UCLA football 2015 season preview: BYU Cougars

UCLA Bruins vs. BYU Cougars
Saturday, Sept. 19 | Rose Bowl
7:30 p.m. PT, FOX Sports 1

The skinny: By the time BYU leaves Pasadena, it could conceivably be 3-0 … or 0-3.

Such is the state of the Cougars’ program, which has consistently skipped along at good-but-not-great for the past several years. If Steve Sarkisan got stuck with “Seven-Win Sark” at Washington, the only thing saving Bronco Mendenhall from a similar fate may be alliterative absence.

BYU has gone 8-5 in each of the past three seasons, and is coming off postseason losses in the Fight Hunger and Miami Beach Bowls. (The latter even ended with a fight!) Mendenhall turned the Cougars into a top-25 team in just his second season as head coach, but that era lasted only four years. BYU soon exited the Mountain West in the midst of conference realignment, and has been clinging to upper middle class ever since.

What does independence mean for a team with lofty goals? A very interesting schedule. BYU needs to play other big names to keep its own reputation afloat, which means this year’s slate starts with a game at Nebraska, a home game against Boise State, and then back-to-back trips to UCLA and Michigan. (Even with less impressive teams dotting the calendar, that means the 17th toughest schedule in the country.) For a roster with some tantalizing talent — as well as some significant holes — those first four games will be very telling, for better or worse.

Players to watch: The Cougars will go as far as Taysom Hill’s legs will carry them.

In 2013, the 6-foot-2, 232-pound quarterback churned out 1,344 yards on the ground. That was the third-best total at his position, behind only Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch (1,920) and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds (1,346). Even though he completed just 53 percent of his passes as a junior, Hill ended that year was one of college football’s most watchable players.

His 2014 season was cut short when he fractured his leg in October, but he still squeezed the above highlight hurdle onto his resume before bowing out. Without him, BYU lost four straight games.

The Cougars had hoped to shed some of Hill’s rushing workload, but that suddenly became less feasible this week. Running back Jamaal Williams, who is 930 yards away from BYU’s career rushing record, withdrew from the school and won’t be back until 2016. Williams wasn’t the most dependable back: In 2013, by far his best season, he ran for at least 130 yards four times, but failed to clear 60 yards three times. In 2014, limited by injuries as well as Hill’s absence, he only totaled 515 yards.

Williams’ absence doesn’t doom the Cougars, but it does leave them with a backfield committee. Algernon Brown, Nate Carter and Adam Hine each took at least 40 carries in 2014, combining for 768 yards and three touchdowns. Hill also gets three of his top four receivers back: Mitch Mathews, Mitchell Juergens and Colby Pearson accounted for nearly half of BYU’s receiving yards last fall.

Opponents will be able to pick their spots when they have the ball. The Cougars are historically stout against the run, and figure to be again in 2015. But BYU gave up 25 touchdown passes a year ago, and didn’t have a player with more than three sacks except linebacker Bronson Kaufusi, who had seven.

Key numbers: Hill has run for at least 100 yards in four out of his last seven full games. In two of the misses, he rushed for 97 and 99. He made up for four missing yards by punching in five touchdowns. He also doesn’t go down easy: In 2013, 60 of his 246 carries went for at least 10 yards.

In the past seven years, BYU has produced only one defender with double-digit sacks. Take out Kyle Van Noy’s 2012 season (13 sacks), and the Cougars’ leading sack artist during that span got an average of 5.58.

Opponent in GIF form:

UCLA’s 2015 season
Sept. 5 vs. Virginia — 12:30 p.m., FOX
Sept. 12 @ UNLV — 7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Sept. 19 vs. BYU — 7:30 p.m., FOX Sports 1
Sept. 26 @ Arizona
Oct. 3 vs. Arizona State
Oct. 10 — BYE
Oct. 15 @ Stanford — 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Oct. 22 vs. Cal — 6 p.m., ESPN
Oct. 31 vs. Colorado
Nov. 7 @ Oregon State
Nov. 14 vs. Washington State
Nov. 21 @ Utah
Nov. 28 @ USC