Top 10 sports stories of 2011

Published: Saturday, Dec. 31 2011 8:00 p.m. MST

While Utah struggled in its first Pac-12 season, BYU dealt with the ups and downs of independence. As the Utes began their first Pac-12 season there was palpable energy on campus, at games and even around Salt Lake City.

While the result was what most predicted, the opportunity to represent the South Division in the first Pac-12 championship raised hopes — only to have them dashed with a loss to Colorado.

"If they get the win against Colorado and play for that Pac-12 championship, it's a more successful season than I expected," said 1280 AM sports talk radio co-host Hans Olsen. "The history books would have Utah written down as the first team to represent the south in the first Pac-12 championship … That would have been amazing."

As far as BYU playing football without a conference affiliation, while this year was a success on paper, media members and fans wondered if the Cougars could secure — and sustain — a challenging schedule each year as conferences shifted, grew and made TV deals with each other.

The Cougars did end on a high note, with Riley Nelson leading the Cougars to a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl on Friday.

"For me, I'm hoping it's a means to an end," said Olsen. "I don't want this to be a long-term situation for BYU. I don't expect this to be a long-term situation for BYU. I hope they don't expect this to be long-term fix for BYU. I think growth is limited … financial growth is limited; strength of schedule growth is limited. Being an independent is OK if you can leverage and demand and control revenue. BYU is not there yet."

4. Life of Riley

Jake Heaps came to BYU amid great fanfare and high expectations. Riley Nelson arrived in Provo after a controversial (post-mission) transfer and much skepticism. Yet, this fall, Nelson not only earned the starting quarterback job, he earned the affection and loyalty of players, coaches and fans. Nelson's success led Heaps to transfer to Kansas, leaving Cougar faithful to wonder what might have been and what went wrong between BYU and one of the country's most sought-after high school recruits.

"I thought he was primed to have a gigantic season," said Patrick Kinahan, co-host of the DJ and PK Show on 1320 AM. "Watching him in fall camp … there was just no way I would have forecasted that in his fourth or fifth game he was struggling so bad they would have absolutely no choice but to replace him. That was a stunner."

Harmon sees Heaps' departure as a loss for the program.

"They lose a potential player that would have worked into someone like the other quarterbacks they'd had," said Harmon. "He needed time to become salty, experienced and to have other people on the team react to him. For several reasons, that never happened."

Harmon said of the 66 off-season workouts last year, Heaps managed to attend just three because of injuries, his marriage and a family trip.

"This team was reluctant to follow him," said Harmon. "Yes, Nelson is the anti-Jake. He was there at every practice, willing to do anything, wash windows, shine cars, sit at the back of the bus … Riley is so smart, and he knew the emotional buttons he could push. He embraced the warrior spirit that Bronco Mendenhall loves so much."

Kinahan also observed a difference in the way the team played for Heaps compared to Nelson.

"It was also shocking to see how much he lost the team, lost the confidence of his teammates," Kinahan said of Heaps. "They didn't quit playing for him, but they certainly played a lot harder for Nelson."

That, and leading a comeback win against Utah State, helped Nelson secure both the hearts and minds of BYU coaches and fans

5. D-Will dealt