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THERE'S A LOT OF optimism in Provo.

Tight end Chad Lewis is saying the Cougars should set their sights on a national championship.Linebacker Shay Muirbrook is saying it's time the BYU defense made its own statement, becoming as reknowned as the offense.

Basically, what they're saying is it's time for BYU to return to the glory years.

Since the national championship season in 1984, no BYU team has lost fewer than three games. The '85 group with Robbie Bosco and Jason Buck was 11-3 and there have been three 10-3 seasons - 1989 and 1990 with Ty Detmer - and last year's 10-3 team. In 1986 the Cougs were 8-5; in '87 and '88 they were 9-4; In Detmer's senior season, 1991, they finished 8-3-2; 1992 brought an 8-5 record and in 1993 they had their worst record in 20 years, 6-6.

During the stretch from 1979 through 1984 the Cougs were close to unbeatable. They had the 13-0 mark in '84 and three seasons with just one loss - the 1979 team with Marc Wilson, 11-1; the 1980 Jim McMahon club, 12-1; and Steve Young's senior season, 1983, 11-1. In McMahon's senior season the Cougs "slipped" to 11-2 and in Young's junior year, 1982, they fell to 8-4.

Throw out the 8-4 season and the other five years BYU was 58-5.

Lewis' expectations are lofty, and maybe that's what they should be. Obviously, to win or challenge for a national championship you have to first win the WAC. You can also have a 6-6 season and win the WAC, which is what the Cougars did in '93.

Can you imagine anyone on the San Francisco 49ers saying, "Our goal is to win the NFC West."

Now, if you're NFC West members New Orleans or Atlanta your goal is to make the playoffs. That's not an acceptable goal for the 49ers. The Super Bowl is.

At the college level, can you picture Bobby Bowden saying, "Our goal is to win the ACC." (In their three years in the Atlanta Coast Conference Florida State has yet to lose a conference game).

Lewis' sights are set a little high but give him credit for being bold enough to do so.

Still, it will be difficult to get past step one on the path to a super season - winning the WAC.

That's because BYU has to play the other top three contenders for the conference crown on the road - Air Force, Colorado State and Fresno State. Fresno State wasn't in the conference in 1984. The Bulldogs are very hard to beat in Fresno.

Then there's the first nonconference game of the season - Sept. 9 against 15th-ranked UCLA. The Bruins have not been kind to the Cougs, pummeling them 68-14 when they last met in '93.

If BYU can defeat both Air Force and UCLA, a dream season is a possibility.

The Cougars have a pretty good arsenal. Quarterback Steve Sarkisian looks like he'll be outstanding and will do something John Walsh wasn't able to - get the support of the BYU fans.

Running back Hema Heimuli could follow in the cleats of his brother Lakei, who happened to be the main ballcarrier for the '84 group.

Then there's the tight end/H-back duo of Lewis and Itula Mili, both big-play players.

The defensive front seven may be on par with the front seven of the '84 and '85 teams. The offensive line isn't. Its performance may be the team's key.

Depth is likely a problem. The '84 bunch had a virtual injury-free year. A dream season would require the same for the '95 Cougs.

The expectations for the '84 team weren't very high. That's the case this year also.

A 12-0 or 11-1 season unlikely? Yes. But then it seemed unlikely that after '84 the Cougs would be at 10 seasons and counting trying to get back to a two-loss season.

Go ahead and dream.