Can motivation move mountains? BYU hopes so.

After losing three of their final four games last season, things don't get any easier for the Cougars. The 1998 campaign opens with a gantlet of Alabama, Arizona State and Washington.Not exactly good for what ails a program seeking to reclaim past glory. It's sort of like combating a cold with vise grips and a sledgehammer.

Even so, BYU coach LaVell Edwards and his team are unfazed about what lies ahead. Last season's disappointment, which left the Cougars at 6-5 and out of the bowl picture for the second time in three years, has the program focused. Team captain John Tait said it left a sour taste in their mouths. And Edwards, normally reserved in such discussions, said it has provided plenty of motivation.

"We had a lousy ending last year, and we're not accustomed to that. We've had some off years, but we never had one where we ended the season like that," Edwards said. "It's been a great motivating factor for us during the offseason and coming into this fall. That's what we've been working on."

A victory in any of the first three outings will prevent the Cougars from losing six games over a seven-game stretch (dating back to last year) for the first time in Edwards' 27 seasons as head coach. Less than two years after going 14-1 and winning the Cotton Bowl, BYU could find itself with a 1-6 mark since a 31-10 victory over TCU last October.

Tait said the Cougars are tired of being asked if the program is mired in a downward spiral. He and his teammates are looking to bounce back. And it matters little that the once-proud Crimson Tide or nationally ranked Sun Devils and Huskies stand in their way.

"We're ready to go," promises starting quarterback Kevin Fet-er-ik. "We're going to take them head-on. We can't back away from those big-time schools because we've got to consider ourselves a big-time school. We're always in the top 25 and so are they."

The season, however, isn't riding on the first three games. BYU has been 0-3 before. In 1991, the Cougars lost to Florida State, UCLA and Penn State before going 5-0-2 the rest of the way - winning the WAC and landing an invitation to the Holiday Bowl.

Back-up quarterback Drew Miller said there's a silver lining to a tough opening schedule.

"If they don't turn out the way we hope, we've just have to put it behind us and get ready for the next week. The best thing about those first three tough games is that it's going to make us a much better football team by the end of the season. That's what it's going to come down to," Miller said.

"Whether we win all three, lose all three or whatever happens, by the end of the season we're going to be a dang good football team."

Optimism reigns supreme this time of year. Miller is confident the Cougars are prepared to answer the early challenges. And he's not alone.

"Anything's possible," Feterik added. "If we can go 3-0 against those teams, I'm sure we'll jump up high in the rankings. But it's going to be a battle. Those three teams are not pushovers. They're going to give us all they got."

Speculation aside, Edwards thinks the timing for such meetings is right.

"If you're going to play them, I'd just as soon play them early," he said. ". . . We've always had some good non-conference games. Sometimes you like to have a little bit of a breather, whatever a breather would be. But we're looking forward to it."

*****

Additional Information

BYU season beginnings

The last time BYU opened a season:

3-0: (1993) defeated New Mexico 34-31; defeated Hawaii 41-38; defeated Colorado State 27-22. Final record: 6-6.

2-1: (1997) lost to Washington 42-20; defeated Arizona State 13-10; defeated Southern Methodist 19-16. Final record: 6-5.

1-2: (1995) lost to Air Force 38-12; lost to UCLA 23-9; defeated San Diego State 31-19. Final record: 7-4.

0-3: (1991) lost to Florida State 44-28; lost to UCLA 27-23; lost to Penn State 33-7. Final record: 8-3-2.