From coaching changes to player adjustments to psychological moves, the collection of thousands of small decisions — both on and off the playing field — can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Between 2004 to 2012, the state of Utah has enjoyed some of the best football decision-making in America. Among all three of Utah's FBS programs, football fans in the Beehive State have been treated to more than 10 10-win seasons since 2004 — a remarkable feat by any measure.
However, with Utah's ascension to the Pac-12, BYU's venture to independence, and USU's entrance into the Mountain West, getting to that 10-win mark has become considerably tougher.
This fall, BYU, Utah and Utah State fans hope their respective teams can return to the 10-win club, but it will be anything but easy. BYU and Utah arguably are facing their most difficult schedules in history, and Utah State's slate of opponents is considerably more difficult as well.
In Bronco Mendenhall's first five years as the Cougars' head coach, reaching double-digit victories became the norm. Between 2006 and 2009, Mendenhall's teams accomplished that feat each year.
However, BYU reached that mark just once in the next three seasons.
That accomplishment will be tough to do in 2013, as the Cougars will face several formidable opponents, including four teams that are earning preseason top 25 recognition.
Whether it's the need for the offensive line to improve its performance or the kicking game to be less of a distraction, there are plenty of areas of improvement this year's BYU team should focus on.
There are also plenty of areas where the Cougars can keep tweaking what is an already successful aspect of their program, from increasing the offense's third-down efficiency to the defense finding new players to fill in the few gaps off a unit that finished last year ranked No. 3 in the country.
For the Cougars to earn a 10-win season in 2013, here are 10 issues the Cougars must attend to.
On signing day this year, BYU brought in eight offensive linemen, showing the need the Cougars have in making an immediate change on the O-line.
While the Cougar offense ran more than 1,000 plays last year, it struggled to move the ball effectively. Injuries hurt the BYU offensive line in 2012, but so did penalties in critical situations.
The Cougars return left tackle Ryker Mathews, and incoming freshman Brayden Kearsley is expected to make an immediate contribution. Terrance Alletto has also quietly been impressive, and could vie for the starting center position. Four incoming JC transfers could also make an impact.
Whoever ultimately starts along BYU's O-line, those guys will be under pressure to perform following an underwhelming 2012 season.
As good as the Cougar defense was in 2012, ranking in the top 5 in the country in several categories, it could have been better in one particular aspect.
BYU tied for 58th in the nation in takeaways last year with 22. In the Cougars' five games against opponents ranked in the AP poll at the end of the season, the Cougars only recovered one fumble and had three interceptions. BYU had a minus-2 turnover margin per game against Boise State, Utah State, Oregon State, Notre Dame and San Jose State.
In a season where the Cougars lost four of their five games by six points or less, one extra turnover could have made the difference. With a full slate of tough opponents this year, the Cougars will need to produce turnovers to get back to a 10-win season.
As a freshman who came in for situational work in 2012 before earning two starts and then suffering a season-ending injury, Taysom Hill showed promise as a dual-threat quarterback.
A completion percentage in the 50s from Hill this year, though, likely won't cut it against the top-flight competition the Cougars are facing. Hill, listed atop the depth chart at quarterback after the spring, completed 42 of 71 passes for 425 yards last season, enough for a 59.2 percent completion percentage. If Hill would have played in enough games, his percentage would have been 71st in the country, two spots above fellow Cougar Riley Nelson.
But if Hill can improve his efficiency — much like Cougar QB John Beck did from year to year — the Cougars' sophomore starting quarterback could find himself a spot in the BYU record books.
From his freshman year in 2003 to his senior year in 2006, Beck's completion percentage improved steadily (50 percent in 2003, 56 percent in '04, 64 percent in '05 and 69 percent in '06). By the time Beck's career was through, he had 11,021 passing yards, which ranks third in BYU history.
If BYU is to get to 10 wins, it must lessen the negative impact of the kicking game.
The longest field goal the Cougars connected on last year was just 35 yards, which limited even more an already struggling BYU offense. Neither Justin Sorensen, last year's starting kicker, nor Tyler Jackson did much to impress in spring ball, and Mendenhall said the team would likely go for it more on fourth down because of the lack of confidence in the kicking game.
Add in the fact that standout punter Riley Stephenson graduated, and there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the kicking game this season.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae's mantra of "Go fast, go hard" will need to be effective to lessen the impact of what looks to be a shaky kicking game.
To succeed in 2013, the Cougars must establish a starting corner opposite Jordan Johnson.
Johnson has solidified himself as a key starter on the BYU defense at the field corner position. The team also has a pair of returning starters at safety in Daniel Sorensen and Craig Bills. Those three helped the Cougars finish last season ranked 10th in the country in pass defense, giving up just 179.2 passing yards per game.
Where the defensive secondary is short on experience is at boundary corner, with the graduation of Preston Hadley.
Currently, senior utility man Mike Hague is atop the depth chart at boundary corner, with fellow senior Skye PoVey as the backup. JC transfer Trenton Trammell tore his ACL the first day of spring practice. He was expected to be a serious contender for the starting boundary spot. A pair of other JC transfers — Sam Lee and Robertson Daniel — will arrive in the fall hoping to take the vacant starting position.
If the Cougars can find a good option at boundary corner, the team could once again produce a stingy pass defense.
Kyle Van Noy and the defense showed last year that it could occasionally bend but would rarely break. The Cougars finished 2012 as the second-best red zone defense in the country, allowing opponents to score just 64.3 percent of the time inside the BYU 20. That number impressively dropped against the five opponents that finished the year ranked in the AP top 25; BYU finished first in the country against ranked foes, giving up scores inside the red zone just 58.82 percent of the time.
On the other side of the ball, can the Cougars make Anae's "Go fast, go hard" philosophy work in year one and deliver the type of red zone effectiveness the defense enjoyed? Last year, BYU was 90th in the country in red zone efficiency, scoring on 78.13 percent of its drives that ventured inside an opponent's 20-yard line.
To be successful against a tough schedule, the Cougar offense will need to take advantage of scoring situations when the opportunities arise.
This season, the Cougars enter the year with a usual list of tight ends — Kaneakua Friel, Richard Wilson and Devin Mahina — who've yet to match the production of previous tight ends.
Friel was named to the John Mackey Award watch list earlier this week, and he finished fourth on the team in 2012 with 30 catches for 308 yards. He also had five touchdown catches. But after his season-opening effort of six catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns against Washington State, Friel averaged just two catches per game for 17.25 yards the rest of the season.
There are a couple of players who may shake things up. Brett Thompson, who moved from outside to inside receiver in the spring, could provide a spark, and sophomore Bryan Sampson returns from his LDS mission.
For the Cougar offense to get back into a rhythm, Anae will need to find ways to get production out of the tight ends.
The Cougars must get production out of a new defensive line in 2013.
Ezekiel Ansah has gone on to the NFL. Romney Fuga is chasing NFL dreams with the Denver Broncos. Their absences leave a big hole on the Cougars' defensive line. Given the graduation of steady Russell Tialavea as well, the team will have new starters all along the line.
Fortunately for BYU, Eathyn Manumaleuna is back for his senior season after being forced to use a medical redshirt year in 2012; he started the first four games of the year. And sophomore Bronson Kaufusi showed flashes of domination as a reserve.
Manumaleuna is currently listed as the starter at nose tackle, but coaches would prefer him on the end opposite Kaufusi. Players like Tuni Kanuch and Marques Johnson — as well as incomers JonRyheem Peoples, Kalolo Utu and Merrill Taliauli — will fight in the fall to earn the starting nose tackle spot.
The ability of the defensive line to mesh this season will play its part in whether the Cougars can spring some upsets in 2013.
The Cougars were, at one point, among the most efficient teams in the country on third down, and they need to do it again.
In Mendenhall's eight years as head coach, the BYU offense has finished the season in the top 25 in either third-down efficiency or conversions every year — until last season. The Cougars finished 2012 just outside of the top 25, converting 45.75 percent of their third downs, good enough for 30th in the nation.
In 2006, a Beck-led offense finished the year No. 2 in the nation in third-down efficiency (55.95 percent) and averaged 36.7 points per game. In 2009, Max Hall's offense climbed to first nationally in third-down conversion percentage (55.62 percent); that team also averaged 35.4 points per game.
Last year, though, BYU averaged 28.7 points, a touchdown (or more) less than those teams.
A bump in third-down efficiency should see a jump in scored points as well.
It's not that the Cougars can't win on the road, but they do need to find a way to win a road game against a ranked opponent.
If the Cougars are to get to 10 victories this season, they will likely have to spring an upset or two. They face Texas and Boise State at home and Wisconsin and Notre Dame on the road, all of which are earning preseason top 25 recognition; at the very least, BYU would need to beat one of these squads to reach 10 wins.
Add in what should be a tough road trip to Utah State, where the Cougars lost in 2010, and there is little room for error on the road to a double-digit win season.
BYU's last road win over a ranked opponent came against No. 15 TCU in 2006.
There is a sliver of hope to cling to, though. In their last three road contests against ranked teams (Boise State in 2012, Notre Dame in '12 and Texas in '11), the Cougars have lost by a combined five points. The gap is closing.
The Utes are getting the full force of the Pac-12's strength this year, and to get to 10 wins, they're going to have to pull off something nothing short of astounding.
That's not to say that achieving such a lofty goal is absolutely impossible, but with Oregon and Stanford taking their turn on Utah's schedule, and with the rise of the Utah State Aggies, a traditional cupcake, there is no wiggle room at all. In fact, if it was physically possible for there to be less than zero wiggle room, this would be the year.
In Kyle Whittingham's journey to take Utah back to college football's postseason, there's not much that needs a complete overhaul. However, there are a number of issues the Utes should seek to resolve to get them into the heat of the Pac-12 South race.
Here's a closer look.
The Utes ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in pass offense last season. When a starting quarterback goes down with a career-ending injury midseason, you would be hard-pressed to find any team that would not see a dip in offensive production. Jordan Wynn's shoulder injury derailed the Utes' season, and senior Jon Hays only started three games before Utah turned to freshman Travis Wilson.
Wilson could be a solid starter for the next few seasons for the Utes, but his lack of experience and playing time may make his sophomore campaign a tough one. Regardless, the Utes, barring injury, will have stability at quarterback, which will translate into a more productive offense.
Assuming Utah strengthens its offensive line, Wilson has the tools to become a solid signal-caller for the Utes for the next few years.
The Utes had injuries along the O-line last season, so a healthy starting line will show much improvement from last season. With that said, Wynn's career-ending injury on a sack by Utah State showed how deficiencies in the O-line can severely impact a team.
With inexperienced Wilson expected to take over at quarterback, the offensive line will need to be as solid as ever to give him enough time to make the proper reads and complete passes. Last year the O-line gave up 11 sacks in four games, something that the Utes can't afford with a young quarterback. The strength of the O-line will also be the key to Utah establishing a quality run game.
When senior John White struggled with injuries early in the year, the Utes turned to Kelvin York, who showed potential before going down with an ankle sprain. Jarrell Oliver also suffered a season-ending injury, leaving Utah without depth at the position. White went on to rush for more than 1,000 yards in 2012 but has since graduated.
The run game could be the key to the entire offense this season. A healthy rotation of quality backs, coupled with more balanced play-calling, could be very effective for the Utes. The wild card here is not the capability of the running backs, but rather the quality of the offensive line.
Utah struggled to move the ball at times last season. In the Pac-12, the Utes ranked 11th in first downs per game and 10th in third-down conversions, making just 33.5 percent of their third-down attempts.
Improvements on offense will surely boost their conversion rate, however, the Utes still must focus on moving the chains instead of trying making big plays at the risk of stalling drives.
More short-yardage plays would ease the pressure of having to rely on hit-or-miss big plays in third-and-long situations.
Utah was hammered with player departures at the end of last season. The Utes lost 34 letterman last year, including defensive stalwart Star Lotulelei, who was chosen in the first round of the NFL draft.
Clearly the face of the team will change next season with so much turnover, but many of those departing players were with the team before Utah joined the Pac-12. The new crop of players will have more Pac-12 experience, although they may not be as battle-tested as some of their predecessors.
Many of the starting vacancies will go to younger players, which will prove to be fruitful in the long run, but there may be some growing pains along the way. Expect the level of talent to improve as the Utes get more Pac-12 experience and are able to increase their recruiting pool.
Close losses need to be close wins if the Utes are going to have a winning season. The Utes are projected to have one of the toughest schedules in the country next year, but a couple of key wins could help the Utes successfully navigate the difficult slate. College football expert Phil Steele says that Utah's toss-up games in the Pac-12, especially at home, are must-wins.
"To me, the key to Utah's season is going to be their toss-up games. How do they do at home against Oregon State? How do they do at home against UCLA? Home against Arizona State? At Washington State? If they can win three of those four games, they could get back to a bowl."
The Utes ranked 10th in the Pac-12 with only eight field goals made last season, while attempting the second-lowest amount of field goals in the conference. Kicker Coleman Petersen missed field goals in five of the eight games in which he had an attempt. In his four games without a field goal attempt, three were losses.
Clearly there needs to be some individual improvement in the kicking game, but also, Utah must focus more on scoring points even if it means settling for a field goal instead of trying for a touchdown. While the lack of attempts may indicate trust issues with the the kicker, more production is needed, especially in close-game situations.
The hiring of 20-something Brian Johnson as the offensive coordinator may have been more of a long-term investment than anything else. Johnson's lack of experience — he had two years of experience as a quarterbacks coach — was very apparent when the offense faced the more experienced coaches of the Pac-12. The hiring of Dennis Erickson as co-offensive coordinator should help Johnson grow without sacrificing the ability to make adjustments of calls in key situations.
The Utes were inconsistent on offense last year, some of which had to do with injuries sustained to key players. From a play-calling perspective, there were some questionable game decisions. In some situations the Utes seemed to almost abandon the run altogether. The team had trouble making adjustments when faced with complex defenses that exploited the team's weaknesses.
The hiring of Erickson and the increased experience of the other coaches should help remedy this situation, although it remains to be seen how Johnson and Erickson will co-exist.
Inconsistency in the secondary was due mostly to a combination of youth and numerous player combinations, making it hard for players to develop chemistry. Lack of communication often resulted in big plays by opposing offenses.
As positions in the secondary become more solidified, the chemistry and overall performance should show improvement. Utah will want to avoid giving up the big play as much as possible next season, especially when games come down to the wire.
The Utes lost a very winnable game against Arizona last season, due in large part to Arizona's 320 rushing yards, including 204 from Arizona back Ka'Deem Carey.
Once again the constant shift of players from one position to another left the Utes vulnerable in terms of consistency in defending rushers who get to the edge.
The Utes have touted their ability to place defensive players in multiple positions. However, Utah would do well establish those players more consistently instead of favoring versatility at the expense of chemistry.
The Utah State Aggies have put the best season in school history in the rearview mirror. Now members of the Mountain West Conference, the Aggies finally have what they have been seeking for the better part of 50 years — a stable, satisfying conference home.
Without a doubt, the Aggies and their fans are eager to take the Mountain West by storm. Following the upgrade in competition and the departure of Gary Andersen, however, plenty of obstacles stand between them and Mountain West dominance.
Most Mountain West prognosticators agree that the Aggies will be successful this year, but most also believe that this year will not be a 2012 encore performance. With Utah, Boise State, BYU and USC all in the first half of the 2013 schedule, Utah State will have no time to warm up before hitting its most difficult stretch.
A number of issues face every football team seeking success, but if USU wants to get higher than the 10-win mark for only the second time in Aggie football history, it'll have to take care of these 10 issues.
Andersen caught the whole world off guard when he abruptly took the head coaching job at Wisconsin. It didn't take long, however, for AD Scott Barnes to find Andersen's replacement.
Utah State football fans revere Andersen and the wonders he worked at the helm of their program. Under his watch, Aggie football not only became relevant, it became spectacular. The Aggies vanquished both BYU and Utah in a three-year span and finished the 2012 season with a No. 16 ranking. He established a system and a style that brought USU out of obscurity.
New head coach Matt Wells has made it plain the Aggies aren't deviating from Andersen's strategy. He must now find a way to make his own mark on the program and undeniably seize the mantle of leadership (if he hasn't already). He cannot and should not seek to live in Andersen's shadow.
Most of the important opportunities for Wells to do this happen far away from the media and the fans — indeed, many of them have probably already come and gone — and no one but Wells, his staff and his players will know or understand when those opportunities present themselves.
But everyone can know if Wells is successful by observing how his players play for him on the gridiron this season.
The less-scrutinized effect of Andersen's departure was the fact that he lifted several significant parts of the USU staff with him when he left, most notably Dave Aranda.
Make no mistake — Aranda was in large part responsible for USU's stellar defense last year. His leadership abilities allowed Andersen to take a few steps away from active defensive play-calling and focus on his players. This year, Florida International transplant Todd Orlando is taking the defensive reins. Though he has a strong defensive resume, his coaching is completely foreign to the Aggies and their fans.
Chuckie Keeton, no doubt, would have played well for any coach last year, but Wells really brought the best out of him as the Aggies' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Now the head man, Wells must step away to some degree to assume the mantle of leadership Andersen left behind and leave Keeton's development in the hands of Kevin McGiven.
Andersen frequently said: "Players make plays; players win games," but there's no doubt that those making the play calls on the sidelines will have a great impact on the outcome of the 2013 season. The assistants will need to make the right calls to get the Aggies to 10 wins.
This point cannot be emphasized heavily enough. Utah State needs to get the 2013 season off on the right foot if it is to have any hope of getting to 10 wins.
USU's schedule is incredibly front-loaded. The Aggies face Utah, Air Force and USC in three of their first four contests. This isn't necessarily a change of pace — the Aggies have opened with Oklahoma and Auburn in recent years and played the Utes in game No. 2 last year — but it doesn't make the journey any easier.
If the Aggies start the season in a similar fashion to how they started the 2011 season, dropping an Auburn game and systematically ripping the heart out of Aggie fans everywhere, repeating in one way or another the results from the first half of that season will not be hard at all.
On the other hand, if the Aggies beat Utah, not only will they be that much closer to 10, but they'll get a shot in the arm of renewed self-confidence, and Wells' job will be that much easier.
Aggie fans come out to games in September and October, but when the weather turns bad in November, empty seats at Romney Stadium are much more plentiful.
There is a very good reason for this. It's cold in Logan in the winter. Furthermore, Aggie fans don't have 30 years or even five years of college football dominance upon which to stand when considering braving the weather to watch Aggie football.
But if the Aggies can give the fans a reason this year to show up during October and November home games, it's very likely the Aggie faithful will respond in kind by giving the Aggie football team a reason to pound the bottom of the Mountain West into the dust.
It's called a synergistic cycle, but it has to start at the beginning of the season.
Side note: Wells should call for another white-out game. Romney Stadium was packed tighter than a can of sardines during last year's 35-13 pounding of UNLV.
What do you tell a quarterback who passed for more than 3,100 yards and rushed for more than 600 yards?
We suggest: "Don't change a thing. Please just continue dominating."
Andersen turned heads when he started Keeton as a freshmen in 2011 over junior quarterback Adam Kennedy, and after the 2012 season, it's easy to see why he made that choice. Keeton did it all for the Aggies during their historic run last year. He found receivers, ran when he had to, and made the critical plays when it mattered most. Watching him leap for joy when the final whistle sounded against Utah was priceless to Aggies everywhere.
If the Aggies are to be successful again this season, they'll need their playmaker to at least match his performance from last year, if not exceed it.
Among the big question marks before the 2012 season was who was going to take the place of Robert Turbin, the NFL running back now at Seattle, in the backfield.
Kerwynn Williams stepped up in a huge way.
Now among the big question marks this year for the Aggies is who is going to take the bulk of the carries. That mantle appears to have fallen on Joe Hill. Throughout the 2012 season, Hill displayed several qualities similar to Williams, namely his ability to outrun everyone else on the gridiron and his ability to catch the ball.
If the Aggies are to be successful, they'll need Hill to fill in for Williams the same way Williams filled in for Turbin — namely, to play his game so well that fans temporarily forget about how terrific Williams was.
He'll also need to stay healthy. A few questions surfaced in 2012 about Hill's durability, and he'll do well to make Utah State fans forget that too.
All three programs in the state of Utah severely struggled putting the ball through the uprights in 2012.
For example, the USU-BYU showdown from last year might have ended differently had Josh Thompson been able to split the uprights from 38 yards in Provo on that cold October night. That play, however, would have been rendered moot had BYU's Riley Stephenson converted the PAT on the lone touchdown of the game. Who can forget the three missed BYU attempts at the end of the Cougars' loss to Utah in Salt Lake City?
Following the BYU game, the Aggies settled exclusively on kicker Nick Diaz. The decision was easy after the then-sophomore kicker nailed a 53-yarder against New Mexico State. He didn't disappoint the rest of the year, converting just more than 76.9 percent of his attempts and never missing a game-changer.
Now a candidate for the Lou Groza Award, Diaz is the guy for the Aggies. He'll need to keep making those kicks if the Aggies are going to get to 10 wins.
In March, Jake Doughty was arrested for misdemeanor charges of supplying alcohol to minors.
Since then, no one has spoken a word about the incident — not Doughty, not his head coach, Wells, not anybody. Apparently the Aggies have dealt with the incident in-house, and Doughty should be ready to play this fall.
Remembering that college football players are still kids — many of whom are still teenagers — is difficult at times. Certainly, in almost any other situation, Doughty's misstep wouldn't have made the news.
Doughty is clearly not a bad kid. But Doughty and his teammates would do well to learn that such incidents cannot happen during the season, or the campaign will suffer from unnecessary distractions.
One of the biggest question marks in 2012 was how the defensive line would stand up with so many inexperienced players.
Those question marks quickly vanished. The Aggie defense was sixth in sacks per game, seventh in scoring defense, 13th in rushing defense, 14th in total defensive, eighth in passing efficiency defense and 32nd in passing defense.
Clearly, the Aggies boasted one of the best rush defenses in the nation in 2012. Al Lapuaho, Havea Lasike, B.J. Larsen, Jordan Nielsen, Doughty, Zach Vigil and Kyler Fackrell made sure of that.
The 2013 version of the defensive line is virtually unchanged. Five of the seven top spots on the front seven two-deep are currently occupied by seniors — Doughty, Larsen and Vigil being the most notable. Those guys will have to replicate 2012 to some degree if the Aggies are going to make it to 10 Ws.
There is no reason why USU should struggle with Colorado State, Wyoming, UNLV or Hawaii. These games are the easy ones, and therefore are the trap games.
It's true that past results are not indicative of future success, but if the state of the program at the end of 2012 was any indicator at all, the team that finished with a championship and a No. 16 national ranking shouldn't have any problem with those beleaguered teams, even if the game is played in white-out conditions. (And especially if it's played in man-made white-out conditions.)
The Aggies have improved to the point where fans no longer expect them just to compete, but to win and win big against inferior competition. While certainly not the most difficult criterion for a 10-win season, this is definitely among the most crucial.