Going unbeaten is not only a guaranteed way to win the Mountain West Conference, it's almost a requirement.
The last four MWC champions have finished undefeated in the league, a run that started with Utah's perfect season in 2004 and has continued the last two years with Brigham Young's back-to-back titles. But the Cougars' 16-0 run through the conference the last two years has earned them only two more trophies and consecutive trips to the Las Vegas Bowl, where two more victories were quickly overshadowed by the dozens of postseason games that followed.
BYU wants a piece of the BCS.
``When they were in their heyday, BYU was winning conference championships year in and year out,'' BYU defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen said.
The Cougars were the favorite in both the MWC coaches and media preseason polls, followed by rival Utah and TCU. The three schools have combined for the last five league titles, but only the 2004 Utes made it to the Bowl Championship Series.
Without a guaranteed berth, getting to the BCS from the Mountain West unofficially takes an unbeaten record. Whichever team wins the league this year will need to get through the nonconference games unscathed in order to seriously think about a spot in the big-time, which would bring the league some nice credibility and millions of dollars.
In three seasons, coach Bronco Mendenhall has the Cougars back to being perennial favorites in the league and a Top-25 team, but not quite to where BYU once was.
``There's not one player that's satisfied, nor a coach that's satisfied,'' Mendenhall said.
BYU has 10 starters back from the top offense in the league, led by junior quarterback Max Hall. Hall passed for 3,848 yards last season, completing 60 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. It was his college football debut and he looked more like some of his predecessors at BYU than a greenhorn who hadn't played in an actual game since his senior year of high school in 2003.
BYU will have eight new starters on defense, but all should have some experience.
The Cougars have had to recover from two nonconference losses early in the last two seasons, but this year their league schedule may actually be more difficult. BYU travels to TCU on Oct. 16 and is on the road again at Utah in the state rivalry game which has come down to the final minutes the last three years.
``Ideally, the last game of the year comes down to the conference championship,'' Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ``If you could write the script, that's how you'd want to write it.''
Utah started the conference 0-2 last year, but recovered with seven straight wins and finished third in the league. Quarterback Brian Johnson is one of 14 returning starters and is healthy for the first time in almost three years. He separated his throwing shoulder in the season opener at Oregon State last year and his arm was never quite at full strength.
Utah took a gamble by accepting a one-game deal with Michigan, where the Utes open the season on Aug. 30. A win would be huge for the Utes, who have sputtered with inconsistency at times during Whittingham's first three seasons.
A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
BYU: Key players: QB Max Hall, Jr.; RB Harvey Unga, So. Returning starters: 10 offense, 3 defense.
Notes: Even with a rebuilt defense, BYU may simply overpower opponents with offense. Hall has four returning starters blocking for him on the line and three bruising running backs in Unga, Manase Tonga and Fui Vakapuna. ... The Cougars' 10-game winning streak is the longest in the nation and they haven't lost at home since 2005.
UTAH: Key players: QB Brian Johnson, Sr., K/P Louie Sakoda. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Michigan isn't the only tough nonconference game on Utah's schedule. Oregon State comes to Salt Lake City for a Thursday night game on Oct. 2. ... RB Darrell Mack ran for 1,204 yards and 12 TDs last season.
TCU: Key players: RB Aaron Brown, Sr.; C Blake Schlueter, Sr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: The Horned Frogs hope to take the MWC title out of the state of Utah for the first time since they won it three years ago. TCU followed up back-to-back 11-win seasons by falling to 8-5 last fall, going 4-4 in conference. ... Frogs visit Oklahoma on Sept. 27.
AIR FORCE: Key players: DE Ryan Kemp, Sr.; QB Shea Smith, Sr.; QB Eric Herbert, Jr. Returning starters: 3 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Air Force was the surprise team in the league last year, finishing second under first-year coach Troy Calhoun. But the Falcons entered fall camp without a starting quarterback to replace Shaun Carney.
NEW MEXICO: Key players: QB Donovan Porterie, Jr.; RB Rodney Ferguson, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: The Lobos closed last season by shutting out Nevada 23-0 in the New Mexico Bowl - the school's first postseason victory since 1961. ... New Mexico also tries to avenge a 27-0 loss to TCU last year when the Lobos host the Horned Frogs in the season opener.
WYOMING: Key players: QB Karsten Sween, Jr.; RB Devin Moore, Sr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: With 15 returning starters, the Cowboys have one of the more experienced teams in the league. But that will only help if they have improved from last year's 5-7 finish, going 2-6 in the conference.
COLORADO STATE: Key players: RB Gartrell Johnson, Sr.; RB Kyle Bell, Sr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Former Ram quarterback Steve Fairchild takes over as coach for Sonny Lubick, whose 15-year run at Colorado State ended when he was fired after last season. The Rams never recovered from an 0-6 start.
SAN DIEGO STATE: Key players: LB Russell Allen, Sr.; LB Luke Laolagi, Jr. Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: It was fitting that Aztecs' first two practices were at the U.S. Marines base in San Diego. Coach Chuck Long's offense could use something like boot camp with only four returning starters - two on the line and two receivers.
UNLV: Key players: RB Frank Summers, Sr. Returning starters: 9 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: The Rebels are 6-29 under coach Mike Sanford. His high-scoring game plan as offensive coordinator at Utah did not follow him to Vegas. Sanford has won two games in each of his first three seasons.

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