PROVO — In its final year in the Mountain West Conference, BYU managed to overcome a 1-4 start to win six of its final eight games and salvage a winning season.

Despite the Cougars' strong finish, coach Bronco Mendenhall clearly isn't satisfied with a 7-6 record.

As BYU embarks on independent status next fall and begins an eight-year broadcasting contract with ESPN, it is gearing up for the future as it opens a new — and uncertain — era.

For starters, Mendenhall is retooling his staff. Last October, after a humbling 31-16 loss at Utah State, he fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill. Last week, offensive coordinator Robert Anae resigned. More changes are expected in the coming days and weeks.

Mendenhall's decision to take over defensive coordinator responsibilities and "recapture the soul" of his team paid big dividends. Eventually, the Cougar offense put things together in the final five games, which should provide plenty of momentum heading into 2011.

Here's a glance at the state of the BYU football program.

OFFENSE

BYU opened the season with the dubious decision to play two quarterbacks — Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps. The quarterback situation, which Mendenhall admitted after the season to have "mishandled," changed when Nelson went down with a season-ending shoulder surgery.

From there, Heaps, after suffering some growing pains, developed quickly and finished his freshman year in impressive fashion, including a four-touchdown pass performance in the win over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.

BYU's trio of running backs, JJ Di Luigi, Bryan Kariya and Joshua Quezada, return while the Cougars will add speedy redshirt freshman Drew Phillips. At receiver, Cody Hoffman (who ended up with a team-high 527 yards) and McKay Jacobson are back. Redshirt freshman Ross Apo, who missed the 2010 season with a finger injury, is expected to play a key role next season.

The Cougars have a bevy of young tight ends, including Devin Mahina, Mike Muehlmann, Richard Wilson and Austin Holt, who will need to emerge as playmakers.

On the offensive line, the big question is: will three-year starting left tackle Matt Reynolds return for his senior year? He has until mid-January to make his decision. Meanwhile, three of the other four starting linemen — Terence Brown, Braden Hansen and Braden Brown — return.

DEFENSE

After Mendenhall took over as defensive coordinator in early October after Hill's dismissal, the defense turned things around.

The Cougars will lose their defensive leader — safety Andrew Rich, who leaves a huge void. BYU will also be without cornerbacks Brandon Bradley and Brian Logan as well as defensive end Vic So'oto and linebacker Shane Hunter.

But the Cougars will welcome back a few injured starters — nose guards Romney Fuga and Jordan Richardson, and linebacker Jordan Pendleton. Other returning starters include safety Travis Uale; linebackers Brandon Ogletree and Kyle Van Noy; and defensive linemen Eathyn Manumaleuna and Matt Putnam. In the defensive backfield, Corby Eason, Robbie Buckner, Jray Galea'i, junior college transfers DeQuan Everett and Joe Sampson and redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson are expected vie for playing time.

Also joining the Cougars will be USC transfers Uona Kaveinga (a linebacker who sat out last season) and Hebron Fangupo (a defensive lineman). Three linebackers who played as true freshmen in 2008 — Michael Alisa, Spencer Hadley and Daniel Sorensen — are scheduled to return from missions.

Mendenhall has said he intends to continue in the role of defensive coordinator in 2011.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Placekicker Mitch Payne, who quietly became the school's all-time leading scorer, is graduating. But strong-legged Justin Sorensen, who is returning from a mission, figures to be the heir apparent.

Punter Riley Stephenson, who averaged 41.3 yards per punt, will be back, as will punt returner J.D. Falslev. Hoffman was BYU's best kick returner, averaging 28.3 yards per return.

SCHEDULE

Just like in 2010, the Cougars' schedule in 2011 is frontloaded with tough games, followed by a bunch of contests against lightweights.

BYU opened against four teams that ended up playing in bowl games, including nationally ranked Florida State and Nevada. The big shocker was the Cougars' loss at Utah State, which served as the catalyst for the subsequent turnaround. The final month or so of the season, BYU beat up Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico by a combined score of 169-44 to become bowl eligible.

In BYU's first year of independence, they will open at Southeastern Conference foe Mississippi, followed by a visit to Big 12 power Texas. While those are sure be tough road tests, both the Rebels and Longhorns are coming off losing seasons.

Then comes the rivalry game against Utah of the Pac-12 at LaVell Edwards Stadium, marking the first September showdown between the two schools since 1958. From there, the Cougars then play a host of games against opponents from Conference USA, WAC, and Big Sky.

BYU has bowl arrangements for 2012 (Poinsettia Bowl) and 2013 (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl) if it is bowl eligible and not selected by a BCS bowl.

At this point, however, the Cougars do not have a bowl agreement for the 2011 campaign.

2010 BYU Cougars

Record: 7-6 overall (5-3 in Mountain West Conference)

Postseason: Defeated UTEP, 52-24, in New Mexico Bowl

Statistical leaders

Passing: Jake Heaps (219-383, 2,316 yards, 15 touchdowns, 9 interceptions)

Receiving yards: Cody Hoffman (42 catches, 527 yards, 7 touchdowns)

Rushing: JJ Di Luigi (178 rushes, 917 yards, 8 touchdowns)

Sacks: Vic So'oto (5)

Interceptions: Andrew Rich (5)

Tackles: Andrew Rich (110)

2010 results

Date. . .Result

Sept. 4 BYU 23, Washington 16

Sept. 11 Air Force 35, BYU 14

Sept. 18 Florida State 34, BYU 10

Sept. 25 Nevada 27, BYU 13

Oct. 1 Utah State 31, BYU 16

Oct. 9 BYU 24, San Diego State 21

Oct. 16 TCU 31, BYU 3

Oct. 23 BYU 25, Wyoming 20

Nov. 6 BYU 55, UNLV 7

Nov. 13 BYU 49, Colorado State 10

Nov. 20 BYU 40, New Mexico 7

Nov. 27 Utah 17, BYU 16

Dec. 18 BYU 52, UTEP 24

2011 schedule

Date. . .Opponent

Sept. 3 at Mississippi

Sept. 10 at Texas

Sept. 17 Utah

Sept. 24 Central Florida

Sept. 30 Utah State

Oct. 8 San Jose State

Oct. 15 at Oregon State

Oct. 22 Idaho State

Nov. 5 at Louisiana Tech

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Nov. 12 Idaho

Nov. 19 New Mexico State

Dec. 3 at Hawaii

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com