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BYU concentrating on winning conference, not potential BCS bid

"The Quest for Perfection."

It's the slogan BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is using for this season. It graces T-shirts in the school's bookstore and appears on the downloadable wallpaper on the team's Web site.

But it's not what you think.

Perfection would seem the most logical goal for a team that has won a nation's best 10 straight games and returns 11 starters. But Mendenhall isn't using the motto to push his Cougars to that kind of perfection. This quest is about something different altogether.

"It's been taken as an undefeated season," Mendenhall said. "What it really came from was a mission statement here at BYU, which is to aid each individual in your quest for perfection and eternal life."

Still, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could wind up giving one driving pep talk, because perfection, in the more conventional sense, would mean the Cougars go undefeated and become the third straight mid-major team to earn a BCS bid.

That kind of quest was a topic of conversation among the Cougars -- once. When the team showed up for preseason camp, Mendenhall discussed the team's preseason ranking (17th in the USA Today coaches' poll) and all that talk of them being anointed this year's "it" mid-major. He also asked his players to follow the lead of he and his wife, who have made a pact to stay away from information on the team on the TV, radio, Internet and newspapers.

"All I ask them to do now is go right back to our position mastery, our day-to-day execution and hopefully developing the greatness to be considered there at the end of the season and not at the beginning of the season," Mendenhall said.

If all goes well, the Cougars could follow in the footsteps of Boise State and Hawaii, who have reached BCS games in each of the past two years, and give the MWC that proverbial jackpot the WAC has hit the last two years. The Broncos and Warriors each received more than $4 million for making the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls, respectively. When the amount was added to the rest of the conference's bowl earnings and split among its membership, each WAC school received in excess of $1 million combined over the past two offseasons.

"The exposure the WAC has received has been a tremendous boost in reestablishing the WAC as a credible conference," said WAC commissioner Karl Benson.

Mid-majors have taken full advantage of gaining entry to college football's most lucrative party, but so far only perfection has gotten them past the velvet rope.

In the two seasons since the addition of the fifth BCS game, no mid-major with at least one loss has finished higher than the two-loss Cougars' 17th ranking last year. (Mid-majors must finish in the top 12 of the final BCS rankings to earn an automatic bid.) Boise State was 25th in '07's final rankings with a 10-2 record, while BYU (10-2) was 23rd in '06.

That, says Mendenhall, illustrates a problem.

"I just think it points out a flawed system," he said. "What I would be a proponent of is you take the two top-ranked non-BCS teams and you allow them to play each other in say the Las Vegas bowl, and the winner gets to play in maybe a fifth BCS game. And that way you won't have contracts being broken in terms of scheduling and you won't have the schedule or lack thereof in terms of strength of schedule being such a factor."

Last season, Hawaii played two teams from the Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA) and the Warriors' strength of schedule was ranked 119th by one service, while Boise State's schedule came in at 113 in its '06 dash to a BCS berth.

The Warriors' lackluster docket wasn't by design, though. Hawaii wanted to play Michigan, but the Wolverines weren't interested. Also, Michigan State paid $250,000 to get out of a game and USC rejected an offer.

June Jones, who coached the Warriors in last season's Sugar Bowl run before leaving for SMU, believes the fifth BCS game has created scheduling problems that will only continue and force both mid-majors and teams from the power conferences to go to FCS teams to fill out their schedules.

"[The fifth BCS game has] kept the Floridas and the other schools [from playing FCS schools from smaller conferences]," he said. "They don't want to risk losing to a Boise [State] ... a lot of these were made prior to that rule being made, but I think as you look to the future I think you'll see a lot of teams not really playing non-BCS teams; they're going to play I-AA teams."

Mendenhall can attest to that. BYU had a contract to host Nevada in the upcoming season opener but the Wolf Pack broke the pact and opted to schedule a home game with Grambling State instead. Scrambling for an opponent, the Cougars had to go the I-AA route as well and now open with Northern Iowa in Provo. Their schedule, which now includes non-conference games against Northern Iowa, Washington, UCLA and Utah State, ranks 86th on Phil Steele's list of toughest schedules.

BYU, which is 16th in the AP poll, isn't the only mid-major to open the season ranked. Fresno State, the WAC's best chance for another BCS qualifier, is 25th in the coaches poll, while Boise State, Hawaii, TCU, Tulsa, UCF and Utah have all received votes in at least one of the preseason rankings.

But it's the Cougars who are being looked at as the team with the best chance of making mid-majors a perfect 3-for-3 since the BCS increased access for teams outside the power conferences.

BYU's offense will be among the most experienced -- and explosive -- in the nation. It returns eight starters led by junior quarterback Max Hall, who passed for 3,848 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first year as the starter after transferring from Arizona State. BYU also brings back its leading rusher (Harvey Unga, 1,227 yards and 13 scores as a freshman) its top receiver (tight end Dennis Pitta, who had a team-high 59 catches), a legitimate deep threat (WR Austin Collie) and four starting linemen.

"From what I've seen so far, our offense is going to be very hard to stop," Mendenhall said. "Our defense is certainly having a difficult time doing it at camp."

That defense is the big question mark. Mendenhall must replace eight starters from a unit that was 10th in the nation in total defense and ninth in points allowed. The group does return three starters on the line, though, including former freshman All-America end Jan Jorgensen. Mendenhall believes the new players will make their marks.

"I think the next group, and we'll have possibly seven new faces, are just the next generation of the players we've lost over the past two years," he said. "I don't think anybody will know about them now and we possibly might take some time to gel and play at the level necessary, but I think at the end of the year, the fans and others watching will say 'How are you going to replace these guys?'"

While BYU's schedule does include TCU and Utah in the second half, it is imperative the Cougars get off to a strong start. Each of the last two seasons, the Cougars have opened 1-2. While they've rattled off 10 straight wins in both of those years, that will be tougher this season. In the first three weeks, BYU plays two Pac-10 opponents -- at Washington and a home date with UCLA. A poor showing against two teams from a conference that has a guaranteed BCS berth would all but ruin the Cougars' chances. But Mendenhall is keeping the focus on the MWC, where BYU has won 16 straight games.

"I think there'll be a lot of people, if we happen to lose an early game, saying 'That's a disappointing season,'" Mendenhall said. "But we measure it by conference championships and those will be the pavers to eventually our consideration on a national level."

Going undefeated isn't a part of Mendenhall's measuring stick. Being anointed as the next to challenger for a BCS berth? That's not part of this kind of perfection, no matter the marketing campaign nor the potential multi-million dollar payday.

"Anytime a team uses that as a goal, you run the risk of an early season loss and having another letdown the week after being forced to recover," Mendenhall said. "I've tried my best to just ground our football team and just focus on the task at hand."

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