If anybody is familiar with a front-loaded schedule, it is BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Last season, the Cougars began the season with a brutal four-game stretch. They opened with a home game against Washington, then traveled to Air Force and Florida State before returning home to play Nevada. For a young team without a clear identity, the tough schedule was a disaster. BYU started 1-3 against the four eventual bowl teams before the team was able to pull out of its spin and make it to a bowl game itself.
What really doomed BYU at the beginning of last season was not having a starting quarterback after rotating Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson. Mendenhall has said the worst thing that happened was getting a false sense of accomplishment after winning the opener against Washington. There were plenty of lessons learned from that miserable stretch that can be applied heading into 2011.
That is because BYU once again features a tough start to its season, its first as an independent. The Cougars open at Ole Miss on Sept. 3, then follow that with a game at Texas before returning home to play host to in-state foe Utah in a game that was moved up from the final week of the season with the Utes' move to the Pac-12. Right after that, the Cougars host UCF, which finished last season ranked in the Top 25.
BYU returns 19 starters from last season and will have Heaps as its starter, so Mendenhall hopes the start to this upcoming season is much better.
"We have such a recent case study of maybe how not to do it or what the challenges might be," Mendenhall said in a recent phone interview. "Our entire team already knows about them, and that added to the urgency of preparation. The cleaner that we can play, the further along we can be and that will help us through the Ole Miss, Texas, Utah stretch. They’re not unrealistic to the difficulties of our three opening games, which is driving their work ethic and preparation. This year, we have a clearer idea of what will work and who we are."
Mendenhall would love more balance to his schedule, but one of the difficulties of being an independent has been getting tougher games in the middle and end of the season, when everyone else is in conference play. BYU has a tough opening to 2012 as well with games against Oregon State, Hawaii, then at Utah and Boise State.
"The 2011 schedule is trying to make the transition to independence," Mendenhall said. "We did the best we could. We were taking games when we could get them. We're working hard to get that balance, but scheduling quality opponents later in the season is one obstacle we are running in to."
There are other challenging games in the 2011 season, with contests against Oregon State, TCU and at Hawaii -- never an easy place to play. But if the Cougars can survive their opening four-game stretch, they could be in line for another 10-win season.