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Great expectations — Y. eyes not just winning season but MWC title

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PROVO — Ask anyone affiliated with BYU's football program about the expectations for the 2006 season and the answer is pretty much the same.

The Cougars have their sights set on winning the Mountain West Conference championship.

After three straight losing seasons, BYU finished 6-6 in 2005, including a second-place finish in the MWC and a bowl appearance. This year, the Cougars are looking at the next step in their progression — claiming their first league title since 2001.

"We just have a distinct goal this season, that's to be conference champions," said senior linebacker and team captain Cameron Jensen. "We have to practice like it every day. We've got to improve on what happened last year."

"We won't settle for second place anymore. We won't settle for a loss in a bowl game," said senior running back Curtis Brown. "The expectations are for greatness and the plan is to have an undefeated season, go to a bowl game and win. We love to set the expectations high at BYU because we know we have the capability to obtain whatever goal we set for ourselves. We're not going to let our team fall short this year. We're not going to hold anything back this year."

Coach Bronco Mendenhall, entering his second season at the helm, is counting on his program to progress dramatically over his first season.

"We expect to be an improved football team, competing at a higher level. I expect our football team to perform well in critical situations," he said. "I like this football team.

I like how they are working to achieve the standard of excellence in all they do. I like how they're working. I like their competitive spirit. I like how they're competing every day. I like the atmosphere. This is the best chemistry I have felt since I began coaching at BYU."

Last season, the Cougars avoided a losing record for the first time since 2001. This season, Mendenhall wants to see BYU return to the greatness it once knew.

"We finished second in the Mountain West and lost a hard-fought, tightly contested bowl game. I have a better idea of what the standard is for this program," he said. "Our players have a better idea. We're not just satisfied with going to a bowl game. It was a nice step for our program, but we're not satisfied to finish second. That wasn't our goal. There's a different standard. We've seen it, we've felt it, we've touched it, and we've seen how close it is."

The Cougars are deep and experienced on offense with quarterback John Beck, running backs Curtis Brown and Fui Vakapuna; tight ends Jonny Harline and Daniel Coats; wide receivers Zac Collie, Michael Reed, Matt Allen, Nathan Meikle, McKay Jacobson and Mike Hague; and offensive linemen Eddie Keele, Jake Kuresa and Dallas Reynolds.

"We have a high-powered offense that's capable of doing a lot of great things. I think as an offensive unit, we plan to build on last year," Brown said. "We didn't score enough points last year. We want to go out there this year and just blow teams away."

A major component of BYU offenses in the past, the tight end position is one the Cougars will rely heavily on this season.

"Our tight ends are one the strengths of our team," Mendenhall said. "In terms of production, the two tight ends are representing themselves very well in relation to the history of the position here. They are continuing on at a similar standard of some of the great tight ends that have been here. Jonny's season last year puts him in that class."

Speaking of expectations, Beck was named the MWC preseason offensive player of the year while Jacobson was voted preseason freshman of the year.

While Beck is on track to become the No. 2 career passer in BYU history, all that matters to him is getting victories.

"I haven't had the season I've wanted to have yet," Beck said. "Now heading into my senior year, I have one go-around to get this thing done. Winning in my senior season is everything to me."

Defensively, the Cougars have changed their alignment from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4 to showcase the abilities of their talented linebackers.

"I love the new alignment," said junior linebacker Bryan Kehl. "It's going to make a big difference when we play. We'll be able to attack more and get more pressure on the quarterback. I think it'll really help our defense. I think the defense has really made a lot of progress. The offense has always been sharp and always been good. Up front on the defensive line, a lot of guys are stepping up and showing they can play and same with the defensive backs."

One of the keys for the Cougars could be getting through the first month of the season. They open against Arizona of the Pac-10, then host 2005 Conference USA champion Tulsa before traveling to Atlantic Coast Conference power Boston College. After a rivalry game against Utah State, BYU opens league play at defending MWC champ TCU.

2006 BYU football schedule

Date Opponent Time TV

Sept. 2 @ Arizona 8:15 p.m. TBS

Sept. 9 Tulsa 2 p.m. mtn.

Sept. 16 @ Boston College 10 a.m. ESPN2

Sept. 23 Utah State 1 p.m. mtn.

Sept. 28 @ TCU* 5 p.m. Versus

Oct. 7 San Diego State* noon mtn.

Oct. 21 UNLV* 1 p.m. mtn.

Oct. 28 @ Air Force* noon Versus

Nov. 4 @ Colorado State* 4:30 p.m. mtn.

Nov. 9 Wyoming* 6 p.m. CSTV

Nov. 18 New Mexico* 2 p.m. mtn.

Nov. 25 @ Utah* 1:30 p.m. CSTV

NOTE: All times Mountain. * denotes MWC game

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com