1. With the regular season over, has BYU met or failed expectations?
2. What one player has made the difference this season?
Quarterback Riley Nelson struggled this season, a big factor in the offense's struggles. He was responsible for a lot of turnovers and struggled with accuracy. After suffering a back injury in the second game of the season, he tried to gut it the next few games, but he wasn't effective and the team lost those two games (Utah and Boise State). He was pulled in the Boise State game after about five turnovers, and sat the next few games while healing up. Upon his return he still struggled with consistency, and got hurt again late in the season against San Jose State. He had more costly turnovers in that game, and BYU lost.
3. What are the key improvements that need to be made in the offseason?
BYU head coach seems dead set on Nelson continuing to be the starter, to the chagrin of many, so he needs to get healthy before the bowl game. As for next season, the Cougars will need a dependable quarterback, something the team hasn't had since Max Hall in 2009. Nelson is graduating, so the starting job will almost certainly be Taysom Hill's. Hill is a true freshman who had committed to Jim Harbaugh at Stanford before leaving to serve a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He transferred to BYU after the new Cardinal staff wanted him to come home early from his mission. When Nelson was pulled as the starter in the Boise State game and missed the subsequent two games, Hill took over at quarterback. He suffered a knee injury at the end of the second of his two starts (against Utah State), on a running play in which he did not see the coaches signal to take a knee. He had to have surgery and thus hasn't played since, but is expected back for spring camp. He is a mobile threat that shows a lot of promise.
In addition, the offensive line needs to improve, but hasn't been helped by a rash of injuries this year. Also, many feel the coaching is lacking in certain areas, namely on offense (offensive line and offensive coordinator), but there are rumors that changes to the staff will take place.
4. What has been the dominant headline of the regular season?
The dominant headline has been the struggles at quarterback, with Nelson's inconsistency and Hill being lost for the year (although Mendenhall intended for Nelson to become the starter again once his early back injury healed). The Cougar defense was for the most part very strong this season, but BYU lost a lot of close games this year mostly thanks to turnovers and offensive struggles. The only game lost by more than one score was against Oregon State, and that was a very close game until late in the fourth quarter. Four of the five teams that beat BYU are currently ranked. So, it's been a season of coulda, shoulda, woulda.
5. If the recruiting class stays in-tact, what are your expectations for next season?
Aside from Nelson and a few offensive linemen, BYU will return virtually everyone of significance on offense. Though the offense hasn't met expectations the past few years, the increased continuity with all skill position players returning will be beneficial. Hill, the expected starter at quarterback next year, is mobile like Nelson, but is bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, and doesn't seem prone to make the poor decisions that Nelson does. He has a much higher ceiling, and just needs to develop as a passer. Meanwhile, there is speculation that receiver Cody Hoffman - easily the offense's biggest playmaker - may look to go pro, but if he returns for his senior year, there is a good nucleus to build the offense around. Also, seventeen-year-old true freshman running back Jamaal Williams became the starter this season after junior Michael Alisa broke his arm, and was a big bright spot for the offense. With young guys like Hill and Williams, the future looks bright, especially with Hoffman and all other receivers, tight ends and running backs back next season (presumably).
While the defense was overall far more productive this season and often carried the team (BYU is third nationally in total defense), that side of the ball loses more players after the end of this season. Star junior outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy is another player that is considering entering the NFL draft early. He is a huge playmaker, so it's important for BYU that he returns. Even if he does, there is bound to be at least a little bit of a drop off next season with the defense, given the loss of other talented players. I wouldn't expect the defense to be a big liability, however.
The kicking game could be a big weakness. The team is losing a very good punter (BYU is second nationally in net punting), while the team's field goal kicker is returning but hasn't been reliable.
Overall I think there's a lot to feel good about for next season, but BYU's schedule is very tough, and the program has struggled in recent years to beat marquee/quality opponents. And, as mentioned earlier, there are rumors that there could be a few changes on the staff, so there is a bit of an unknown there.