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BYU no longer league favorite

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LAS VEGAS — There was a time, not so long ago, when BYU dominated football in this part of the country. Nearly every year, without thinking or blinking, coaches and media would automatically label the Cougars the conference favorites. It was a mere formality.

But times have changed.

Tuesday at Mountain West Conference football media day, BYU was projected to finish third. It's no mystery as to why.

First, the Cougars' longtime league rivals have improved in recent years. Colorado State and Utah, for instance, have established themselves as MWC powers. You don't need to remind BYU that it has lost five of its last seven games against the Utes.

Plus, the Cougars are riding a three-game losing streak — including an embarrassing defeat to Marshall in the Motor City Bowl last December — and counting. They face a suicidal non-conference slate, beginning with a season-opener against defending national champion Florida State. In league action, they must play Air Force, Colorado State and Utah on the road.

Not to mention BYU is searching for a starting quarterback.

Add it all up and it could be a recipe for disaster. The cover of the 2000 BYU media guide features a large, shadowy photo of coach LaVell Edwards' frowning visage. At the bottom of the cover, in small letters, there is a tagline that reads, "More Glory Lies Ahead."

Glory or Gory? Under the circumstances, maybe the latter is more apropos.

To many observers, the outlook is bleak. At one point Tuesday, a reporter asked Edwards about the possibility his program could experience its first losing season since his second year at the helm, way back in 1973.

"That never enters my mind," Edwards answered. It's not a question he is accustomed to.

In fact, the coach, who turns 70 in October, isn't concerned about all that peripheral stuff, especially about what has happened in the past. "It means nothing to this group," he said. "What matters is what happens this year. . . . When teams come to Provo, they better be ready to play because we're going to have a good football team. We've had as good an offseason as we've had in a while. I'm excited about this year."

Senior wide receiver Margin Hooks seems to relish this new, underdog role. "The pressure is off of us," he said. Because the Cougars aren't favored, he added, maybe conference opponents won't save their best game of the season for them, like they traditionally do.

And he believes the arduous non-conference slate will prepare BYU for league wars. "Those games set the table for conference games," Hooks said. "Since I've been here we've played some of the top teams in the nation every year. It helps us."

Defensively, the Cougar front seven, led by linebacker Justin Ena and defensive lineman Setema Gali Jr., is tough. In the secondary, Jared Lee has been tabbed as one of the league's best defensive backs. But there are serious questions at cornerback, where BYU lost two starters from last season to graduation and projected starter Jernaro Gilford to a yearlong suspension following burglary charges last spring.

Offensively, the Cougars open fall camp on Saturday with yet another quarterback controversy hanging over their helmets. BYU has a pair of untested QBs in junior Charlie Peterson and sophomore Bret Engemann. "There's a pretty good chance we'll play both this year," Edwards said, "but we'll wait to see what happens and see if one of them steps up."

He believes the offensive line will be much improved, though the Cougars will have to replace three starters. In the backfield, Luke Staley and Kalani Sitake are expected to return from injury.

The brightest spot is at receiver, where BYU boasts plenty of talent and depth. Headlining the group is Hooks, who is threatening to break the Cougars' career receiving yardage record. He is joined by seniors Ben Horton and Jonathan Pittman and sophomore Mike Rigell, who starred for the Cougars in 1998 before transferring and making his way back to Provo.

Rigell will also be BYU's No. 1 punt and kick returner. And placekicker Owen Pochman is regarded as one of the best in the country at his position.

In 1999, BYU won eight games and it was considered a disappointment. If the Cougars can win eight games in 2000, well, that would be considered glorious indeed.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com