The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 55: BYU

Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (66-24, entering eighth season)

2011 record: 10-3 (Independent)

Look back: BYU opened the 2011 season in new territory, starting its first campaign as an independent football program after breaking away from the Mountain West Conference. The move gave the Cougars, an internationally respected program thanks to its ties to Mormon church, more control over their lucrative television media rights. However, the team had to adapt to the loss of key milestones such as a chase for a conference title and spots on an all-conference team.

The Cougars began the season with a pair of close games, earning a 14-13 win at Ole Miss and falling 17-16 at Texas. BYU then suffered a demoralizing 54-10 home loss against rival Utah, prompting rare boos for starting quarterback Jake Heaps.

BYU’s fortunes changed dramatically after everything went right for the Cougars during a 24-17 comeback home win against UCF. The team claimed a 27-24 win against Utah State. While the team earned the close win, coach Bronco Mendenhall opted to make a change at quarterback to jumpstart the offense. Reserve quarterback Riley Nelson replaced Heaps in the starting lineup and led BYU to a 29-16 win against San Jose State and a 38-28 win at Oregon State. The team lost 38-28 against TCU in Cowboys Stadium, then bounced back with a 42-7 win over Idaho.

Nelson was injured against Idaho, clearing the way for Heaps to return to the starting lineup on senior night. Heaps led BYU to a 42-7 win at New Mexico State. Nelson took back over the offense and helped the Cougars claim a 41-20 win at Hawai’i in the regular season finale.

BYU faced off against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl. It was close contest between two strong offensive teams. Nelson faked spiking the ball to stop the clock with 11 seconds left in the contest and instead connected with open Cody Hoffman for a game-winning touchdown. The Cougars capped their first year as an independent program with a 24-21 bowl win, giving the team a 10-3 overall record.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 3/8

Defensive starters lost/returning: 4/7

Key losses: RB JJ Di Luigi, OL Matt Reynolds, WR McKay Jacobson, DL Hebron Fangupo, LB Jordan Pendleton, S Travis Uale.

Top returnees: QB Riley Nelson, WR Cody Hoffman, OL Braden Hansen, OL Braden Brown, LB Brandon Ogletree, LB Kyle Van Noy, BYU CB Preston Hadley, S Daniel Sorensen.

Strengths: BYU returns eight offensive starters. The group includes Nelson, who proved to be a strong leader under pressure last season. Nelson will get help from talented linemen Braden Hansen and Braden Brown. He also will work with receiver Cody Hoffman, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the Armed Forces Bowl. Hoffman led the team in receiving yards and receptions per game last season. The defense returns seven starters, including strong linebackers Brandon Ogletree and Kyle Van Noy. They helped BYU rank No. 13 nationally last season, allowing 313.38 yards per game.

Weaknesses: The Cougars lose a few key leaders at a variety of positions. Running back J.J. Di Luigi was a versatile offensive weapon. Offensive lineman Matt Reynolds set a new school record with 52 consecutive starts. And safety Travis Uale led the team in interceptions per game.

Outlook: BYU must continue to figure out how it defines a great season as an independent program. The team has the talent to post a winning season and earn another bowl invitation, but it still faces a tough path to an undefeated regular season and coveted at-large invitation to a BCS bowl game.

2012 Schedule
Sept. 1 Washington State
Sept. 8 Weber State
Sept. 15 At Utah
Sept. 22 At Boise State
Sept. 29 Hawai’i
Oct. 5 Utah State
Oct. 13 Oregon State
Oct. 20 At Notre Dame
Oct. 27 At Georgia Tech
Nov. 10 Idaho
Nov. 17 At San Jose State
Nov. 24 At New Mexico State