Tom Smart, Deseret News
Idaho Vandals running back Ryan Bass (5) runs for a first down during first half action as BYU plays Idaho in the Cougar's final home football game on 2012 Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012,in Provo, Utah.

SAN DIEGO — Before he became one of the most successful head coaches in college football history, thrusting BYU into the national limelight with a dizzying aerial attack and offensive fireworks, legendary LaVell Edwards coached the Cougar defense as an assistant for nearly a decade.

He's watched all of BYU's defenses dating back to the early 1960s, spanning more than 50 years.

That makes Edwards the perfect one to ask: How does the Cougars' 2012 defense rank in the annals of program history?

"It's a different time and era, but I thought this defense was a very good one," Edwards told the Deseret News last week. "It's very strong up front with very good linebackers. The secondary played well. It has to rank right up there with some of our better ones, no question."

Statistically, based solely on current national rankings, it is BYU's best ever. The Cougars rank No. 3 in total defense, No. 2 in rushing defense, No. 13 in passing defense, and No. 5 in scoring defense.

"Looking back at our body of work, I'm proud of what we've accomplished," said senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree, who told reporters earlier this season that the goal has been to finish No. 1 in those categories. "I try not to pay attention to the rankings too much until the end of the year. But they do kind of offer a perspective. Being in the top three is something to be proud of."

Is this defense BYU's best?

"I think we're right up there," Ogletree said. "I don't know who makes that call, but if I had a vote, I'd vote for us."

Coach Bronco Mendenhall, who also serves as BYU's defensive coordinator, said this defense compares favorably with the other great ones.

"Similar in culture and effort and attitude, with more talent, I would say," he said. "More playmakers and a real strong camaraderie. I couldn't tell you statistically in relation to other defenses, but I think they're pretty special."

Current BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, who played for the Cougars in 2006 and 2007, believes the final judgment on the 2012 defense will come Thursday (6 p.m., MT, ESPN), when BYU collides with San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.

"How we finish against San Diego State will determine how good this defense is," he said. "They're on track to be one of the best ever. But obviously if we lay an egg against San Diego State, that won't be true. At the end of the season we'll be able to answer that question to the fullest."

Certainly, the Cougars will face a stiff test in the Poinsettia Bowl. While BYU is ranked No. 2 in rushing defense, allowing 84.25 yards per game on the ground, the Aztecs are No. 16 in rushing offense, averaging 229.17 yards per contest.

"We've got to stop the run," Poppinga said. "San Diego State is up to the challenge. They're fired up to play us, and we're fired up to play them. It's their strength versus our strength. We'll see who ends up winning that battle."

Poppinga said BYU's defense has been steady this season.

"Week-in and week-out they've been very consistent," he said. "They've had their ups-and-downs against Oregon State and San Jose State at times, but for the most part, we've played really well all season long. We've given our team a chance to be in every single game this year. That's all you can ask for from a defense."

When a discussion about BYU's best defense ever begins, there's also the acknowledgement that the game has changed dramatically over the years.

"Obviously it's hard to judge across different time periods," Ogletree said. "There are so many offenses that put up a ton of yards with the evolution of the spread."

Yet when it comes to outstanding defenses, there are some common denominators.

"BYU's defense this year reminds me a lot of our defense because they give the offense a chance to win the game," said former Cougar linebacker Leon White, a San Diego native who helped lead BYU to a 13-0 record and the 1984 national championship. "I know their average points allowed is pretty low. That's similar to what our defense did when I played there."

White said he is impressed with the Cougar linebackers — Ogletree, Kyle Van Noy, Spencer Hadley and Uona Kaveinga. "They have a lot of good speed and they get to the ball a lot. That's similar to the time when I played — our linebackers had good speed and we got to the ball and we made things happen. These linebackers do the same thing."

Tim McTyer, who is regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in school history, was part of the 1996 BYU team that finished 14-1 and won the Cotton Bowl.

"We had so much chemistry because we were all friends and we worked so hard together. We just had fun," McTyer said. "When you get the pieces, it's what you do with it. I'll put that '96 team at BYU against anyone in the country that year. We had everything. We had a good defense, a potent offense and good special teams."

Poppinga played on the 2006 and 2007 teams that finished with identical 11-2 records. He sees similarities between those squads and this year's.

"It's guys that love football and are passionate about playing defense. They hold each other accountable," he said. "We had strong linebacker play those years and this year. For this defense, that's where it starts. What sets this defense apart from the others I played with is, this secondary is better, no offense to my former teammates. They're more athletic and they make more plays."

In Edwards' 29 years at the helm, BYU established a reputation for being an offensive juggernaut. Now, it's the Cougar defense that's receiving plenty of attention.

"During those years when we were having so much success throwing the football, it was the fact that we had a pretty good defense that was overlooked," Edwards said. "You had to have a good defense to get the ball back because those ball-control teams wanted to get the ball and keep it away from us. Not much was said about the defense during that period of time."

Certainly, times have changed, particularly in recent years under Mendenhall.

"Ever since coach Mendenhall's been here, we've always had a sense of pride in our defense, with coach Mendenhall being a defensive-minded coach," Poppinga said. "That's where it all starts, on the defensive side. It's just the same that it's been."

On the other hand, Poppinga admitted that defense in Provo will probably always take a back seat to the offense. "It doesn't matter how good we play defense here at BYU. We'll always be known for our offense."

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That aside, Mendenhall knows that the stellar performance of this year's defense sets a high bar for future defenses that come along, which is particularly important as long as BYU is an independent.

"It's going to be imperative with the teams that we're going to be playing, with the exposure, in the stadiums that we're playing and the movement we're looking for in our program," Mendenhall said. "Regardless of who we play and what stage, it's that we're capable of, as we have been this year, to win every game on our schedule. Playing good defense has a ton to do with that."