As the Cougars head into the biggest remaining game on the schedule, and play once again in the house that Jerry built, I believe there is only one pertinent question: Can Riley Nelson keep the offense moving against a historically awesome TCU defense.
By most measures TCU is not as good defensively as they have been over the past couple of seasons. From 2008-2010, TCU only allowed more than 30 points in two games: a 35-10 loss to Oklahoma in 2008, and a 40-35 victory over SDSU last season. This has been one of the best defenses in the country, and has usually been impressive even when losing (like the 2010 Fiesta Bowl against Boise State).
But this is not that team. They have given up 50 points to Baylor and 40 points to SMU.* I know it’s all projecting, but I don’t think those 2009 and 2010 teams give up a combined 90 points to the Bears and Mustangs.
* SMU and Baylor don’t have a lot of cache, but those loses aren’t as bad as you might think. According to advanced metrics, both teams are top-30. But the point still stands: the Horned Frogs defense is good, but not as good.
Nelson hasn’t been tested by an above-average defense. According to Football Outsiders, the best defense Nelson has played against this season is Oregon State, which is ranked No. 50 on in their defensive rankings. Utah State (76) and San Jose State (80) are not good defenses, and Idaho State is a bel0w-average FCS team.
In the pro-Jake Heaps crowd, their best argument is this: Nelson has run up yards against lousy defenses, while Heaps put up pedestrian numbers against very good defenses, like UT (22), Utah (30) and UCF (38).
It’s a legitimate point. Nelson’s speed and mobility has caused fits for opposing defenses, but the speed of TCU will be like nothing the Cougars have seen since Nelson took over the offense.
I don’t think Nelson needs a lot of rushing yards for BYU to win; Gary Patterson and his staff will design a defense to keep him contained. Nelson needs to be able to scramble to pass, and be accurate on his intermediate routes, and hit a pass or two beyond 20 yards to keep the safeties from cheating on his shorter throws or staying too close on run support.
If the Cougars can get close to 450 yards total offense, I think they win, because I don’t believe the defense will put up another clunker like they did against Utah. But if Nelson sputters, if he turns the ball over 2-3 times, the hill will be too high.
But I think Nelson keeps it together, makes plays, and gets the Cougars offense moving. At least enough to bring home a victory.
Prediction: 33-30 (OT), BYU