Note: Provo finished with a 5-5 overall record in 2010 and a 2-4 record in Region 7. It did not qualify for the playoffs.

PROVO — For a team that won eight games the previous year, missing the playoffs with a 5-5 record in 2010 doesn't seem like much. It was a tremendous accomplishment, though, according to coach Saia Pope for a senior class that won just once during freshman and sophomore football.

The younger kids took notice about the benefits of hard work, and it should pay off in a big way this year.

"We have our work cut out for us, but the boys have been putting in the time and working hard, that's the big thing," he said. "Not only do we have athletes, but they've put in the time."

If the Bulldogs compliment that athleticism and hard work by coming together as a team, Pope believes they can play with anybody. Ironically enough, they'll get that chance. Provo plays Mountain Crest and Highland in the preseason and then Springville and Timpview in Region 8. Collectively those four opponents account for four of the top five teams in the Deseret News 4A preseason rankings.

Kyle Larsen, a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago, loves the challenge of playing 4A's elite and he and his teammates have put in the time in the weight room this offseason to make the most of the opportunity.

"I feel a lot stronger this year. Our whole team is going to be a lot better. This is going to be the best year we've had in four or five years at Provo, but we also have the hardest schedule around," said Larsen.

With seven offensive returning starters and six defensive returning starters, if Provo can stay healthy it will compete for a playoff spot in Region 8. Pope said his team is loaded at every position, but there just isn't much depth.

In Region 8 only four of eight teams will qualify for the playoffs, and Timpview and Springville are virtual locks to secure two of those berths. That leaves just two slots for everyone else, and the Bulldogs open region play against four of those opponents.

"To have eight teams in the region and only the top four go, you have to be sharp right off the bat. That's why we scheduled some tough games to get us ready for the region," said Pope.

With some of the state's most explosive offenses on the schedule this year, Provo's experienced defense must rise to the challenge.

Parker Williams and Bryson Hunter will anchor down a defensive line that could be pretty good, while Justus Cobb is a returning middle linebacker who is coming off a junior season in which he wracked up 50 tackles.

Offensively, a fast receiving core and a big offensive line should give quarterback Christian Brown plenty of resources to be successful in his first year starting.

"Our quarterback is probably the most accurate we've had here in a while, he's football smart," said Pope.

The last piece to the puzzle is unity, a point Pope continues to try and hammer home.

"One thing I try to tell the boys, If you learn to play together and play for each other, that's what gives you the confidence to win, and that's the key to winning," he said.

Provo Bulldogs at a glance

Coach: Saia Pope is entering his fourth year as Provo's head coach having put together a 15-17 record in his first three years. He's a graduate of Provo High School.

Offense

(7 returning starters; Spread offense)

The potential is there for a great offensive season with Brown's accuracy at quarterback and three speedy receivers in Russell Isom, Jeff Vanburen and Roman Wendelboe. In the spread offense, they'll have plenty opportunities to make big plays. Larson rushed for 1,100 yards last year, and he'll be counted on for similar production to help Brown settle into his first year as a varsity quarterback. The engine behind everything Provo will try and do offensively are Parker Williams and Zack Rittenhouse, 300-pound returning starters on the offensive line.

Defense

(6 returning starters)

Not only is Larson a good running back, but he's a hard-hitting safety who had 40 tackles last year. He'll be joined the secondary by cornerbacks McKay Rentz and Dallas Brown. The coaching staff believes the pair are good enough to succeed in man-to-man coverage, which should allow Provo to do a lot more with blitz packages. Cobb is a returning starter at linebacker, while Joe Francis and Jordan Jones are expected to make big contributions as well. Williams and Rittenhouse will rotate at nose guard in Provo's 3-4 defense, and Hunter is a key returning starter at defensive end.

Coaches preseason Region 8 straw poll: Sixth

Deseret News Region 8 prediction: Fourth

Bottom line: The competition for playoff spots in Region 8 is going to be intense, and all eight teams are capable of putting things together and qualifying. Provo missed out on the playoffs last year, but there's plenty of experience to get over the hump this year. The Bulldogs' first two region games against Orem and Mountain View will be huge. They need to win at least one of those games, because region wins are going to be tougher to come by late in the season with two of their last three games against Springville and Timpview.

2011 Schedule

Aug. 19 — MOUNTAIN CREST, 7 p.m.

Aug. 26 — at Cyprus, 7 p.m.

Sept. 2 — at Highland, 7 p.m.

Sept. 9 — at Orem, 7 p.m.

Sept. 16 — MOUNTAIN VIEW, 7 p.m.

Sept. 23 — at Salem Hills, 7 p.m.

Sept. 30 — MAPLE MOUNTAIN, 7 p.m.

Oct. 7 — SPRINGVILLE, 7 p.m.

Oct. 13 — at Timpanogos, 7 p.m.

Oct. 19 — at Timpview, 7 p.m.

email: jedward@desnews.com