It was three years and three quarterbacks ago that BYU last won the Western Athletic Conference football championship, and the question now, on the eve of the 1988 season opener, is can the Y. return to power this year.

We're going to stick our necks out here for a moment and say yes, and for several reasons:1) The quarterback situation appears to be resolved. Sean Covey, the original local-kid-makes-good story, made good last season. He took over a 4-3 team at midseason and delivered five wins in six starts. He'll be better this year. When he wasn't writing speeches for Orrin Hatch in Washingtonduring the off-season, he was putting on needed muscle in the weightroom and visiting the film room (but he did find time to marry).

2) The Cougars have only helped themselves since the start of last season: They suffered no major losses on offense and only one on defense; They had no injuries during spring and fall camps for a change, and in fact mended some lingering injuries during the off-season; They brought in some top recruits who could have an immediate impact; and they have a hard-earned year of experience behind them.

The Cougars started last season with a handicap - no experience at running back, which was a big reason for the team's poor start. This year they've not only got experience there, but good talent, as well, a la Fred Whittingham, Matt Bellini, Mike Salido, Mike O'Brien. They'll run behind a line that returns nearly intact.

3) BYU claims to return 13 starters from last year's 9-4 team, but it's actually better than that. Three other players (tackle John Hunter, linebacker Regan Hansen, def. tackle Tim Clark) have been some-time starters in the past, and a handful of others (noseguard Tim Knight comes to mind) have been hanging around for years waiting their turns.

4) The Cougars, after winning 10 straight WAC championships, haven't been that far off the mark the last two seasons, even while going through the football eqivalent of a mid-life crises. Everybody keeps moaning about the Cougars' so-called demise, but in their two "down" years there has been, what, just three conference losses (by a total of 13 points) and two second-place finishes. Just two plays separated BYU from a championship last year, both against Wyoming - a goal-line stop of quarterback Bob Jensen, although BYU coaches swear that films show he was in the end zone and then pulled out by a defender during the pileup; and a PAT attempt in which Wyoming turned a bad snap on a kick attempt into a desperation pass and two points.

All this notwithstanding, BYU has slipped the past couple of years, thanks partly to the long drawn out Great Quarterback Hunt and several major injuries, and partly because of changing times in the WAC. BYU's glory days of dominating the WAC are probably finished. Defenses, at least for now, have clearly caught up with BYU's passing game. And the rest of the league has improved.

"It's unrealistic to expect BYU to dominate like it used to," says BYU offensive assistant coach Norm Chow. "People in the WAC aren't standing still. We forced them to raise their level of play. There aren't going to be anymore dominating teams. Of course you always hope to be near the top, but winning by scores of 80 to 15, those days are over."

On a national level, things also will be more difficult. The days of knocking the Cougars' schedule are also over. Besides facing WAC heavies Air Force, Wyoming and UTEP this season, BYU will meet Texas, TCU and Miami.

Here's a quick look at the '88 Cougars:

OFFENSE - Covey came on to complete 61 percent of his passes in five games last season for 1,668 yards, 8 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. And Chow reports, "He's one of the most improved players this year. He's a lot stronger. He has a lot more steam on the ball. And he has a better understanding of the game." Covey is not a fast, agile athlete, but perhaps that accounts for one of his great assets - he makes himself hang in the pocket and find open receivers, even while staring into opposing facemasks.

The Cougars have so many good running backs that they might use them to alternate plays into the huddle. Whittingham and Salido are flashy runners. Bellini is an extra receiver in the backfield; he could catch 70 passes before the season is finished (he caught 51 last year after missing the first three games with an injury). O'Brien (6-0, 215) is the team's one big, strong back.

The receiving corps returns two regulars, wideout Chuck Cutler and tight end Darren Handley, who had a team-high 52 catches last year. BYU might regularly shuffle four receivers, including freshman Bryce Doman.

The line, which averages 6-foot-51/2, should be as good as any seen at BYU in several years, with returnees Brian White, Warren Wheat, Phil Nuahi and John Hunter, plus newcomer Lynn Murphy.

DEFENSE - The defense is the biggest question mark. "Certainly on defense we could struggle a bit early," says Felt. Only five full-time starters return. Three of them are in the secondary, which should be second to none in the West. Cornerback Rodney Rice, who will double as a kick/punt returner, had six interceptions and nine deflections last year despite missing three games. All-WAC safety Troy Long also had six interceptions and led the team in defensive scoring. The other safety, Scott Peterson, had four more interceptions (the other corner probably will be JC transfer Eric Bergeson).

The front seven was the hardest hit by graduation, but only David Futrell will be difficult to replace. Outside backers Chad Robinson, Alema Fitisemanu and Duane Johnson merely need time; Bob Davis is a comer at inside backer, if only he can stay healthy (he'll pair up with Hansen). The line will be solid, headed by 300-pound junior Craig Patterson - "Our Refrigerator," says one coach. The biggest worry is depth at the front seven positions - "We'll have to be lucky with injuries," says defensive coordinator Dick Felt.

They also must hope their two new kickers - sophomore Jason Chaffetz and freshman Earl Kauffman - can match their practice performances. Punter Pat Thompson is pro-caliber.

It all seems to bode well for another good season at BYU. We'll know soon enough. If the Cougs handle their first three opponents (Wyoming, Texas, Texas-El Paso), they might well return to their old position atop the WAC.