When the Brigham Young Cougars 2012 season concludes, the debates will begin. Where does Riley Nelson fit in the BYU quarterback hierarchy? If Nelson is going to have any chance to join “the greats” in the highest tier, then he needs to lead BYU to victory over Utah.
Ever since the 2011 season ended, and the pundits started speculating about the 2012 season, a popular theme has been the success of previous senior Cougar quarterbacks. Their stats have been scrutinized, the number of wins have been analyzed, and the outcome of the annual rivalry game with Utah broken down. For those QBs who beat Utah in their senior season, there is little debate about their place in the BYU quarterback hierarchy.
Virgil Carter, Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer, Steve Sarkisian, Brandon Doman, John Beck, and Max Hall all beat Utah. They all belong in the top tier.
The only senior quarterback since 1974 who did not beat Utah is Kevin Feterik. Ask any BYU fan, and they will tell you Feterik does not belong with those mentioned above. He may have won the same number of games his senior season as Ty Detmer. He may have beat more top 15 ranked teams than Carter, Sheide, Nielsen, Wilson, McMahon, Young, and Doman combined. He may have started his senior season with 500 yards passing and a dramatic last minute win, but the loss to Utah at the end of the season ended any chance he had at joining the top tier.
John Walsh is another curious case. Where he fits in the hierarchy is a little hazy. Depending on who you ask, Walsh either just makes the cut and is in the top tier, or he is the first one out. He left BYU for the NFL before his senior season. Before he left, he put up career stats that were nearly identical with Robbie Bosco. Walsh led BYU to its first ever victory over Notre Dame. He took BYU to 10 wins, to an impressive bowl win against Oklahoma, and a top 10 ranking in the USA Today poll. When it comes to Utah, Walsh was 0-2. A win over Utah, especially in his final season 1994, and Walsh would be a clear cut top tier BYU quarterback.
Those fans who have Walsh in their top tier, it is because of his complete body of work. Nelson doesn’t have the luxury of a large body of work he could appeal to if BYU loses to Utah. This is his only complete season as the full-time starter, which increases the weight that will be assigned to this season and this Utah game when evaluating Nelson’s ultimate legacy.
Of the top tier BYU quarterbacks, Doman is the only one who, like Nelson, started less than two full seasons. Despite his brief tenure, Doman broke through to the top tier in large part because of his games against Utah (2000, 2001). The 2001 game, his senior year, was the climax in one of the more spectacular seasons in BYU history.
There is no doubt Nelson will be remembered by the BYU faithful. His abs, hair, and high-5 have already gained immortality. His dual threat style of play and duo of last minute victories have made an impression. That impression, however, is not yet deep enough to reach the top tier. Nelson needs to do more. He needs to beat Utah.
After all the offseason analysis of senior quarterbacks, if BYU loses, Nelson will be “that guy” who joined Feterik as a senior who lost to Utah. After the debacle last year against Utah, if BYU wins, Nelson will be remembered for restoring BYU’s dignity in the rivalry.
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