BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s Poinsettia Bowl chess match

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall is in a Poinsettia Bowl chess match. It is clear that the chess match is focused on who will be the starting quarterback, but it isn’t so clear who Mendenhall is playing chess with. Is it San Diego State head coach Rocky Long, BYU boosters and fans, or Riley Nelson and James Lark?

With the Poinsettia Bowl just three days away, Bronco Mendenhall has yet to announce who his starting quarterback will be. It could be that he genuinely does not know. However, it could be that Mendenhall has not revealed this information yet as a strategic move.

Rocky Long
The reasons Mendenhall would not want Long to know who will start at quarterback for the Cougars are fairly obvious. Nelson and Lark have two different playing styles. If the Aztecs were to know who would be playing quarterback, then they could focus the vast majority of their attention on that style of play. That would be to the advantage of the Aztecs. The more time spent preparing the better they will know their assignments, BYU tendencies in specific formations and personnel groups.

With the starting quarterback position up in the air, San Diego State has to prepare for both. That cuts the effective practice reps that the Aztecs get in half. If Nelson starts, then everything San Diego State did to prepare for Lark will have been wasted practice snaps (assuming Nelson plays the whole game), and vice versa. The big payoff for BYU would be if San Diego State has to simplify its defense and play less aggressive in the game.

Immediately after Lark’s big performance in his first career start, Mendenhall staunchly pronounced Nelson as the starter for the bowl game, if healthy. He wasn’t trying to keep it a secret at that point, which gives the impression Mendenhall doesn’t feel the need to delay the announcement as a strategic tool.

BYU Boosters and Fans
Mendenhall’s unwavering support of Nelson as his starting quarterback did not surprise many BYU boosters and fans. Despite costly turnovers and a 4-5 record as a starter this season, the only thing that has kept Nelson off the field this season is injuries. Even then, it took the BYU coaches longer than expected to remove Nelson from the lineup.

When BYU opened bowl practice a week ago, Mendenhall’s tune had changed. Although Nelson was three weeks removed from being injured against San Jose State, Mendenhall said Nelson was not healthy enough to be considered the starter. As the week progressed, nothing reported from practices seemed to indicated that Nelson was sufficiently healthy to resume the starting role.

This is a complete break from form. Last year, Nelson returned from a collapsed lung and rib injury and played three weeks later. He sat out just two games this season for a severe back injury. After missing the final week of the regular season followed by two weeks off before bowl preparations began, it seemed certain that Nelson would be recovered enough to take the starters reps in practice.

You would think that if there is one thing that can get any college football coach to make a decision he doesn’t want to make it is pressure from boosters, and to a lesser extent fans. It seems quite possible that during the two weeks following the New Mexico State game when Lark shined in his first career start, BYU’s boosters exerted a lot of pressure on Athletic Director Tom Holmoe that Lark be given an opportunity to start in the Poinsettia Bowl. Holmoe would have then sent a strong message to Mendenhall that he needs to back off his position that Nelson will start the bowl game, and do some posturing, at a minimum.

Mendenhall may be saying all these things just to keep boosters and fans from rioting. Then again, he may be the one college football coach who will stick by his guns even at the expense of booster support. This is the coach who continued to play Nelson even with three cracked vertebra in his back. 

Riley Nelson & James Lark
The third and final reason Mendenhall may not be announcing a starter is to better engage both Nelson and Lark as they prepare for this game. In Nelson’s case, it could even cause him to play with a chip on his shoulder. His best game of the season came in the season opener against Washington State when he felt offended by some pre-game comments by WSU head coach Mike Leach. With his abilities and health being questioned and a possibility of not playing in the final game of his career, Nelson could propel BYU to victory with the best game of his career.

It is one thing to prepare like you are going to start, but there is no question that the other guy will get the start. It is another to actually take starters reps in practice; to hear your name being mentioned as the starter “if the game were today.” That is human nature. The brain reacts differently to each message. Lark will prepare better for this game than he would have otherwise. He may or may not start, but the chances are high BYU will need his services at some point. The better he is prepared, the better he will be able to do what BYU needs him to do to win this game.

This chess match may be nothing more than a mind game with the two potential starters to help get them the most prepared for the game.

I have my opinion as to who Mendenhall is really playing chess with, but I won’t reveal who it is. Just like a good chess player doesn’t reveal his next move.

The Editor appreciates all feedback. He can be reached via email at


  1. Come on...we all know that Mendenhall is pandering to boosters and fans if he plays Lark. Its OK to admit that.

    1. Just trying to have a little fun with the chess game theme.

      I agree with you. I think there will be some serious ramifications as far as boosters are concerned if BYU loses and Lark doesn't play. There may even be some even if BYU wins and Lark doesn't play.

  2. @ the editor-great insight by the way. Appreciate the website.


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