WHEN LAST WE LEFT the BYU football team, the Cougars were getting routed in Honolulu (Pearl Harbor, the Sequel) and stomped in San Diego (Holiday Bowl XIII, the one-quarter wonder), their quarterback's shoulders were being knocked from their moorings, their offense was graduating en masse, the schedule makers were lining up murderer's row for next season, and everyone was making dire forecasts for their future.

To hear all the talk, you would have thought the Cougars were going to put Cougar Stadium up for sale; that they'd mortgage the Heisman Trophy; that they'd sack their pass offense for the wishbone; that they would tell Jim McMahon all is forgiven and please come home.Well, here it is March and the store is still open. It's business as usual. The Cougars not only managed to hold spring practice without a hitch - it ends Wednesday - but they also uncovered a number of future stars in the process. Former players seem to return daily from church missions - Hema Heimuli (remember the name), Eli Herring, Mike Empey, Tom Young (younger brother of the 49ers' Steve), Tyler Anderson and Bryce Doman. And recruiting? Well, it wasn't quite business as usual.

It was better than that.

Remember how the Cougs' end-of-the-year slide was supposed to send their recruits running for other schools? All the Cougars did was sign high school players of the year from from four states - running back Mark Atuaia (Hawaii), running back Jamal Willis (Nevada), quarterback John Walsh (Southern California) and linebacker Jeff Ellis (Montana).

Yeah, the poor Cougars. They're still pinching themselves to see if this is a dream.

BYU head coach LaVell Edwards would never let on, but the Cougars' recruiting class was the best in BYU history. All you'll get out of the understated Edwards is, "This is about as good a group as we've ever had." Translation: This is an INCREDIBLE group of recruits.

"It's the best group of athletes we've had," says recruiting coordinator Chris Pella.

"It looks good on paper, darn good," says quarterback coach Norm Chow. "We got a bunch of blue chip-type players."

Nothing like this has ever happened to the Cougars. Even with all their success during the past 20 years, they have signed only a handful of prep players who were considered blue-chip recruits - Trevor Molini, a tight end from Nevada; Ty Detmer, a quarterback from Texas you've probably heard of; Rocky Biegel, a linebacker from Wisconsin; Lakei Heimuli, a running back from Hawaii; and Glen Kozlowski, a receiver from California.

That's about it for blue-chip types. Now along come Walsh, Atuaia, Willis and Itula Mili, who all made at least one blue-chip recruiting list.

Maybe these guys don't read newspapers or watch ESPN. Maybe they didn't see BYU get humiliated by Hawaii and Texas A&M. Maybe they just don't care. Whatever the reason, they've all decided to attend BYU, and for that reason the Cougars' future looks bright - at least the part that begins after next year's Florida State-UCLA-Penn State start.

The Cougars went to the wire to beat big-name competition for Atuaia and Willis, who have all the essential numbers: size, speed, and nearly 4,000 rushing yards combined last season. According to Pella, some observers are calling Willis the best recruit BYU ever signed. "He's among Nevada's leading scorers in basketball," says Pella. "He can take off from the foul line and stuff it." Walsh, who threw for nearly 4,000 yards last year, committed to BYU early. Talk about good fortune.

You know the Cougars' luck has changed when they not only sign a big-city black athlete, but also a Muslim - defensive back Hassan Kareem McCullough, from Pasadena, Calif. "His parents liked the rules and the discipline at BYU," says Pella.

McCullough is the son of Earl, the former Olympic hurdler/Detroit Lions wide receiver, and, yes, the kid inherited the speed. ("He's a burner," says Pella.)

The Cougars' luck was with them again when they picked up two vastly promising players who were bypassed by other schools simply because of injuries. Mili, big (6-4, 210), fast and athletic, had so-so statistics last year because injuries limited his playing time. Karlos Rhodes, a defensive back from Florida, was being recruited by the likes of Miami, Florida State and LSU two years ago - until about the time his senior year was cut short by a knee injury. He rehabilitated the knee for a year and then signed with BYU this year. He made such a good showing in spring practice - and earned a reputation as a hitter - that he could play next year as a freshman.

BYU stumbled into Rhodes while checking out another recruit in Florida. "It was kind of a roll of the dice there," says Pella.

The Cougars rolled the dice and won again, this time in Boston. Shortly before he was fired as head coach at Boston College, Jack Bicknell tipped Edwards about a 6-foot-6, 250-pound local Mormon kid who was being recruited heavily by Michigan and Michigan State. BYU signed offensive lineman Matt Cox.

It's been that kind of year for the Cougs, so far. As for the future, it looks bleak, all right - for the rest of the Western Athletic Conference.