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The table is set; will the Cougars feast?

The table is set; will the Cougars feast?



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PROVO — John Wooden defined competitive greatness as follows: "A real love for the hard battle, knowing it offers the opportunity to be at your best when your best is required."

Legendary rock band Rush laid it on the line this way: "Show me, don't tell me."

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With recent developments, the BYU football and basketball teams are both being afforded the opportunity to display competitive greatness and at the same time create from the talk of potential the substance of performance.

The football team has its new marching orders with the release of its 2013 schedule, a slate that features the kinds of names and games that could propel the Cougars into the BCS mix, in the final season of its existence.

The BYU hoopsters face the back half of their West Coast Conference schedule, having gone 6-2 through the first go-round, winning the games they were supposed to win, losing one game they were expected to lose, and dropping a last-second heartbreaker that for the time being is the difference between being on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble and being on the outside looking in on the field of 68.

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FOOTBALL

Coming off an 8-5 season that was so close to being something a great deal more, BYU in 2013 faces a schedule that AD Tom Holmoe calls "one of the best schedules in program history." It would be hard if not impossible to search the archives and find a better BYU slate, with more national heft attached.

This upcoming fall, BYU will face seven bowl participants from 2012, including legacy programs in Texas, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. Opponents Boise State, Nevada and Utah State were also postseason players last season.

Four of BYU's 2013 foes ended the 2012 season ranked in both the AP and USA Today Coaches Top 25 polls: Notre Dame (4/3), Utah State (16/17), Boise State (18/14) and Texas (19/18).

BYU faces eight teams that earned winning records in 2012; according to cougarstats.com, the FBS opponents' combined 2012 record of 87-54 (.617) would represent the highest win% of any BYU schedule in history.

It is the kind of schedule that will give BYU the platform from which a team can leap into the national discussion as the season moves along--if the Cougars can get just get out of September with some momentum.

In Bronco Mendenhall's eight seasons, only once has BYU emerged from the first four games with a 4-0 record. That season (2008), BYU got to 6-0 before losing, then finished at 10-3.

Under Mendenhall, BYU's most common first-four-game result has been 2-2 (2006, 2007, 2011, 2012), with two 1-3 starts (2005, 2010) and a single 3-1 jump (2009).

In 2013, BYU faces an opening four-game stretch that begins on the east coast (at Virginia), but then features three consecutive home games, with the Texas game followed by a bye, Utah, and Middle Tennessee.

The Cavaliers are a bit of a mess, with only one bowl bid in the last five seasons prompting an off-season coaching overhaul in which UVa's defensive coordinator was fired and the offensive coordinator left for the NFL. A win in Charlottesville would set BYU up for a solid September with nothing but home games, including one in particular (Texas) that would give the Cougars national traction and another (Utah) that would allow the Cougars' to purge three seasons of pain. Middle Tennessee, while not to be overlooked, will likely be a heavy underdog, playing a very good team at altitude.

In the past, it was conventional wisdom that BYU would need to go undefeated to be considered for BCS participation. As Northern Illinois showed in 2012, even a one-loss team with a schedule substantially weaker than BYU's 2013 slate can be a BCS team given the proper circumstances, and indeed, even a two-loss non-auto-qualifier can find itself in the late-season mix, should enough things go that team's way--and if it's the right team (Boise State, in 2012, for example).

BYU could conceivably lose a game in 2013 and still hang around the BCS conversation, and while even a second loss may not be considered automatically fatal to the Cougars' hopes, one would not expect two losses to be conducive to a prospective BCS bid. So, let's say that a single setback is the most BYU can afford and remain in contention for a BCS bid; if so, then losing early would be the way to go, and that being the case, a defeat to Texas would be the most palatable.

The Utah game is one BYU simply has to win, and I'm calling it the most important game of the season, which is why the Cougars' scheduled bye ahead of the Utah game really works for me. Win or lose against Texas, a victory over Utah is essential, and with games at Utah State, home to Georgia Tech and at Houston all considered winnable, the home date with Boise State sets up as the season's second-most important game, in my view.

Beating Boise State would kill two birds with one stone; a victory would boost BYU's own national profile, while denting the portfolio of a team considered an annual contender--and competitor--to bust the BCS.

Yes, November games at Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Nevada will combine to form as stern a late-season test as BYU has ever seen, but the Cougars' primary objective has to be just getting to that point with something to play for. If BYU can beat Utah, beat Boise State, not slip up elsewhere while having taken its chances with Texas, the Cougars will be in position to make national noise in the season's final month.

If BYU has another traditional so-so start to the season, November's big names will provide marquee value but little else, and the BCS will have come and gone, over 16 long seasons, with the Cougars never having crashed a glass ceiling that already proved vulnerable to other non-BCS teams.

The 2013 Cougars should be well-equipped to withstand the rigors of their steel-tough slate of games. Defensive stalwarts return, led by All-America candidate Kyle Van Noy and safety Daniel Sorensen. Most every key offensive weapon from last season is back, paced by wideout Cody Hoffman and running back Jamaal Williams. Quarterback Taysom Hill, if fully healthy, is a special athlete. New offensive coordinator Robert Anae presents a familiar system that allowed previous BYU stars to flourish.

The ingredients (players/coaches) are there, and the recipe (scheme/schedule) is a mixture of promising and proven. BYU football fans are in for a treat in 2013; the only question is whether it will be simply mouth-watering or supremely satisfying.

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BASKETBALL

At 16-6 on the season and 6-2 in the West Coast Conference, BYU has work to do to extend its NCAA Tournament streak to seven seasons.

Possessing RPI, Pomeroy and Sagarin ratings in the low 40s, BYU is in the "bubble" neighborhood, but what damages the Cougars' profile most is the lack of notable wins.

BYU is 2-6 against teams currently in the (Palm) RPI top 100, and losses have been by substantial margins, albeit to big-name teams: 18 points v. Florida State (neutral), 10 points v. Notre Dame (neutral), 19 points at Iowa State, 15 points at Baylor, and 20 points at Gonzaga. BYU's only close loss came on the last-second three-pointer from St. Mary's' Matthew Dellavedova at the Marriott Center--a game that, had BYU won it, would be giving the Cougars considerably more wiggle room than they currently have. For the time being, that one shot remains a dagger, in more ways than one.

Sports Illustrated's Andy Glockner assesses BYU's NCAA Tournament chances this way:

"At some point, the vacant nature of the Cougars' profile will become too much to overcome. That point is drawing very close after they were peppered at Gonzaga last week. That drops BYU to 0-6 vs. the RPI top 75. I don't really see how this is a viable at-large profile, even with credible computer numbers. If they don't beat Gonzaga and win at Saint Mary's in the regular season, it's probably auto bid or bust."

A regular-season win over the Zags or Gaels would appear to be essential to BYU's at-large hopes; last season, a 1-3 regular-season mark against those two teams (home win over Gonzaga) was enough to boost the Cougars' profile, even with a third loss to St. Mary's in the WCC Tournament semifinals. Whether or not BYU could afford not to make it to Championship Monday is tough to predict, but without a regular season win over either of those teams in 2013, BYU's only Big Dance prospects would likely depend on a conference tourney title.

BYU has six games between now and its game at Moraga on February 21st; Gonzaga's visit to BYU will come one week later, on February 28th. The Cougars will be favored to win all six of the preceding games, four of which are at home (Santa Clara, San Francisco, Portland and Utah State). BYU's only two road games in that stretch are at Pepperdine this Thursday and San Diego a week from Thursday--two teams the Cougars handled easily in the first go-round of league play.

BYU clearly has to go 6-0 in the next six games, and history has prepared us to expect a solid February streak and run. Under Dave Rose, BYU has a 42-7 record in February (7-0 in 2011; 6-1 in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012; 5-2 in 2010). A 6-1 or 7-0 performance in 2013 will have the Cougars close to where they want to be heading into their regular season finale at Loyola Marymount on March 2nd and conference tourney in Vegas the following week.

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For the BYU football and basketball teams, the tasks at hand are clear; the "hard battle" lies ahead for both groups, and the need for competitive greatness will never be more pronounced.

Greg Wrubell

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