A couple of years ago I ranked all BYU QB seasons since 1977. It was a fun project for a former BYU blog I wrote for, the kind of thing I like to think about so it makes the research and writing fun. You can read the entire list of rankings here, and you can see the VTF versions of the 2011 rankings for Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson.
Below is my ranking for and write-up for Nelson's 2012 season. I waited a few months to do this one, partially because I was busy, but also because I wanted time to provide some measure of perspective. Hopefully it did that.
Process & Criteria
It's hard to judge college QB seasons over time. I started with Gary Sheide's 1974 season and moved forward. The offense changed a lot during the LaVell era, changed even more during the Crowton era, and has morphed even more under Bronco Mendenhall. It's also hard to get stats for the seasons back in the day; I primarily used the wonderful Cougar Stats website in my research.
My criteria were as follows, with certainly a high level of subjectivity:
- Minimum 1000 yards passing, which means some years have two QB seasons
- Yards per pass attempt
- Completion percentage
- TD-to-INT ratio
- Total TD passes
- Season results
Is this perfect? Of course not. Will it leave a ton of room for discussion? Certainly. That's the point.
40. Riley Nelson, 2012
Stats: 2011 yards; 59% comp; 13 TDs; 13 INT; 6.5 YPA; 196 yards rushing); Season: 8-5, win over SDSU in the Poinsettia Bowl (which he gets no credit for)
Rarely does an athlete's stock with his fanbase rise and fall as meteorically as Riley Nelson. He was always a somewhat controversial figure, as players who play with such drastic emotion are often loved and hated for that attribute. He was the stumbling block of a prodigy who was transformed into a cult hero with his long locks, great abs, and high-fiving of officials. The next season he became, for many fans, the embodiment of everything they saw wrong in the program.
But the hate toward Nelson went too far. He was in 2012, as he had been in 2011, a flawed and limited QB. His arm wasn't strong enough, and his throws were not precise enough for him to ever enter the conversation as one of BYU's all-time elite QBs. But he played hard, he played hurt, and he competed on every snap. There are a lot worse attributes than that, even if some of his strengths seemed vice-like when taken to an extreme.
As a season, 2012 will be remembered for what could have been. And part of that is connected with Nelson's health. After getting injured against Weber State, he never looked the same. And 50-60% of Riley Nelson was just not good enough, especially when 100% of Riley Nelson isn't that great.
The number that sticks out to me is the 6.5 yards per pass attempt. That is really bad. He'd averaged two yards more per attempt in 2011, but his injuries made any throw beyond 7-8 yards from the line of scrimmage a very iffy proposition. The other big figure: 2.3 yards per carry. Part of that is due to sacks, and part of it was his ineffectiveness as a runner. Nelson had averaged nearly 5 YPC in his first three seasons.
Don't misunderstand this analysis; I make no excuses for Nelson, or for the decision to keep playing him when it was clear his health was compromised. Nelson was a terrible QB in 2012, regardless of the why. Even average QB play could have led to wins against Boise State, Utah and Notre Dame (though Nelson was much closer to his usual self in that game). Imagine how differently Nelson would be remembered if he'd played the whole season and the team had finished 10-3 or 11-2.
But he couldn't stay healthy, and when he played he played poorly.
I will remember Riley Nelson as a warrior, someone who maximized his talents and fulfilled a dream. But historically, he will be remembered as a below average QB who couldn't stay healthy and played a part in some of the most crushing regular-season losses in BYU history.