PROVO — On a few occasions, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has said that perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to his team last year was winning the season-opener against Washington.
The Cougars were playing two quarterbacks at the time and, after narrowly defeating the Huskies, 23-17, BYU believed that a dual-QB system could work for an entire season. What's more, players and coaches latched on to a false sense of confidence and identity.
The following week, in a blowout loss at Air Force, reality started to sink in. The Cougars were a young team, and a tough early schedule didn't help. After starting 1-0, BYU suffered four consecutive losses by a combined score of 127-53.
Suddenly, the Cougars, who had posted records of 11-2, 11-2, 10-3 and 11-2 in the previous four seasons, were 1-4, their worst start in 37 years. Just like that, BYU had lost its confidence and identity as a program.
The Cougars kick off the 2011 season Saturday at Mississippi (2:45 MT, ESPN). There have been a slew of changes in the program the past year, including Mendenhall's decision to shake up his coaching staff by hiring new assistants and shuffling assignments. Among the changes include Mendenhall serving as the defensive coordinator and Brandon Doman being promoted to offensive coordinator.
Both Mendenhall and Doman have instilled new attitudes and expectations on the defense and offense, respectively, which has unified the team. The Cougars are hopeful that the changes, along with the growth of young players, will translate into a much better start in 2011 — their first season as an independent.
"A lot of the changes that coach Mendenhall has made, whether it be within the program or coaching, to be able to get every single coach on the same page, has helped us a lot," said senior safety Travis Uale, a team captain.
Uale explained that while it was thrilling to win the season-opener last year at home against Washington, "we were exposed later in the season. With the new coaching and the new mentality our program has now, it feels good to be in a program where everyone's on the same page with the head coach and they all share the same vision.
"Not to say the coaches that left were bad, but I feel that now the coaching staff is together more," he said. "They're like a team. It's not a bunch of individual position coaches. They're really close to each other. It helps us to know that they're on the same page and I think that's a crucial part of how our season is going to play out because they all have the same vision. If we follow that vision, we'll be alright."
BYU has another difficult September schedule this season. After facing Ole Miss, there's a game at Texas, followed by home contests against arch-rival Utah (which is in its first season in the Pac-12) Central Florida (which finished last season ranked in the top 25) and Utah State (which defeated the Cougars last season in Logan).
Di Luigi looks forward to those September tests.
"It's a great opportunity to play four or five great teams at the beginning of the season and show what we're made of as a team," he said.
What are the keys to getting off to a strong start, and then maintaining it?
"I think we just need to stay healthy," said Di Luigi. "We've got a lot of tough games in the beginning. With this Ole Miss game, we need to go out there and show what we can do and not get big-headed. If we do win, we can't get think that was the national championship. I think last year we got too big-headed because we beat a team that was supposed to be a dominant team last year in Washington. We can't do that. We have to stay level."
As an independent, a fast start is more important than ever, Di Luigi added..
"We don't have a conference championship to win anymore. We have a national championship and that's the only championship we have. We've got to go out and win every game, not just the first one. This being the first one, we have to start our path to where we want to get."
As for this team's identity, it's still too early to make any judgments.
"We have an identity of who we think we are right now and who we want to be at the end of the season," Di Luigi said. "These early games really identify who you are. We'll see who we really are come game day."
Senior team captain Jameson Frazier explained that every team must forge its own identity. He does know that the confidence level is much higher now than it was last season.
"It's great that we have so many guys coming back on defense and offense," Frazier said. "That really helps with getting the ball rolling quicker than last year."
For Saturday's game at Ole Miss, BYU is favored by three points — despite the fact the Cougars are playing on the road against a team from the Southeastern Conference. When asked about that, Mendenhall said it speaks to the "credibility that has been built over six years. We've won a lot of games over the past six years and beat some good teams. When you consider the consistency we have shown not just in one year, but over the last six years and then consider our returning quarterback and our returning players, I don't think it's anything negative against Ole Miss, it's just a compliment based on credibility earned."
Mendenhall expects a tough game against the Rebels.
"We still have to go play and play well. We think it's going to be a very difficult game against a formidable opponent," he said. "I do like that there is confidence in our program."
Frazier is confident about his team's potential.
"We're not resting at all, not waiting for anything to come to us, but being anxiously engaged in trying to get better and improving and being prepared for the upcoming opponent," he said. "I'm really excited to see, after the start we had last year, what this team can do."
BYU at Mississippi
Saturday, 2:45 MT
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM