Hall, BYU on mission to crash BCS party

Who is Bronco Mendenhall? Pose that question on a game show and watch the average contestant scramble to phone a friend or poll the audience for help with the answer.

Mendenhall is not a rodeo cowboy, an actor or a country-western singer. He’s actually a bounty hunter, in college football terms. The Brigham Young coach is on a mission to knock off the big boys and crash the Bowl Championship Series’ exclusive party.

The Cougars took down Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford, and next on Mendenhall’s big-name hit list is Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.

Everything is lining up for BYU to win the Mountain West Conference and be in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 7, playing for the BCS national title. All the Cougars need is to keep winning and get some help along the way, and it won’t be easy. But the toughest part, stunning the Sooners as 22-point underdogs, is behind them.

“I’m impressed with this BYU team,” Northcoast Sports handicapper Phil Steele said. “It’s way too early to speculate, but BYU has a legitimate shot to be in the BCS title game. At the end of the year, a win over Florida State will look pretty good.”

The Seminoles make an odd trip to Provo on Saturday, and the oddsmakers don’t like their chances. The seventh-ranked Cougars, who have won 18 straight at home, are 7-point favorites.

Steele, one of the best in the speculation business, projects BYU to win by 17 in his “Power Sweep” newsletter. He said the accuracy of Cougars senior quarterback Max Hall, the toughness of Mendenhall’s veteran defense and the altitude in Utah should pose too many problems for the Seminoles.

“Florida State is a team that will shoot itself in the foot,” Steele said. “BYU is pumped up for this game.”

The Seminoles opened with a deflating loss to Miami and had to score twice in the final minute to sneak by Jacksonville State 19-9 last week.

The case for Florida State is it has better athletes and more speed. It also has a pretty good quarterback in Christian Ponder. Bowden is a legend, too, but he does little more these days than spew folksy quips and pretend to coach while his assistants run the show.

BYU must get another great game from Hall, who has completed 50 of 70 passes for 638 yards and four touchdowns in two wins.

“The NFL scouts aren’t completely sold on him yet, but as far as college quarterbacks, Hall is definitely in my top five,” Steele said.

In the Cougars’ 14-13 upset of Oklahoma on Sept. 5, Hall led BYU to a 245-164 advantage in total yards in the first half. Bradford was knocked out with a shoulder injury just before halftime.

“Everybody said Bradford went down with an injury, and that’s why they beat Oklahoma. But they basically beat Oklahoma on the field in the first half with Bradford in on every play,” Steele said.

BYU star Harvey Unga, a 1,132-yard rusher last season, missed the opener and played sparingly in a 54-3 blowout at Tulane.

“Unga was out, and nobody talks about that,” Steele said. “Now Unga is back.

“I picked BYU to win the Mountain West, which sort of went against the grain because Texas Christian was picked by the media.”

The schedule is tailor-made for the Cougars, who host TCU, Air Force and Utah and face their stiffest road test against UNLV.

But they first have to deal with Florida State, and then hope Southern California, Texas and every other BCS conference team but Florida loses at least once. The Gators, even with one loss, should be in Pasadena.

If Florida and BYU are the lone unbeaten teams in December, Steele said, “the Mountain West won’t even need an act of Congress” to get the Cougars in the BCS title game. But that’s all speculation now.

For the second week in a row, Steele has a four-star newsletter play (his highest rating) on UNLV. The Rebels, who covered last week as 7-point underdogs in a 23-21 loss to Oregon State, are 7-point home favorites over Hawaii.

“The situation certainly concerns me a little,” Steele said of the Rebels’ emotional state. “But UNLV has the much better defense. I think you’ll see UNLV’s quarterbacks put up some big numbers against an inexperienced Hawaii defense.”

Steele’s forecasts and writeups on every board game will be posted today at philsteele.com.

CLOSING NUMBERS — How did Notre Dame lose last week? Charlie Weis blew it, that’s how. But I won with three underdogs — Ohio State, South Carolina and UNLV — to go 3-3, 5-7 for the season. My six picks for Saturday (home team in CAPS):

BRIGHAM YOUNG (-7) over Florida State; Navy (+8) over PITTSBURGH; COLORADO (-7) over Wyoming; Arizona (+51/2) over IOWA; Michigan State (+10) over NOTRE DAME; FLORIDA (-291/2) over Tennessee.

LEROY’S ‘MONEY TALKS’ CONTEST ON RADIO — Cal Neva sports book director Nick Bogdanovich will compete today in the first round of the Leroy’s “Money Talks Invitational.” The $80,000 handicapping contest, hosted by John Kelly, is held at the Hooters sports book and can be heard from 3 to 4 p.m. on KLAV-AM (1230).

Bogdanovich, the tournament’s 2007 winner, faces Paul Bovi of VegasInsider.com. Brackets and picks are available at leroys.com.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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