NCF Nation: Riley Nelson

Poinsettia Bowl keys

December, 20, 2012
Three things to watch in today’s San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl between San Diego State and BYU:

1. The BYU starting quarterback is ... Coach Bronco Mendenhall has been coy all week about who will start this game: James Lark or Riley Nelson. Mendenhall said Nelson is questionable for the game as he recovers from a rib injury sustained against San Jose State. Lark started the season finale against New Mexico State, throwing for 384 yards and six touchdowns in a 50-14 win. Lark has gotten more reps during bowl practices, and Mendenhall has not ruled out the possibility of using both quarterbacks in the game. Stay tuned.

2. Keep an eye on Kyle Van Noy. San Diego State must be aware of the standout BYU linebacker at all times because he is a disruptive force on what has been an excellent defense. Van Noy leads the Cougars with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss, and he set a school record with five forced fumbles. If the Aztecs hope to have any success running the football against this stingy defense, they are going to have to get Van Noy blocked and keep him out of the backfield. One other note: Van Noy also plays on special teams and has a blocked punt this season.

3. Streaks. San Diego State is in the middle of an unprecedented run of success, making a bowl game for the third straight year. That is the longest streak in school history. There are plenty of other streaks on the line in this game, as well: San Diego State is aiming for a 10-win season for the first time since 1977. The Aztecs are also hoping to win their eighth straight game. The last time the Aztecs won eight straight games in a single season was 1975. San Diego State also is hoping for its first win over BYU since Oct. 1, 2005, a losing streak that spans five games.

Halloween at Notre Dame

October, 31, 2012
Avoid the traps, noises and every other cliche spouted about your favorite undefeated team. Here are a few treats to hold you over until Notre Dame takes the field again Saturday:

Haunted house: Is it still USC? Notre Dame won its last contest there, and the Trojans dropped another home game last year, with tough test there against Oregon before they host the Irish in the regular-season finale. It's not what it once was, but the Los Angeles Coliseum is all that will likely stand between the Irish and a perfect regular season.

The Exorcist(s): No teams owned Notre Dame coming into this season the way Michigan and Stanford had recently. The Irish then put Denard Robinson through the worst birthday of his life, forcing him into five turnovers in a prime-time win. And three weeks later they bridged the gap with a Cardinal team that had physically manhandled them recently by stopping Stepfan Taylor four times inside the 5-yard line to preserve an overtime victory.

Paranormal activity: Miami's Phillip Dorsett dropped not one but two sure-fire touchdown passes on the opening drive against Notre Dame on Oct. 6 in Chicago. How do you explain that?

Witchcraft: BYU quarterback Riley Nelson's comments following after missing Cody Hoffman late in the fourth quarter of an eventual 17-14 loss at Notre Dame: "That throw will probably haunt me until I die." Irish coach Brian Kelly's remarks after the win made his team 7-0: "You just need to find ways to win. That's who we are. Embrace who you are, is what I'm saying. Our football team, they believe they're going to win. There's no question they believe they're going to win." Tough to find simple logic in all of that.

Jason Voorhees: Suspended from the opener? OK. No preseason reps or starting job? Whatever. Booed by his own classmates? Ha! Put Tommy Rees in at any time, any place. No matter to the junior, who has rescued the Irish three times this season, delivering clutch throws against Purdue, Michigan and Stanford and starting against BYU (and Miami). He's not going anywhere.

Notre Dame prediction: Week 8 vs. BYU

October, 18, 2012
The battle of independent powers takes place Saturday in South Bend. Who emerges victorious?

When BYU has the ball: Quarterback Riley Nelson looks to be fully recovered after missing two games earlier this season with a back injury. He threw for 305 yards to go with one touchdown and three picks last week in a loss to Oregon State, and he connected with the 6-foot-4 Cody Hoffman 10 times for 102 yards. Keep an eye on that duo when the Cougars are on offense, but the question, as always, will be whether Notre Dame's pass rush can disrupt the rhythm. Or, in the case of this week's game, how much it can: BYU has started seven interior offensive linemen so far.

When Notre Dame has the ball: Quarterback Everett Golson (concussion) was cleared to return to practice Wednesday, and he will try to put the turnover bug behind him and build off his strong second half against Stanford. Like last week, he is facing a very strong defense that is looking for a bounce-back performance. The Cougars boast the No. 7 scoring defense in the country, led by linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who has 7.5 sacks through seven games. The Cougars have 22 sacks, and they will look to pressure Golson into mistakes one week after he fumbled it away three times.

Intangible: It's a trap! Or is it? Notre Dame just beat then-No. 17 Stanford. It travels to No. 9 Oklahoma next week. The Cougars come to town in between the two games, with the No. 5 Irish looking to avoid the fates of Florida State, West Virginia and the likes and not lose to an underdog. Fall break was this week too, so the players did not have to worry about classwork, though whether that means they're as locked in throughout the day as usual is for a professional psychologist to determine.

Prediction: Notre Dame 24, BYU 6. Call me a flip-flopper. I circled this one as a loss (one of four I predicted back in the summer, for those keeping track), but I just don't see it happening with the way the Irish have been playing so far.

Vaz steps in for injured Mannion

October, 10, 2012
Oregon State coach Mike Riley is notoriously good-natured, even if that quality is measured against the general population and not only from within the grumpy realms of major college football coaches. He tends to maintain a sense of perspective about winning and losing and the ups and downs inherent in his job.

But you can ruin his day and provoke a frown. For example ...

Say it's Monday, Oct. 8. Say Riley is about to preside over a team meeting for the 4-0, 10th-ranked Beavers. And then ...

"The doctor and trainer came running down the hall," Riley said. "I knew something wasn't good."

Correct. Riley's starting quarterback, Sean Mannion, who was passing for 340 yards per game, had a knee injury that no one knew he had when he walked off the field last Saturday after a 19-6 victory over Washington State.

"It was a total shock," Riley said.

There goes Riley's smile. And there goes the season.

Or does it?

That's the big question as the Beavers send junior Cody Vaz out Saturday to make his first career start against a Brigham Young defense that is highly proficient at hitting the quarterback, a nationally ranked unit that has surrendered just nine points in its past three games.

[+] EnlargeCody Vaz
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireJunior quarterback Cody Vaz hasn't seen the field since 2010, and that was in very limited action.
"We don't really have to do anything different with Cody," Riley said. "Cody has been with us a long time."

He then added, "I've got a lot of faith in Cody."

Of course, no one expected anything else but protestations of faith from Riley and his players. There is no other way to be. It's got to be all about supporting the "next man in," or you essentially wave a white flag over what was previously blossoming into a special season.

Further, the injury isn't season-ending. Mannion will have meniscus surgery Wednesday, and his status thereafter will be "week-to-week." While it's purely speculative until the surgery is complete, he could be back in two to four weeks.

So if Vaz can maintain the Beavers' fast start, they might be able to stay in the Pac-12 North Division race.

Riley described Vaz as smart, competitive and talented. He said Vaz has a "great release" and "sees things well."

"He's not much of a different style than Sean," Riley said. "He's just shorter."

Mannion is 6-foot-5. Vaz is 6-1.

The bad news is that Mannion, though just a sophomore, is a veteran who was baptized by a horrible 3-9 season in 2011 that didn't kill him -- despite being sacked 27 times -- and apparently made him stronger. Past history has shown that quarterbacks tend to make great strides in their second year playing in Riley's system, but the first year is often filled with pratfalls.

Vaz will not only be making his first start, he will be seeing his first college action since getting some throw-away time in 2010.

"The only unfortunate part is I haven't played him enough," Riley admitted.

Still, BYU -- hardly an offensive juggernaut in any event -- has quarterback issues itself. Talented freshman Taysom Hill had played well filling in for injured senior starter Riley Nelson, but he blew out his knee last week late in a 6-3 win over Utah State. Nelson will get the start against the Beavers, but he's coming back from fractured vertebrae.

The best part of Nelson's game may be his athleticism, but a back injury isn't something you want to test with a lot of QB scrambles.

Oregon State has played good defense this season, particularly against the run. It also has a strong secondary that has grabbed seven interceptions. While Riley maintains that the playbook will be open for Vaz, it wouldn't be surprising if the Beavers leaned on their defense and hoped their running game got untracked.

Unfortunately, the running game remains a work in progress for Oregon State. The previous two seasons, it was horrible. This year?

"It's OK," Riley said. "We've gotten better for sure from a year ago. I wouldn't say it's reliable."

Did we mention that BYU is No. 1 in the nation against the run, yielding just 1.93 yards per rush?

Vaz has looked good in practice. In fact, he has looked like the Beavers' best signal-caller at times. Riley's comments last spring suggested that Vaz had gained on Mannion. While Riley said Tuesday that he "never made the point that there was an imminent change," he said that Vaz was good enough to make it clear that the competition "was real."

"The one good thing about this on our team is they all know Cody is good," Riley said.

Good in practice is one thing. Good in front of 63,500 fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium is another.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 3

September, 17, 2012
Taking stock of the third week of games in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Stanford didn't just beat No. 2 USC, it physically dominated the Trojans in a 21-14 victory, the Cardinal's record fourth consecutive win in the series. First, there was the post-Toby Gerhart Era. Then there was the post-Jim Harbaugh Era. Then there was the post-Andrew Luck Era. Maybe it's just the Stanford Era? The Cardinal is now squarely in the Rose Bowl race. And maybe the national title hunt.

[+] EnlargeJosh Nunes
Kyle Terada/US PresswireCardinal quarterback Josh Nunes had one of the biggest plays of the week in the Pac-12.
Best game: Utah's 24-21 win over BYU wasn't pretty. It wasn't, really, even deserving of a "best" tag. But it was really weird, particularly the ending, and weird is often noteworthy. On a weekend when four games came down to the fourth quarter, the Holy War had the most breathless finish because it had two breathless finishes.

Biggest play: On third-and-10 from the 50 in the fourth quarter, Stanford QB Josh Nunes was under pressure. He scrambled and found himself bottled up and cut off. Yet a player not exactly known for his athleticism juked the USC defense and cut for a 13-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, he hit TE Zach Ertz for a 37-yard TD and a 21-14 lead, the final margin of Cardinal victory.

Biggest play II: California had No. 12 Ohio State on the ropes. The score was tied with just under four minutes left in the game, and the Buckeyes faced a third-and-7 from their 28-yard line. QB Braxton Miller was forced from the pocket, but the Bears secondary gagged and let Devin Smith get free behind the coverage. The ensuing 72-yard TD pass provided Ohio State its 35-28 margin of victory.

Biggest play III: BYU had a first-and-10 on the Utah 25-yard line, down 10-7 in the third quarter. Lined up in a shotgun formation, QB Riley Nelson wanted to change the play. While he was barking signals, his center delivered the snap, which rolled past an unaware Nelson. Utah's Mo Lee scooped up the loose ball and rambled 47 yards for a TD. The Utes would need those points in a 24-21 win.

Offensive standout: Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor was the best player on the field against USC. He rushed 27 times for 153 yards and a 59-yard TD and caught five passes for 60 yards and a 23-yard score in No. 21 Stanford's upset win over No. 2 Trojans.

Defensive standout: UCLA CB Sheldon Price matched a school record with three interceptions in the Bruins' 37-6 win over Houston.

Special teams standout: Not a lot to choose from. Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas returned four punts for 87 yards against Tennessee Tech, though he did fumble one.

Smiley face: Cal RB Brendan Bigelow brought life to the Bears by doing his best De'Anthony Thomas at Ohio State, rushing for 160 yards on just four carries -- yes, an average of 40 yards per carry! He had touchdown runs of 81 and 59 yards, and both were spectacular. Might he give the Bears offense a weapon that turns around their season?

Frowny face: Can anyone kick a freaking field goal? USC has no kicker, and Arizona, California, Oregon, Stanford and Utah were a combined 1-for-10, with the Bay Area schools going 0-for-6.

Thought of the week: Two of the Pac-12's five unbeaten teams will go down this weekend because of head-to-head matchups. Arizona travels to Oregon, while UCLA plays host to Oregon State. We'll get a better measure of contenders and pretenders this weekend.

Questions for the week: Is Oregon's Thomas ready to make a Heisman Trophy statement against Arizona? The set-up seems perfect: an ESPN game against a questionable defense. With USC and QB Matt Barkley going down, the Heisman race has opened up. Can Thomas be his fancy self and win the affection of the pundits?

'Holy War' hate or not, Utah needs a win

September, 14, 2012
The debate in Utah this week has been the state of the Holy War. Some feel it might be more heated on Saturday because of recent events -- Utah bolting for the Pac-12 and then taking a two-year hiatus from the rivalry -- and some feel it might be muted due to its early season date and no in-conference stakes.

It might come down to splitting rhetorical hairs. Is the rivalry scalding or sizzling? Is it boiling or simmering? Here's a guess that things will be fairly intense inside Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday.

"I don't know how there could be any increase on what's been in the past," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It was every bit as intense last year, and I expect it to be every bit as intense this year. It's one of the most heated rivalries in the country, and I don't see that changing, personally."

[+] EnlargeJohn White
Russ Isabella/US PresswireUtah needs a big game from tailback John White against BYU.
You get the feeling from Whittingham, a BYU graduate, that he's going to leave the rivalry talk to fans and reporters. He just wants to win a freaking football game. He also knows that after losing last week at Utah State -- ending a 12-game winning streak in the series -- his Utes could suddenly find themselves in third place among the state's three FBS football teams.

Further, he doesn't have much time for the politics of Utah's decision to take "a break" from the series for two years starting in 2014, ending what will then be 70 consecutive years of play. He's got his own problems, such as losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, who was forced to retire because of recurrent shoulder injuries, and a porous offensive line.

The Utes gave up three sacks last week to the Aggies, and are averaging just 3.2 yards per rush.

"Obviously, we're sub-par protecting the quarterback," Whittingham said. "And that's going to be absolutely critical if we are going to have a chance to win the game. We have got to play much more efficiently on the offensive front."

The Utes have won seven of the past 10 games with the Cougars, including a shocking 54-10 victory in Provo last year, the biggest win in the series in 89 years. That game, in which BYU imploded with seven turnovers -- six fumbles -- is an anomaly. Over the past 15 years, 12 games have been decided by a touchdown or less and seven of those 12 were decided by a field goal or less.

But 2-0 and 25th-ranked BYU certainly enters the game seemingly in a better place. It outclassed Washington State and Weber State, getting good quarterback play from Riley Nelson and impressive work on both lines. The Cougars already have recorded nine sacks, and they surely plan to get after Jon Hays and true freshmen Travis Wilson, who will both step into the void created by the loss of Wynn.

The good news is both Hays and Wilson are mobile. The bad news is neither is a refined passer. That means the Utes need running back John White to reemerge. You might have heard this before: The Utes are 9-0 when White eclipses 100 yards rushing, and 0-6 when he doesn't. He had 174 yards in the blowout win against BYU a year ago. He had 96 against Utah State.

So this sets up in a fairly obvious way. Utah needs to get White going. BYU knows this. Expect the Cougars' 3-4 defense to be very crowded along the line of scrimmage, daring the Utes to throw over the top.

That might not be a great idea, though, at least in terms of a predictable strategy. If Hays and Wilson get time -- or can make time -- they have a strong crew of receivers and tight ends to throw to. They could gash the Cougars, and a few big plays could make the difference in what should be a low-scoring game.

Win or lose, this game won't count in the Pac-12 standings for Utah. Nor did the loss at Utah State. But it is significant, and not only because it's a rivalry game.

The Pac-12 South suddenly looks far deeper than it did in the preseason, with Arizona and UCLA now nationally ranked, and Arizona State getting votes in the national polls. Utah probably could use some momentum before it begins the conference schedule at Arizona State on Sept. 22. Then, after a bye, plays host to USC and visits UCLA.

Emotions and rivalries and bad feelings and Holy Wars, etc., are great copy. But Whittingham is more concerned with the football part of football. That part is keeping him busy enough.
Fortunately -- for me, anyway -- the Notre Dame blog wasn't around yet to do these the week before last season. Therefore, I am not one of the thousands of embarrassed prognosticators who felt last year's Notre Dame team would roll through USF behind Dayne Crist en route to a BCS-bowl season. Nope, I thought 10 turnovers amid an 0-2 start, three quarterbacks and, yes, four different helmets were in the cards all along.

This time, there will be proof for touting my genius. Away we go …

1. Notre Dame will finish the regular season 8-4 and play in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Losses at East Lansing, Norman and Los Angeles seem unavoidable, though I do think this is the year the Irish finally take down Michigan. Surely, though, another roadblock sits among this year's gantlet of opponents. Keep an eye on that Oct. 20 tilt with BYU, which has won 10 games five of the last six years and has an experienced QB in Riley Nelson. As for the bowl? The Irish take the Yankee Stadium field as the Big 12's No. 7, which will open this year because the conference will get two teams in BCS bowls. (Here comes the bold part … ) To make matters more fun, the Pinstripe Bowl, not wanting another Pitt/Notre Dame matchup in 2012, picks fifth-place Cincinnati to square off against the Irish. I wonder if there will be any storylines in the lead-up to that one.

2. Cierre Wood will have a hard time winning back his starting job. Theo Riddick has impressed everyone this offseason, and he seems to be most comfortable in the backfield. Of course, the uniqueness of the offense will have him catching passes at certain points and allow for both Riddick and Wood to be on the field together. But don't expect a production drop-off from the backfield in Weeks 1 and 2.

3. Gunner Kiel will redshirt. Everett Golson, today at least, looks like the quarterback of the future. Andrew Hendrix will probably get some time at some point, and Tommy Rees is the perfect emergency signal-caller, given his experience and knowledge. Everyone wants to see what Kiel can do, but it would probably be short-sighted to burn a year of eligibility if it's really unnecessary.

4. Miami -- yes, the big, bad Hurricanes -- will be Notre Dame's easiest opponent. The Hurricanes' thin offensive line will have trouble against Notre Dame's defensive front. They are also coming off back-to-back games against Georgia Tech and NC State, while whatever fatigue issues the Irish had from their Dublin trip should be gone with the Sept. 29 bye. Chicago will be jacked for the Irish's Oct. 6 appearance.

5. Stephon Tuitt will make a lot of people forget about Aaron Lynch. He is more versatile, and he is more reliable. He is much bigger, too. Let's not forget that he missed three games last year because of a missed class and mono, so his numbers didn't leap off the page the way Lynch's did in Year 1. Tuitt is primed for a breakout sophomore season that will put him on the national radar, along with the radar of many pro scouts entering 2013.

Maisel: BYU's Nelson reclaims starting job

August, 24, 2012
A year later, BYU senior quarterback Riley Nelson is fine-tuning his game, preparing for the Cougars' opener on Thursday night against Washington State. He has spent the summer getting his reps, developing the chemistry with his teammates that will create touchdowns this fall.

A year later, Nelson is no longer the quarterback who got Wally Pipped out of his starting job.

"I've certainly made a lot of mistakes," Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall said, "and I've missed things here and there before. So in looking back, I would have to say I missed it."

What Mendenhall missed is the thing that keeps coaches in the business. It's not the money, as plentiful as it is. With the money has come more scrutiny and less privacy. The pressure to win now is as daily as the cock's crow. Coaches get tunnel vision. Sometimes they don't see the big picture.

Read more from Ivan Maisel.
1. The response to my story posted Thursday about how the SEC wins championships because of the depth of its best teams reminded me that non-SEC fans believe the league thrives on oversigning. They blame oversigning for everything short of global warming. Oversigning supposedly violates the intent of the NCAA Manual. Intent? Please. Coaches read rules to learn what they can do without stepping over the line. The SEC redrew the line; oversigning is done. But it never was the answer. Alabama oversigned and won, but Ole Miss oversigned and cratered.

2. BYU quarterback Riley Nelson transferred to BYU in 2009 after one year at Utah State and two years on an LDS mission to Barcelona, Spain. He may not be a father figure, but as a seventh-year senior, he’s an older brother figure to his freshman teammates. He remembers what it’s like to adjust to the rules that govern BYU, run by the LDS. He tells “the young guys” as he calls them, “With the off-field stuff, you agreed to come to somewhere different. You knew what you were getting into, so just be smart.”

3. ACC blogger Heather Dinich wrote Wednesday that Florida State hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996; NC State, not since T.A. McClendon in 2002. The Seminoles are so deep at tailback that they may not have a 1,000-yarder this year. The carries may get spread. But the Wolfpack? It’s time. Head coach Tom O’Brien has the nation’s most experienced offensive line and a senior tailback, James Washington, who rushed for 897 yards in 2011. He’ll break the drought.
Riley Nelson is now in his fourth season at BYU. But believe it or not, this is actually the first time the starting quarterback job is his and his alone in the spring.

The Cougars hope that means a return to the high-flying offense that fans have come to expect in Provo.

No question BYU has sputtered the last two seasons in what was always an area of strength, primarily because it has not been able to rely on an experienced signal caller. Nelson and Jake Heaps traded starts, allowing for no time to build chemistry, cohesion and a true understanding of the offense.

[+] EnlargeRiley Nelson
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireRiley Nelson enters spring practice as the QB taking all the reps for the first time in his career at BYU.
Nelson, in particular, has been at a disadvantage the last two springs. He had to split reps with Heaps in 2010 as they battled for the No. 1 spot. Last season, he only got 20 percent of the reps as the backup to Heaps.

So for the first time since he has been on campus, Nelson is the one getting the majority of reps during the spring. At BYU, that means about 80 percent of the snaps.

"He needs to get as much volume as he can," offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said in a recent phone interview. "That's how we do it here. For 30 years, BYU has trained quarterbacks by giving them a high volume. This offense really requires a quarterback that has had some experience, and who has been able to get the volume necessary. So this is a much needed time of the year for him."

Anybody who watched the second half of last season understands that Nelson brings an undeniable winner's mentality to the Cougars. All the adversity he has faced has changed his outlook, and also given his teammates a reason to rally around him. The way he was able to lead the Cougars back against Utah State, and in the bowl win against Tulsa was illustration yet again of the intangibles his coaches always praise.

But for a deeper understanding of what he can bring to BYU on a full-time basis, this stat is more telling. Nelson replaced Heaps in the starting lineup in Week 6. In the first five games with Heaps leading the way, BYU was ranked No. 78 in the nation in third-down conversions (39 percent). After Nelson took over, BYU was No. 1 in the nation over the next seven games.

In October, BYU converted 66 percent on third down, and in November the Cougars converted 70 percent. BYU ended the season ranked No. 5 overall on third downs, converting 51 percent of the time. Just look at that jump in the span of eight games. The reason -- Nelson brings his athleticism into play. He can make nothing into a little something, keeping BYU out of second-and-long, and third-and long. His ability to run and make plays also gives him a better shot to convert on third down.

Those are clear answers for folks who still wonder whether Nelson has the capability of following in the footsteps of all the past BYU quarterback greats. Can he throw for 3,000 yards and help BYU average 40 points a game? Doman says absolutely.

For his part, Nelson has really taken to studying film and understanding where he can be better. While he had a solid understanding of the playbook last season, game experience will help him take that next step, particularly when it comes to recognizing check downs to his backs.

"It's akin to a surgeon," Nelson said in a phone interview. "Geniuses can tell you every procedure there is, but it's the surgeon that gets in there and if all of a sudden something unexpected happens, he can use that depth of knowledge to react. Before I got thrown in last year, I knew the playbook in and out, but there are times I'm sitting there watching myself on film saying, 'What are you doing? You know you have to check down to the back side.' Where I wasn't doing that last year, I hope I can do that this year with as many reps as I can get and still have the play making ability if things break down."

The goal is to get to a completion percentage of 65 percent. Nelson was at 57 percent last year, throwing for 1,717 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Already, Nelson has watched successful quarterbacks in this system, including Max Hall and John Beck. He also has watched Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to study what each of them does so well at the quarterback position.

BYU wants to work in Nelson's athleticism, so the Cougars are going to incorporate more play action, movement, naked boots, and sprint outs because he's really good at them.

But there is no question the base offense at BYU is a passing offense.

"We have to get him real confident in getting the ball out on time and making as many good decisions as he can in this drop-back style of offense,"Doman said. "If he can get ahold of that, all the rest will be icing on the cake for him."

And for BYU.

Early '12 opponent Power Rankings

February, 6, 2012
Our Mark Schlabach took another crack at his way-too early top 25 today. In response, we'll try again to rank Notre Dame's 2012 opponents.

1. USC (Nov. 24, away): Virtually every early outlook has the Trojans slated as the preseason No. 1 or No. 2 team, and rightfully so. Matt Barkley enters 2012 as the Heisman front-runner and USC will return to the familiar position of having the target on its back throughout the season.

2. Oklahoma (Oct. 27, away): Considering Notre Dame is the only current official, penned-in game that is absolutely going to happen for the Big 12 favorites next season, I'd imagine the Sooners would get up for that.

3. Michigan State (Sept. 15, away): A growing defense will keep Sparty plowing ahead in Year 6 of the Mark Dantonio era, which may just begin with MSU as the Big Ten favorite.

4. Michigan (Sept. 22, home): A number of early polls suggest Michigan as the leading Big Ten contender, but I think some of its losses on defense will be tough to replace. Nonetheless, any team with Denard Robinson under center has a chance to make big things happen, as Notre Dame fans are all too aware of.

5. Stanford (Oct. 13, home): Who needs Andrew Luck when you have that much time in the pocket? Throw anyone under center behind that offensive line and he'll have all the time he needs to make something happen.

6. Miami (Oct. 6, Chicago): The Hurricanes make the biggest jump from the last time we looked at the Irish's opponents. An experienced defense and a great recruiting year for Al Golden suggest this program is back on the rise, pending NCAA sanctions.

7. BYU (Oct. 20, home): I said it before and I'll say it again: If Riley Nelson has a big year, watch out.

8. Purdue (Sept. 8, home): This contest scares me if I'm an Irish fan. First game back from what is sure to be an exhausting season-opening trip in Dublin, with a hungry in-state rival waiting for them and looking to build on momentum following a strong 2011 finish and weak 2012 opener (Eastern Kentucky).

9. Wake Forest (Nov. 17, home): Jim Grobe teams usually perform better than they should, but the Deacs must recover from a weak finish in 2011.

10. Boston College (Nov. 10, away): No more Luke Kuechly means happier offenses everywhere. The Eagles just hope that means theirs, too, which will be in its first year under coordinator Doug Martin.

11. Navy (Sept. 1, Dublin): The Midshipmen have a brutal start to the 2012 schedule, facing the Irish in Dublin before going to Happy Valley to face Penn State, but things get easier afterward. Can they put the awful luck of 2011 behind them and beat the beatable opponents?

12. Pitt (Nov. 3, home): Paul Chryst seems like the right fit, but asking him to lift the Panthers out of their underachieving ways in Year 1 is a bit much.
Time to put a bow on non-AQ bowl season and look at what we learned.

1. Boise State should have been in a BCS game. We already knew that going into bowl season, but Boise State's 56-24 dismantling of Arizona State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas just served as a fresh reminder that the Broncos were done an injustice. Combine that with the mistake-filled Allstate Sugar Bowl between Michigan and Virginia Tech, and you get that "woulda, shoulda, coulda" feeling all over again. Playing in the Vegas bowl game was not only unfair to the Broncos, who had to bid farewell to Kellen Moore on a weeknight in December, it was unfair to the Sun Devils. Both teams deserved a chance to play a team more on their own level. Being paired up against San Diego State would have made a much better game for Arizona State; A Michigan-Boise State matchup would have been much more appealing as well. Instead, Boise State is left with an unsatisfying end to the season.

[+] EnlargeHouston Cougars quarterback Case Keenum
Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIREHouston quarterback Case Keenum and the Cougars completely dominated in their bowl win over Penn State.
2. Houston was fired up. OK maybe that was an understatement. Houston came out with its full passing arsenal and completely obliterated Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. It was a bigger rout than the 30-14 final score indicates, as Houston led 24-7 at halftime. Despite losing a shot to play in the BCS, and then losing head coach Kevin Sumlin, the Cougars clearly felt they had something to prove. Case Keenum threw for 532 yards and three touchdowns on a defense that was giving up an average of 162 yards through the air headed into the game. The bowl performance capped Keenum's NCAA record-breaking career, and also allowed Houston to complete the best season in school history at 13-1.

3. MWC not as dominant. Last season, the Mountain West rolled to a 4-1 bowl record and its fourth Bowl Challenge Cup. But the success was not replicated this year. The Mountain West went 2-3 in its bowl games, with two losses to the MAC (Wyoming to Temple, Air Force to Toledo) and one loss to the Sun Belt (San Diego State to Louisiana-Lafayette). If you fashion yourself as one of the top conferences in the country, you have got to win all your bowl games against non-AQ competition. Boise State and TCU once again held up their end of the bargain, but the story of this conference has been and will continue to be its lack of quality depth top to bottom. You can add in Nevada, which joins in 2012, and the Mountain West went 2-4 -- 1-4 against non-AQ competition.

4. MAC, C-USA shine. On the other end of the spectrum, bravo to the MAC and C-USA for putting together 4-1 marks during bowl season. C-USA went 2-0 against competition from the AQ conferences, with wins for Houston over Penn State, and SMU over Pitt. In the MAC, the Toledo-Air Force game was perhaps one of the best of the entire bowl season, with Air Force coach Troy Calhoun calling a fake extra point attempt to win the game instead of heading to overtime. Toledo was prepared, and the 42-41 win gave 32-year-old Rockets head coach Matt Campbell his first victory. Ohio pulled a come-from-behind stunner on Utah State to win the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl 24-23 -- the first bowl win in school history. Northern Illinois ended the season with its ninth straight win, and Temple cruised.

5. BYU ends with 10 wins. Closing Year 1 as an independent with a 24-21 win over Tulsa in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, meant the Cougars notched their fifth bowl win in the last six season and ended with 10 victories. How much fun was it to see Riley Nelson unleash the fake spike just before throwing the winning touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman? That win earned them a No. 25 ranking in the final coaches' poll, also the fifth time in the last six seasons they ended in the Top 25. BYU is one of only 11 programs nationally to be ranked in at least one of the two major polls during five of the last six seasons.

Early 2012 opponent power rankings

January, 10, 2012
With 2011 in the rearview mirror, here is an early look at Notre Dame's 2012 opponents, with the game date and site in parantheses.

1. USC (Nov. 24, away): Matt Barkley's return makes the Trojans a trendy preseason national title pick and Barkley a likely preseason Heisman frontrunner. They host the Irish in the regular-season finale, and how sweet it would be for Notre Dame should they knock their rivals off with the highest stakes on the line.

2. Oklahoma (Oct. 27, away): Like the Trojans, the Sooners return their prized quarterback (Landry Jones) and will, at the very least, enter 2012 as the Big 12 favorite.

3. Michigan State (Sept. 15, away): Kirk Cousins and Keshawn Martin are gone, but the Spartans return four offensive linemen and plenty of production on the defensive side of the ball as they go for a third-straight 11-win season.

4. Michigan (Sept. 22, home): Denard Robinson and several key skill players likely return, but the Wolverines lose a lot on each line and will rely on several young players to fill the void.

5. Stanford (Oct. 13, home): Perhaps the biggest mystery entering 2012. We just don't know how much this team will drop off following the likely loss of Andrew Luck. Time will tell.

6. BYU (Oct. 20, home): Another wild card. Much will depend on the growth of dual-threat QB Riley Nelson and the Cougars' offense.

7. Purdue (Sept. 8, home): The Boilermakers finished 2011 with back-to-back wins for the first time this season and have a bit of momentum under Danny Hope. Some see them as a darkhorse Leaders Division contender in 2012.

8. Miami (Oct. 6, Chicago): The Hurricanes will likely be led by a defense that returns eight starters for Al Golden's second year.

9. Wake Forest (Nov. 17, home): Quarterback Tanner Price is back, but the Demon Deacons must eliminate the mistakes that cost them five of their final six games and two assistants their jobs.

10. Boston College (Nov. 10, away): The Eagles got better as the season went on and hope new offensive coordinator Doug Martin can bring the unit up to speed with the defense, which loses Luke Kuechly.

11. Navy (Sept. 1, Dublin): Can Trey Miller build off 2011, when he was forced in midseason for the injured Kriss Proctor?

12. Pitt (Nov. 3, home): New coach Paul Chryst will have his work cut out for him on a team with quarterback, protection and, at least in the past calendar year, coaching issues.

Instant analysis: BYU 24, Tulsa 21

December, 30, 2011

BYU beat Tulsa 24-21 in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Friday afternoon. Here is a quick analysis:

How the game was won: You have to love the moxie of quarterback Riley Nelson. Trailing 21-17 with 4:18 to go, Nelson engineered a terrific game-winning drive, converting once on fourth down and once on third down with big-time runs. Facing second-and-goal from the Tulsa 8 with the clock ticking down, Nelson pulled out the ol' fake spike attempt and found Cody Hoffman for a 2-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone with 11 seconds left. BYU has now rallied for victory in five of its 10 wins this season.

Turning point: Tulsa got a major break with six minutes to go, leading 21-17. Pinned deep in its own territory and forced to punt, BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy got flagged for running into the punter. But Tulsa could not take advantage of the break, and went three-and-out to give BYU the ball back. The Cougars then went on their game-winning drive.

Stat of the game: BYU won its third straight bowl game for the first time in school history.

Player of the game: BYU receiver Cody Hoffman. Hoffman had eight catches for 122 yards and tied a career high with three touchdown receptions. He broke the 100-yard mark in three of his final four games.

Unsung hero of the game: BYU offensive tackle Matt Reynolds. BYU was able to close to 14-10 right before halftime thanks in part to Reynolds, who delivered a hit with his helmet off as Nelson scrambled away from the pressure. That hit allowed Nelson to find Hoffman in the end zone with 12 seconds to go before the break.

What it means for Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane close the season on a disappointing note, having squandered several opportunities to put this game away. They were simply too inconsistent on offense and defense. A big play would be followed by a letdown play. G.J. Kinne threw three TD passes in the final game of his career, but he was just 17-of-31 for 210 yards. He leaves behind big shoes to fill.

What it means for BYU: The Cougars won 10 games -- their fifth 10-win season in the past six years. That has to be considered a major success in Year 1 as an independent. Nelson returns next season, and BYU has to hope for a little bit more consistency out of him. He was not very good for most of the first half, and threw two interceptions. He actually had a third called back because of a Tulsa penalty. Many of the skill players also return, so hopes will be high for 2012 once again.

Record performance: Tulsa cornerback Dexter McCoil had two interceptions to tie the school record for career interceptions with 13.

Armed Forces Bowl: Three Keys

December, 29, 2011
You saw the preview and prediction. Now here are three keys for BYU and Tulsa in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Friday.

BYU (9-3)

1. Slow down G.J. Kinne. There is no question that Kinne is the most valuable player on the Tulsa offense because he can do a variety of things. Kinne leads the team with an average of 273.4 yards of total offense per game and is always a threat to run out of the backfield. What should help BYU is practicing against its own running quarterback in Riley Nelson. But Kinne has a much better arm and is much more experienced, so BYU has to contain him if it has any shot at winning the game. The only true rushing quarterback BYU has faced this season was Chuckie Keeton at Utah State, and he had 22 yards on six carries.

2. Stop the run. Tulsa averages more than 200 yards on the ground per game, so making sure the Golden Hurricane are not running at will and chewing up clock will be a huge part of this game. Kinne certainly can win contests with his arm, but it puts an incredible amount of strain and pressure on any quarterback when his offense becomes one-dimensional. Tulsa does well with play-action passes, so stopping the run means taking away those calls as well.

3. Keep Nelson healthy. BYU goes into this game with no experience behind Nelson, so it is going to be extremely important to protect the starting quarterback. Nelson can run, and he is not afraid to give up his body -- that already led to one injury this season in which he missed several games. Jake Heaps, who was demoted and would have served as the backup, left the team when he decided to transfer. So that leaves James Lark behind Nelson. Lark has attempted only 10 passes in his career.

Tulsa (8-4)

1. Run it. Just as BYU has to make an effort to stop the run, Tulsa is going to try to run the football effectively. The Golden Hurricane failed to rush for more than 100 yards just once all season -- against North Texas. They also have rushed for 200 or more yards five times this season. Like BYU, Tulsa does not rely on one primary back -- Ja'Terian Douglas and Trey Watts have each run for more than 800 yards this season, and they are vastly different runners.

2. Force third-and-long. Third-down defense is going to be important for Tulsa in this game. BYU ranks No. 3 in the nation in third-down conversions at 52.94 percent. Tulsa has not been the best in this category, ranking No. 83 in third-down defense while allowing opponents to convert 42.7 percent of the time. Coach Bill Blankenship knows his team has to limit the big plays and force BYU into uncomfortable passing situations, because that is not an area of strength for the Cougars.

3. Limit the mistakes. Neither team has been great in turnover margin. In fact, both teams are in negative territory here. But both coaches realize this is an important aspect to this game because one turnover could really change the outcome. After leading the nation in interceptions a year ago with 24, that number has dropped to 16 for Tulsa, so it will be important to get to Nelson and force him into mistakes.