Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
Initial read on the BYU-Utah football game:
Both teams field excellent defenses. BYU specializes in run defense--Utah's strength is pass defense, but both teams have proven to be stingy in allowing points and yards. So, whose offense will succeed in breaking through?
While the answer cannot be predicted, my impression is that the Utah offense relies on "quick change," momentum-altering plays to spark the offense, while BYU prefers to methodically work its way downfield with time-consuming drives.
As such, avoiding turnovers and defending Utah's gimmicks (fake punts in particular) will be key to any Cougar victory. You may say that it's obvious BYU must avoid turnovers for the win, but if you look at this season, BYU has won four games while on the minus side of the turnover margin--meaning, some teams make you pay for turnovers more than others. Utah us one of those teams that makes you pay.
It's my feeling that if BYU's defense and special teams force Utah to play "long field football" all day, the Cougars will be in good shape. If Utah is picking up huge chunks of yards on big plays; if Utah is sucessfully executing trick plays; if Utah is getting short fields, then the Cougars could be in trouble. With Louie Sakoda kicking, any short field is practically a guarantee of points, while BYU has no such security.
It's not a number that gets a lot of attention, but I think 3rd down conversion percentage says a lot about these two teams. BYU converts third downs at a 46% clip, the 19th best rate in the country. Utah converts only 34% of its third downs, 101st nationally. Again, BYU has much less trouble extending its long drives, while the Utes struggle to make what might be considerded "conventional" plays at key times--like on third down. Just something to consider. BYU will also be forced to consider this: Utah is 6th nationally in 3rd down defense. Something's gotta give on Saturday.
There are rumblings that the Las Vegas Bowl people are making backroom inquiries about the possibility of getting out of their Pac-10 commitment for this year's game. Word is South Carolina and Purdue are being eyed as alternatives. Question #1: can the Las Vegas Bowl do this? Question #2: Why South Carolina and Purdue? The Gamecocks have lost 4 in a row (at #22 Clemson this week), while the Boilermakers lost three in a row to end their season. If I'm the Las Vegas Bowl, I let the Pac-10 race play out--unlike last season, when the bowl jumped on Oregon when it could have had a hotter UCLA team.
I observed last week that ESPN.com and writer Andy Katz solidfied their standards for recognizing "major" and "mid-major" conferences.
And as if you needed any more evidence the BCS is not just about football, look at what they came up with:
"Majors" are teams in the 6 BCS leagues (plus Gonzaga and Memphis)
"Mid-Majors" are, well, everybody else.
That's the bad news--if you think BYU and the Mountain West Conference deserve more than mid-major status. Come come to think of it, how many mid-major teams have 22 NCAA Tournament appearances and play in a 23-thousand seat building? For that matter, look at Utah; they were never a mid-major under Rick Majerus--they played for a national champiopnship. How many mid-majors have ever done that? While they're expected to be down this season, Air Force has become a recent beast and played in the NIT Final Four last season. Try and find a "major" who will agree to play at Clune Arena. Heck, ask Dave Rose how easy it is to get good teams to come to the Marriott Center.
The good news is BYU will be singled out and placed among the best mid-major teams in the country every week as long as the Cougars keep playing well. In the first "Mid-Major" Top 10, BYU is 4th (behind Butler, Southern Illinois and Davidson). Look for this ranking each Monday on ESPN.com and on ESPN's "SportsCenter."