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DESPITE SOME INEXPERIENCE, COUGARS EYE NATIONAL RESPECT

Chad Lewis, even on a football team brimming with optimism three weeks prior to the season starting, stands out.

BYU's brash junior tight end from Orem seems genuine when he says the Cougars can beat any college football team in the country."Our goal is to be WAC champs and national champions," Lewis said Saturday prior to BYU's first full-team practice of the fall. "There is no reason we can't win another national title at BYU. We'll have to pull together as a team and have the community rally behind us, but it can be just like '84."

A year ago - for the first time since that national championship season a decade earlier - the 10-3 Cougars finished in the nation's top 10. The final CNN-USA Today poll had BYU 10th after its Copper Bowl whitewashing of Oklahoma.

But this year's preseason CNN-USA Today poll didn't even list the Cougs in the top 25 - a snub that didn't go unnoticed in Provo.

"It disappoints me that we aren't even in the CNN-USA Today top 25," Cougar cornerback Dermmell Reed said. "I know we lost some players, but we had a real decent season last year. Not to rank us at the start the season is hard for me to understand and I take it personally."

The Cougars have been picked by the WAC media at the annual meetings and by most of the preseason football publications to be the team to beat in the WAC, however. The Cougs have few or no returnees with playing experience at quarterback, offensive line and cornerback, so development this fall in those key positions is crucial.

J.C. transfer Steve Sarkisian starts the year in the high-profile position as the Cougar quarterback. After learning as much as he could about the Cougar offense during spring practices, Sarkisian threw three TD passes in the spring game.

How'd the heir apparent to John Walsh spend his summer vacation? "I went to Hawaii, had a fabulous time and ate too much," Sarkisian said.

But the Cougar fans needn't worry about the 6-2 QB being fat and out of shape, however.

"(After Hawaii) I went home and worked as hard as I could - throwing, lifting and trying to get stronger and bigger for the start of the season. I did a good job of it."

Backing up Sarkisian will be a couple of redshirt freshmen, Brian Vye and Paul Shoemaker. Vye had the advantage of participating in spring practices and is listed as second string on the depth charts entering fall drills. Shoemaker, a prep star in Colorado that led his team to a three-year record of 41-0 with three state titles, returned from an LDS Church mission this summer, quickly got married to Cougar basketball player Tiani Hatch and is now vying with Vye for the back-up QB spot.

The Cougars will hold two-a-day practices next week. Their season opener will be Sept. 2 at Air Force, with the home opener Sept. 9 against UCLA.