BYU's 2013 season ended on a sour note as the Cougars fell 31-16 against Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl. However, the Cougars are just a few adjustments, including an overhaul on the offensive line, away from breaking into prime time in 2014.
The Cougars have a quarterback in Taysom Hill who has developed nicely over the course of the season. He didn’t throw a single touchdown pass in the entire month of September and still finished the season with 19. He made two touchdowns passes per game in BYU's last nine games, and had he done the same in his first four games he would have finished 2013 with 26. That would have put Hill in the Top 20 in the nation.
And don't forget about Hill's rushing ability. He finished the season with 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013, becoming the first BYU quarterback to pass for 2,000 or more yards while rushing for more than 1,000.
In short, BYU will be fine at quarterback.
BYU's offense also has a reliable running back in Jamaal Williams, who rushed for 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns. Plus, the Cougars have a nice stable of up-and-coming running backs in Paul Lasike, Adam Hine and Algernon Brown. BYU's rushing game is solid.
What isn't solid, however, is the offensive line.
The line allowed 38 sacks in 2013, which is No. 107 in the country, according to the NCAA. Washington got to Hill five times in the Fight Hunger Bowl, and the Huskies were able to consistently beat Michael Yeck at left tackle to get to Hill. However, this is just one example as the BYU line struggles to open holes or buy time for Hill, Williams and the other Cougar running backs.
The fact that both Hill and Williams were able to rush for more than 1,000 yards despite issues on the line is a testament to how good these players are. Imagine what they could do with a strong, dependable line.
Yes, the Cougars will have a hard time replacing key players, including linebacker Kyle Van Noy and wide receiver Cody Hoffman. Whether or not they are taken in the first few rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft, they will contribute to their new teams in the pros. That kind of talent is hard to replace, unless you happen to be Nick Saban at Alabama.
That said, a greatly improved offensive line would make up for the departures of Van Noy and Hoffman. That's how important this is.
As long as Hill is the starter, the running game is a crucial part of the Cougars' offense. BYU has to play to its strengths, and for Hill and Williams to reach their full potential, they need an offensive line that can block.
It really is that simple.
Many will point to BYU's struggles in the "blue zone" as the point of emphasis for next season, but if the Cougars can improve the offensive line, that issue will take care of itself. Too many promising drives were killed by a false start, a hold, a sack or the simple inability to move the ball deep in the opponent's territory.
Yes, the Cougars will lose a lot of players on defense, including Van Noy, Uani 'Unga, Spencer Hadley, Daniel Sorensen and Eathyn Manumaleuma. This defense will need to rebuild next season.
That said, Bronco Mendenhall does a great job at developing defensive talent. Furthermore, the defense gave up 27 points or less in BYU's five losses (Washington scored a touchdown on a kickoff return) and 23 points or less in three of BYU's losses. In the end, it doesn't matter how good BYU's defense is if the offense can't put points on the board.
That's why the offensive line is paramount.
There's plenty of room for optimism in 2014. Next year's schedule is considerably easier than 2013. Yes, there's the trips to Texas and UCF, but the rest of the road games are at UConn (3-9), Boise State (8-5, first season without Chris Petersen), Middle Tennessee State (8-5, BYU defeated them 37-10) and Cal (1-11). The toughest opponent to visit Provo will be Utah State.
It's reasonable to expect the Cougars to win 10 games against this schedule.
Lafe Peavler is a sportswriter intern at the Deseret News.