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BYU QB Season Rankings: Riley Nelson 2011, No. 28

More than a year ago, I started the the project of ranking every BYU QB season since 1977. With 2011 now complete, I have ranked the seasons of Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson and placed them in their proper places. (You can access the entire list of rankings here.) Here is where Riley Nelson's 2011 campaign ranks among his historical counterparts.

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.)

No. 28: Riley Nelson, 2011

Stats: 1717 yards; 57% comp; 19 TDs; 7 INTs; 8.50 yards per attempt; 450 yards rushing;
Season: 10-3; 24-21 win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl; finished season ranked No. 25 (coaches poll)

Riley Nelson is one of the most divisive figures in BYU sports history. Since his dramatic re-emergence against Utah State, some fans have thrown their loyalty behind him. His fiery personality, long hair, and reckless style connected with a lot of fans and many of his teammates. But other fans have stubbornly held to Jake Heaps, and can see none of the virtues of Nelson, focused only on his flaws.

Lost in this partisan debate are some clear facts. First, Heaps played poorly in 2011 and most coaches, when any player is playing that poorly, go to the bench, regardless of the player’s pedigree. Second, Nelson played well in 2011, but he’s yet to show he’s an elite QB and stumbled badly against the two best defenses he faced (TCU and Tulsa). We may have already seen his ceiling, which will frustrate many Cougar fans in 2012.

Still, Nelson had a fine season, and deserves credit for snatching the 2011 football season out of the jaws of disaster (Utah State).

Where Does Nelson’s 2011 Season Rank

It’s funny how these things work out; if the Cougars had lost to Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl, Nelson’s 2011 would likely be viewed very differently. Besides 2-3 drives, Nelson looked bad, with inaccurate throws and an indecisive air. Accuracy issues have plagued him at times during his career, but he had not been lacking decisiveness in 2011 (sometimes to his detriment).

But Nelson pulled it out. I know: many fans say he fixed a problem he created with his own poor play, but so what? I’m not going to say it’s equal to Jim McMahon in 1980, but it was an extremely nice finish to get a win. He should get credit for that.

Still, Nelson’s two defining games (as far as these rankings are concerned) are TCU and Tulsa, and he played poorly in both. His 8.5 YPA number is more akin to Kevin Feterik and John Walsh than it is to the elite seasons of Ty Detmer or McMahon.

Credit must be given for his running, which is a huge part of his value. He’s probably the third best running QB in in my lifetime behind Steve Young and current offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. But his pocket presence is not on that elite level, and neither is his accuracy. He also had the benefit of a very good BYU defense and two very good wideouts. But he lacked an elite runner in the backfield with him, and that made his life as a QB a little more difficult.

I placed Nelson’s 2011 season at No. 28 on the list, just behind Feterik’s 1998 and ahead of Detmer’s 1988. I couldn’t put it much higher because Nelson did not play a full season, his accuracy is less than most of his BYU peers, and a 1-1 record against Top 50 teams is not enough to overcome this season’s other deficiencies.

Closing Thoughts

As I wrote in the intro, lost in the ad nauseam Jake vs Riley debate is that Jake stunk and Riley was a lot better, but he’s not about to join the 2012 Heisman watch list. The QB swap brought needed change and excitement to a stagnant BYU offense and helped the Cougars to 10 wins. But Nelson’s performance is not a Top 20 BYU QB performance, and looking forward to 2012, Nelson’s play against elite competition will need to improve for the Cougars’ second independent season to build on the momentum of their first.

The complete QB Season Rankings are found here