PROVO, Utah (AP) -BYU has the nation's longest winning streak, and for the first time in 11 years the Cougars are ranked heading into the season.
Hang on to both the streak and the ranking for the next three months or so, and BYU can truly boast about being back.
``A couple of things have to go our way. We've got to stay healthy and it can be the season we want it to be,'' said quarterback Max Hall, who is coming off one of the best sophomore seasons in BYU history.
The No. 16 Cougars are in the AP preseason Top 25 for the first time since 1997, and are shooting for a third straight Mountain West Conference championship.
BYU's last two seasons have been nearly identical - both ended with 11-2 records and 10-game winning streaks, including consecutive sweeps of Mountain West. But the two losses came early in both seasons and kept the Cougars out of the national spotlight until they cracked the polls late in the season.
Even then, it was too late for any legitimate hopes of a Bowl Championship Series berth. That's the Cougars goal this season: Be this year's BCS buster, a la Hawaii (2007), Boise State (2006) and Utah (2004).
``We've just got to be ready to go. Last year I was young and we just had a lot of things we weren't used to and we had to kind of adapt to,'' Hall said. ``This year, there are probably no excuses.''
Hall led the Mountain West in passing with 3,848 yards in his first season as a starter. He completed 60 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. And Hall hadn't played a game since high school, redshirting a year at Arizona State then serving a church mission.
The Cougars have three running backs who are big enough to wear down a defense and fast enough to break away for a long run. Harvey Unga ran for 1,227 yards last season, the most ever by a BYU freshman and is joined by Fui Vakapuna (6-foot-1, 245 pounds) and Manase Tonga (6-0, 240 pounds).
Four starters return on the offensive line as well as receiver Austin Collie and tight end Dennis Pita. BYU averaged 443 yards of offense and 30 points per game and there should be a lot more of that kind of production in 2008.
The Cougars' defense, with eight new starters, might need some extra help this season.
The most experience is on the line, where tackle Jan Jorgensen started every game in his first two seasons and led the Mountain West in sacks as a sophomore with 14.
Jorgensen has never lost a game at home or in the Mountain West during his career. BYU's two losses last season were at UCLA in Game 2 and at Tulsa week later, putting the Cougars in a hole at 1-2 for the second straight year.
``I think games early in the season, we've had some mental mistakes that have cost us a few games. That's what happened against UCLA last year. That's what happened against Tulsa,'' Jorgensen said. ``We've just got to eliminate those.''
Tulsa was the last team to beat BYU, winning 55-47 on Sept. 15 despite allowing 694 yards to the Cougars.
The Cougars won their remaining nine games of the regular season and capped it with a second straight victory in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The non-conference schedule, BYU's downfall the last two years, opens with Championship Subdivision power Northern Iowa on Aug. 30, followed by a trip to Washington then back at home against UCLA on Sept. 13. The Cougars also have to travel to TCU, the Mountain West champion in 2005 before BYU started a 16-game conference winning streak. There is also a trip to Salt Lake City for the annual rivalry against Utah, which BYU has rallied to beat the last two years.
In three seasons at BYU, coach Bronco Mendenhall has rebuilt the program into a perennial title contender in the MWC after the Cougars had slipped to second-tier status in the league - and the state - earlier this decade.
The no-nonsense Mendenhall has always tried to keep his players grounded and can point to close calls against Utah and UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl if the Cougars are feeling a little too good about themselves entering this season.
In 10 years, no team has won three straight Mountain West titles. And no team from a non-BCS team has received a bid without an unbeaten record.
So BYU will probably need to be perfect to reach the BCS.
``We don't measure it by number of wins. The world will do that,'' Mendenhall said. ``We're focused on doing the very best we're capable of.''

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