This year will go down as a year the BYU football and basketball programs explored uncharted territory on the field and court, while outside the arena they plotted an unknown yet intriguing course for the future.
In January, the football team welcomed the country's most highly touted high school quarterback to campus, but it would be many months before Jake Heaps was in a position to showcase his unique talents in a setting that would take full advantage of his skills. The fact Heaps started multiple games for the Cougars made him the first true freshman to do so at BYU, and he ended the season with every meaningful rookie passing record, throwing for 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Heaps' emergence came only after head coach Bronco Mendenhall's initial decision to go with a two-quarterback system — a decision Mendenhall would later acknowledge as a mistake. The platoon plan was a contributing factor in BYU's 2-5 start to the season, a seven-game stretch that featured some of the worst offensive football in the modern Cougar era. BYU played its first seven games without once topping 24 points; the last time that happened was 1959. At that juncture, Heaps had one touchdown pass and six interceptions.
Among 2010's other football novelties was Mendenhall making an in-season coaching change. At 1-4 and with a defense rated among the worst in the country (and dead last in rush defense), Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and assumed playcalling duties. The decision was perhaps the most important factor in a Cougar turnaround that resulted in BYU making a sixth consecutive postseason appearance and winning a fourth bowl game in five years for only the second time in program history. Mendenhall has since hinted at coaching changes on the offensive side of the ball, further shaking up one of the more stable staffs in the country.
Back in March, the basketball Cougars did something last accomplished 17 long years ago, getting out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament and riding the wave behind blossoming superstar Jimmer Fredette. BYU ended the 2009-10 season with a 30-6 record, setting a school mark for wins in a single season.
Fredette's NBA Draft exploration resulted in a return for his senior campaign in Provo, where he was showered with the kinds of preseason plaudits last bestowed upon Danny Ainge, whose BYU career scoring record Fredette will approach, if not overtake. Fredette and the Cougars have now spent more consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25 poll than any other BYU team except the Ainge-led squads of the late '70s and early '80s.
The Cougars scheduled a rare entire month away from the Marriott Center early in their current season and went 7-1 over eight away and neutral court games. The arduous itinerary brought the players together and toughened them for the conference grind, which BYU should enter with an outstanding 14-1 record.
It has already been a remarkable 2010 for the Cougar hoopsters, who like their gridiron brethren did some out-of-the-ordinary and very successful things.
Of course, the most notable of all 2010 developments for the Cougars took place during the "summer shuffle" of conference realignment. BYU was passed over by BCS conferences while state-mate Utah accepted an invitation to join the new Pac-12, a move that gave BYU the latitude it needed to forge ahead with a plan for football independence. That plan was buttressed by long-term contracts with ESPN and schools such as Notre Dame and Texas, while an agreement with the WAC enabled BYU to complete short-term schedules.
An earlier plan to align with the WAC in non-football sports was scuttled, but in days to come, the demise of that plan will be considered a blessing in disguise. The West Coast Conference was a late-developing but fortunate alliance — one that gives Dave Rose's team the two things every program craves: the yearly "chance to dance" and dependable TV visibility via both ESPN and the school's own national network.
What will 2011 hold for the BYU football and basketball teams? Mendenhall's group returns with nearly all of its offensive pieces in place, poised to capitalize on 2010's strong finish. The defense has a greater number of holes to fill, but the Cougars appear well stocked, particularly at linebacker. The schedule affords multiple early opportunities for nationally viewed "statement games," and a seventh straight bowl bid is all but a given.
The Cougar hoopsters will immediately be favored to finish near the top of the West Coast Conference, a league dotted with small venues and only a couple of perennial "power teams." BYU will lose the terrific trio of Fredette, Jackson Emery and Kyle Collinsworth, but marquee recruit Damarcus Harrison and transfer Matt Carlino will help ease the pain of those departures.
BYU's neighbor and rival understandably jumped at the chance for BCS conference membership, and the promise of future paydays. As a result, BYU was motivated to aggressively pursue an alternate path, and successfully arranged a promising plan. With the football team on the verge of what could be a breakout season and the basketball team poised for another tournament run and then life in a new league, going it alone has never looked so good.
Greg Wrubell is the radio play-by-play "Voice of the Cougars," and hosts BYU Football and Basketball Coaches' Shows on KSL Newsradio and KSL 5 Television. Wrubell's blog "Cougar Tracks" can be found at byu.ksl.com. "Behind the Mic" is published every Tuesday during the BYU football and basketball seasons. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org