Is this BYU Football Program Progressing

The Cougars of BYU are set to face Notre Dame at a point in the season when a win would do wonders, but a loss would just reinforce what Cougar fans are already thinking. Unfortunately the Cougars are quickly running out of solid future opponents on their schedule to validate their season, and a highly unlikely win over Notre Dame is their last chance to beat a top 25 team out of three chances this year. It looks like BYU's marquee win this year will be a 6-3 win over Utah State, followed by a likely win over Georgia Tech or whichever MWC team they face in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Nate Meikle wrote an article a week ago that he said was "not received very well" in his interview on Cougar Radio 960am. His primary point in defense of Bronco was that the past doesn't necessarily indicate future results. I know that it doesn't seem like this BYU program is making progress from their best season in 2006, but there are a number of aspects of the program that are much further along at this point than they were then.
One major aspect of the program that is in a much better position than it was in 2006 is that Bronco Mendenhall is the defensive coordinator. It's hard to say what might have been, but with the talent on the team in 2006, a Bronco Mendenhall led defense might have been the difference between what was and a BCS busting undefeated regular season. With the momentum of an undefeated 2006 team there's no telling what might have been going forward, but it's likely that their only loss would have been to UCLA in 2007, because a Bronco Mendenhall defense wouldn't have given up 55 points to Tulsa. I only go over this to show that Bronco taking the reins as a defensive coordinator in 2010 was a major improvement in the program, and if it could have brought about an undefeated season in the past, it could also be what brings an undefeated season in the future.
Undefeated seasons in the future are going to be harder to come across however as BYU has upgraded their program from a MWC program to Independence. Fans who are upset that BYU isn't playing in the Big 12 (What BYU fan doesn't want to be in the Big 12? It isn't an option now, and probably won't be for years to come) have been frustrated by the difficulty of scheduling quality opponents in November. While it will continue to be a challenge, this years November schedule won't compare in the slightest to November schedules in the future. Holmoe asked for two years of patience, and he is showing that an Independent BYU can schedule a BCS caliber schedule only two years after their first Independent season. Now that the schedule is looking good the media is posing the question to Bronco about this harder Independent schedule bringing more losses, and if more losses to bigger programs would lead to disinterest from the fan base. I want BYU to consistently schedule as difficult of a schedule as they can while maintaining a good balance between home games and 2 for 1's. What causes disinterest is beating all of the MWC bottom dwellers week after week. BYU's lowest attendance at games are always FCS opponents and their equivalent. When Notre Dame, Texas, and Wisconsin come to Provo they will bring sell out crowds despite BYU likely being underdogs in each game. Just last week BYU played the 10th ranked team in the country, and played them point for point until the middle of the 4th quarter. Once BYU's program gets to where they play top 10 teams to the final minute, then whether they win or lose fans throughout the nation will be very interested.
BYU will get to that point because the program will rise to meet the level of competition. It might take a year or two, but as recruits see BYU consistently playing the best teams in the country on national television, the talent level at BYU will continue to rise because the best recruits want to play against the best competition on national television. Why do recruits value the conference that they play in so heavily? It's not because the member schools of the conference are research institutions, I can tell you that much. We have also seen how Independence and the huge increase in income has helped BYU's football team develop athletically through consulting a nutritionist and Athletes' Performance Institute. We have seen a big increase in depth and team speed because of the influx of more talented players, and because of one offseason worth of top of the line athletic training. Expect this team to just get faster from here, when Williams and Hill are seniors after 4 years of proper nutrition and training with the Athlete's Performance Institute, this team will be one of the faster teams and offenses in the country.
Which begs the question, what happened to the offense? With the dramatic progress that the defense has made over the last six years why has the offense had three straight seasons of terrible play? It all starts with the quarterback. James Lark is the best passer on the team by a wide margin, so why isn't he playing? I believe that had he not postponed his mission for an extra year then the last three years would have seen quality quarterback play at BYU. The problem was that he got back from his mission after the 2009 season was over so he didn't have enough time to get his mission rust off before the quarterback competition started in Spring of 2010. If he had taken the second string reps in all of 2009 instead of Nelson then he likely would have been good enough to beat out true freshman Jake Heaps and there wouldn't have been any dual quarterback system implemented in 2010. Lark in 2010 wouldn't have been as good as Max Hall in 2009, but it would have been an upgrade from what BYU fans witnessed in 2010. Having a talented quarterback in 2011 who isn't scared witless of taking a hit would have done wonders for that BYU offense, and in 2012 BYU would have had a talented SR quarterback and would have likely gone undefeated up until the Oregon State or Notre Dame game.
Unfortunately the timing didn't work out for Lark, and Bronco over-values experience. So although Lark was the better quarterback of the two in fall of 2011, Riley retained the backup job because of his experience, and it certainly didn't hurt that Riley's leadership qualities are second to only Mitt Romney. The other part of it is that Bronco's number one priority is establishing the run, and this offensive line can't open holes so Bronco feels that he needs a mobile quarterback to help establish the run game. I would rather have Lark in the game passing the ball to help set up the run game, which would play into the offensive line's strength of pass blocking.
Even with Riley in the game last week we saw BYU's best offensive outing since Max Hall graduated. Riley played the best game of his career and Doman called the best game of his. Riley still threw three interceptions (If you thought he turned the ball over a lot against Oregon State, Notre Dame is going force turnovers on a level that we've never seen a healthy Riley turn the ball over), but really only two of those were his fault and only one of them factored into the outcome of the game (although it was an incredibly stupid play and very costly).
Earlier in the season I worried for Coach Weber's job because of how poorly the offensive line has played the last two years, but they have really made some progress this year and I think it is back on the right track. That is the only firing that I think could be justified. I hear offensive line recruits say how much they love him, and he has been successful in recruiting high profile linemen, so my vote would be to keep him and see if he can't take the progress into next year. The change that has to happen is that BYU absolutely needs to hire a quarterbacks coach. The fact that they have two linebacking coaches, and two coaches that work with defensive linemen and no quarterback coach is absurd. They have Max Hall this year, but they need to secure a long term coach for that position. It is the most important position in all of sports, and BYU doesn't have a coach solely designated to coaching it at Quarterback U.
Whether or not Bronco decides that the quarterback position is worth assigning a coach to, I see this BYU team really finding a lot of success as early as next year. The last three years have been the perfect storm for this BYU offense, but with the personnel coming back and Doman's experience as an OC the skies will clear up for Cougar fans. BYU will finally have an NFL quarterback again so they have a chance of beating Utah and Boise State, and with the commitment of Davion Orphey to replace Hadley at cornerback and Bills to step in for Sampson at free safety I think this defense is set to be elite again next year. I believe that those who are calling for Bronco or Doman's job right now are going to be singing their praises this time next year. It took a couple of years for the big changes in the coaching staff to produce the results that Cougar fans hoped for, but 2013 is going to be the first year of a lot of really good years to be a Cougar fan.
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