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BYU football: Cougars survive blustery year

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 10 2012 6:56 p.m. MST

BYU quarterback Riley Nelson will return as a senior to lead an experienced ballclub in the 2012 campaign.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU's inaugural season as an independent featured both turbulence and triumph.

There were dramatic victories, close losses, blowout wins, and a humiliating 44-point defeat to archrival Utah at home.

Along the way, there was a change at quarterback as Riley Nelson replaced Jake Heaps (who eventually transferred to Kansas), and rampant speculation about BYU possibly joining the Big 12 or the Big East.

The Cougars also received unprecedented exposure, with 11 of BYU's 13 games broadcast on the ESPN family of networks.

In the end, the Cougars earned a last-second triumph over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl that gave BYU a 10-3 record — the fifth time in the last six seasons that it posted at least 10 wins under coach Bronco Mendenhall — and a No. 25 ranking in the final USA Today Coaches poll.

The Cougars are one of only 11 programs to be nationally ranked in at least one of the two major polls in five of the last six years. BYU finished just outside the Associated Press poll at No. 26.

"I still believe the reason we have success at BYU is the people I'm able to surround myself with, that's players and coaches," Mendenhall said after the bowl game. "I consider that the secret to consistency. While we still have room to grow and improve, and we look forward to that, the future looks bright."

Based on how they finished, the Cougars could be ranked in the preseason polls next fall. And with a significant number of returning players, BYU is hoping that 2012 could be a banner year. The Cougars open spring practices on March 5.

"The most successful teams in college football are senior-laden. If you look at us, we're going to be juniors and seniors (in 2012)," Nelson said. "A lot of guys have experience and have been around the block. It's exciting. We have that chemistry. We love the battle and the fight, not just on the field, but off the field. The fight, the winter conditioning, coach Mendenhall's workouts are tough. We have that foundation to build on."

Much of the Cougars' success will depend on how they start, and with games against Washington State, Utah, Boise State, Oregon State and Notre Dame in the first two months of the season, BYU has a shot at proving itself early.

Here's a glance at the Cougars in 2012:

OFFENSE

History says that when BYU starts a senior quarterback, the Cougars enjoy a big season. Nelson, who will be a senior in 2012, is a team leader who has displayed a knack for winning. He came off the bench to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback win over Utah State, and with that performance, he wrested control of the starting job and turned the 2011 season around. Nelson ended up throwing for 1,717 yards, while rushing for 392 yards, and he finished No. 16 nationally in pass efficiency.

Nelson has a bevy of weapons at his disposal, most notably wide receiver Cody Hoffman, who caught the game-winning pass in the Armed Forces Bowl. Hoffman had 61 receptions for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will be joined by several other talented receivers, including Ross Apo and JD Falslev.

The Cougars were depleted at tight end due to injuries to Devin Mahina, Richard Wilson and Austin Holt last season. But they're all expected to return, along with Kaneakua Friel and Marcus Mathews.

At running back, BYU loses leading rusher JJ Di Luigi as well as Bryan Kariya, but Michael Alisa, Joshua Quezada and redshirt freshman Adam Hine will be counted on to carry the rushing attack. At fullback, Iona Pritchard, who missed the 2011 season with an injury, will be back.

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