sophomores.

N2MW: Each program has a different bar for success. At Ohio State it is winning a national championship, but at Vanderbilt it may just be getting to a bowl game. For BYU to have a successful season, what will have to happen?

MH: Winning nine games and finishing in the top 25 would be major accomplishments with this schedule. Last season, BYU went 8-5 but the win total was aided by a terrible November schedule. If BYU pulls off nine wins on this slate, it would give this program some much-needed momentum that has been in a mediocre funk as of late.

N2MW: I’m giving you the chance to pluck one player from BYU’s history and put them on this year’s team. Which player are you choosing, and how will they help improve BYU’s outlook in 2015?

MH: This is a great question. BYU football has a rich tradition that boasts winners of the Heisman, Doak Walker, Davey O’Brien, Outland, and numerous other awards. So there’s a long list of talented players to choose from. But the guy I’m actually going to pick is a player who only started eight games in his BYU career. I’d pluck defensive end Ziggy Ansah who is currently a starting defensive end for the Detroit Lions.

BYU’s defense needs an elite pass rusher. Kaufusi is good, but his best season was in 2012 when Ziggy was the opposite side of him. Ziggy single handily would change the face of this BYU defense. His explosive ability to get off the edge was something the folks at BYU had never seen before, and it was a big reason why he went 5th overall in the 2013 Draft.

My thanks to Mitch Harper for sharing some of his time to answer these questions. Be sure to be following Mitch on Twitter @Mitch_Harper and subscribe to the Cougar Center Podcast for updated commentary on BYU football and more. Also be sure to catch Mitch’s BYU reports on 1320 KFAN in Salt Lake City.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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