For the fifth time in six years, the BYU football team ended the 2011 season ranked in the Top 25 (25th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, 26th in the Associated Press Poll).
BYU's 2011 football season was filled with exhilarating wins (See Ole Miss, Utah State and Tulsa), frustrating losses (Texas, TCU) and embarrassing performances (Utah).
Cougar fans might even call the 2011 season a bit of a rollercoaster year...or was it a "Riley"-coaster year?
Either way, as BYU turns its attention to winter drills, spring practice and an upcoming 2012 season filled with high-profile matchups scheduled against the likes of Washington State, Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, which players must have big performances in 2012 in order for the Cougars to win against the aforementioned teams and scale the national rankings?
Many Cougar fans may collectively be saying, "Who?!" But Cougar fans may want to learn his name quickly because in order for BYU's offense to be as successful as possible in 2012, it will be with a healthy and productive Iona Pritchard.
Pritchard came to BYU in 2008 as a highly-touted recruit from Bingham High School (UT). Pritchard saw action in all 13 games that year as a linebacker, tailback and special teams player, and after serving a two-year mission, Pritchard was set to be a key contributor as a fullback upon his return in 2011.
However, Pritchard suffered a severe, season-ending knee and leg injury during the first play of the first scrimmage of the fall camp. Bronco Mendenhall later said that Pritchard was having an outstanding fall camp as a fullback and even compared Pritchard to former Cougar fullback Manase Tonga.
With key contributors J.J. DiLuigi and Brian Kariya leaving BYU's backfield after 2011, BYU's ability to run a balanced offense with Michael Alisa and Josh Quezada will rely heavily on Pritchard leading the way.
BYU's No. 19-ranked rushing defense will be losing key contributors Hebron Fangupo and Matt Putnam to graduation, but Romney Fuga will need to continue to be the anchor to BYU's defensive line after starting all 13 games in 2011.
Despite only totaling 25 tackles on the year, Fuga was relied on to take up blocks, demand double-teams and then allow the linebackers and safeties to make the big plays. Fuga will be expected to play an even bigger role in 2012 in order for BYU to effectively defend opposing teams' rushing attack.
One of BYU's young "Twin Tower" wide receivers (along with Ross Apo), Cody Hoffman had a breakout year in 2011 at wideout despite the Heaps-to-Nelson-to-Heaps-to-Nelson quarterback changes and a sporadic running game.
Hoffman led the team in all receiving categories with 61 catches, 943 yards and 10 touchdowns while also returning 36 kickoffs for 879 yards and one touchdown.
Hoffman's 1,825 all-purpose yards in 2011 were the sixth-best single-season mark in BYU history. Hoffman added five 100-yard receiving games, including an MVP-winning performance of eight catches, 122 yards and three touchdowns (including the game-winning touchdown) in the Armed Forces Bowl against Tulsa.
With presumably two years left with the Hoffman-Apo tandem at wide receiver for the Cougars, 2012 will be a big year to build on the momentum gained from a successful 2011 season.
After totaling 35 tackles, 2.0 sacks and one fumble recovery for a touchdown during a strong freshman season in 2010, Kyle Van Noy broke in the 2011 season with the game-winning sack and touchdown at Ole Miss.
Van Noy became the leader of the Cougar defense as a sophomore while recording 68 tackles, 7.0 sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, 10 quarterback hurries and the aforementioned fumble recovery and touchdown.
In 2012, Van Noy will be expected to lead the BYU defense and continue to make game-changing plays that Cougar fans have become accustomed to seeing from the soon-to-be junior.
Bronco Mendenhall and Brandon Doman went "all-in" on Riley Nelson once he led them to a come-from-behind victory over Utah State in late September, resulting in the eventual transfer of one-time starter Jake Heaps to Kansas.
Nelson went on to throw for 1,717 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions while also running for 392 yards and a touchdown, in eight games during 2011.
More importantly, BYU went 7-1 with Nelson at quarterback. However, for the second time in as many years Nelson missed significant time due to injury.
BYU will be hoping for Nelson to carry his winning ways into his senior year in 2012. According to BYU play-by-play radio announcer, Greg Wrubell, BYU has had 11 Senior quarterbacks since 1974. During those Senior seasons, BYU has totaled an average of 10.5 team wins.
Assuming Riley Nelson can stay healthy for the entire season, BYU fans will be expecting nothing less from Nelson and the Cougars.