According to Football Outsiders' S&P ranking, the best team BYU played in 2011 is TCU (14th), which should come as no surprise. Texas was next (26th) and then it's a big drop off to Utah State (55th), the best team according to FO (and Sagarin) that BYU beat this season.
If the Cougars can beat Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl, it would be BYU's signature season win. FO has them at 24th (better than the Longhorns) and Sagarin has them at 29th. If getting the best win of the season is not motivation enough, I'm not sure what will motivate an independent team.
A win against Tulsa will transform the way we look at this season. 2011 and 2010 have been mediocre seasons by BYU standards, with the best win in 2011 being against Utah State, and the best win in 2010 being Washington before they hit stride. If BYU can beat a very good Tulsa team, it could be a sign that better things are coming in 2012.
I know; there were close calls against Texas (2011) and Utah (2010), and what about a win over a (lousy) SEC team? I get it. But these two seasons have been devoid of big wins against top-30 type teams. Tulsa is that type of team, not elite, but in that second tier, a place BYU could be in with this win.
Much is being written about how good Tulsa is, and rightfully so. But let's not get carried away. Yes, they played Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State and Houston. But they lost to all four of those teams by an average of 28 points.
The biggest reason they struggled against those top teams is their defense. From a traditional standpoint, they give up more than 420 yards per game (89th in FBS); decent against the run, but bad against the pass. Football Outsiders likes their defense better (adjusting for that tough schedule) and has it ranked 25th overall.
The offense is a multi-faceted attack that gets more than 200 yards a game rushing and almost 250 yards through the air. The Golden Hurricane offense is anchored around senior, dual-threat QB G.J. Kinne, who's been running the offense for three years. They also have two talented runners, junior Ja'Terian Douglas (average 8.4 YPC) and sophomore Trey Watts. Holding Kinne, Douglas and Watts in check will be a tall order for the Cougars.
The strength of BYU is the defense. There are very good against the run (23rd in FBS), and have improved against the pass as the season went along. The Cougars are vulnerable to elite passing teams, but Tulsa is a good, not elite passing team.
Tulsa is good enough to score 20-25 points against BYU, so the key is can Riley Nelson engineer 3-4 TD drives over the course of the game. It's hard to know exactly what Nelson will deliver. Yes, he's coming off his best statistical passing game as a Cougar, with 363 yards and 3 TDs. But it was against a porous Hawaii team that is hardly a defensive juggernaut (98th against the pass, according to Football Outsiders).
All the stats say Tulsa wins this game, something like 30-20. Though Kinne is not an elite QB, they do throw a lot of deep passes, with each of their top 5 receivers having caught a pass of 50+ yards. And the effective rushing attack may get the safeties to misplay some coverages.
But I think Kyle Van Noy makes 3-4 big plays, and the Cougar D limits the Golden Hurricane to only a couple of big plays. Bronco Mendenhall and Co. will have a good defensive plan in place, and hold Tulsa to 21 points.
Quick trivia question: If Riley Nelson had enough attempts, where would his 163.6 QB rating rank nationally? 7th, right ahead of Matt Barkley. I understand that he only started against one top-30 team (TCU) and had his worst game of the season. But Nelson is a better passer than fans give him credit for, completing more than 61% of his passes, and averaging 9.1 YPA (which would have ranked 5th in the FBS).
I think Nelson has another terrific game, and scores enough to overcome the Golden Hurricane attack.
Prediction: BYU 30, Tulsa 21
Don't miss the Rise & Shout Podcast episode 50, previewing the Armed Forces Bowl with the voice of the Cougars, Greg Wrubell.