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John Raoux, AP
LSU running back Derrius Guice returns a kick off during the Citrus Bowl against Louisville, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.

Here's five keys to BYU's 2017 football season:

Key stretch: As usual, as an independent, BYU’s schedule is front-loaded with tough games against Power 5 opponents. The most challenging stretch comes early as the Cougars will face three straight foes that finished in the top-25 rankings last season — No. 13 LSU, No. 23 Utah and No. 9 Wisconsin. The good news for BYU is the LSU game is at a neutral site (Houston) while the Utes and Badgers will visit LaVell Edwards Stadium. The kind of season the Cougars will have in 2017 could be determined by mid-September. In October, BYU hosts Boise State and travels to Mississippi State in back-to-back weeks.

X-factor

Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Sione Takitaki (16) celebrates his sack against East Carolina Pirates during NCAA action in Provo Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015.

Having missed half of the 2015 season and all of 2016 due to off-the-field issues, defensive end Sione Takitaki is back, bringing his relentless pass-rushing ability. He bolsters a defensive line that lost Harvey Langi, Sae Tautu, Logan Taele and Travis Tuiloma from a year ago. The Cougars are looking to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and Takitaki’s speed and athleticism provide a dimension that could create havoc for foes in terms of turnovers and sacks. Takitaki, teamed with Corbin Kaufusi at the other defensive end spot, should give BYU a formidable pass rush this fall.

Playmaker

After seeing limited playing time as Taysom Hill’s backup last season, quarterback Tanner Mangum has returned to his role as a starter and is equipped to throw the ball all over the field. As the Cougar starter for 12 games in 2015, Mangum completed 267 of 446 passes for 3,377 yards with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He recorded five games with 300 or more passing yards in 2015. Mangum has had a year to learn, and acclimate to, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s scheme. In fall camp, Mangum looked confident and ready to lead the offense. Last season, BYU had only two completions for more than 40 yards. This season, Mangum is looking to make a lot of big plays through the air.

To be determined

Wide receiver Jonah Trinnaman runs a drill on the opening day of Brigham Young University football fall camp at the school's outdoor practice field in Provo on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.

Wide receivers and running backs. There are a lot of talented receivers on the roster. However, most of those receivers have little experience. Jonah Trinnaman is the Cougars’ top returning receiver, with 28 catches for 321 yards a year ago. Others, like Talon Shumway, Micah Simon, Beau Tanner, Aleva Hifo, Akile Davis and Neil Pau’u will need to contribute. Can this group of receivers get separation at the line of scrimmage, stretch the field, consistently catch passes and make plays? That remains to be seen. At running back, the Cougars are trying to fill the void left behind by the school’s all-time leading rusher, Jamaal Williams. Squally Canada, Riley Burt, KJ Hall, Trey Dye, Ula Tolutau and Kavika Fonua don’t have a lot of experience but they’ll be the ones carrying the rushing load.

Top newcomer

Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Bushman, Matt BYU Football Fall Camp August 17, 2017
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As BYU attempts to make the tight end position great again, freshman Matt Bushman figures to play a key role. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder has been one of Mangum’s favorite targets during fall camp. He runs solid routes, catches passes and knows how to score touchdowns. He starred in the spring game and has been targeted often in practice. Over the years, the tight end position has been a major weapon for the Cougars’ best offensive teams. BYU could be back in the tight end business and Bushman has the potential of becoming BYU’s best tight end since Dennis Pitta.