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Pick Six Previews: SMU with edge over BYU in New Mexico Bowl with Jaren Hall absence


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PROVO β€” The 2022 season was a total roller-coaster ride for BYU.

It opened up with a 50-spot on South Florida and a double-overtime thriller over defending Big 12 champs Baylor. BYU reached as high as No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, but then dropped five of their next seven games, including three losses to Power Five teams (Oregon, Notre Dame, and Arkansas) and three total defensive collapses.

Head coach Kalani Sitake took over full control of the defense in late October and BYU closed out the regular season with a three-game winning streak by defeating non-AQ Boise State, FCS Utah Tech, and Power Five Stanford. The late rally helped BYU secure its fifth straight winning season.

The New Mexico Bowl matchup against SMU has several layers of significance and ties to the past. First, the specific matchup with SMU is familiar because the 1980 Holiday Bowl is one of the program's defining wins and one of the greatest comebacks in college football history. Jim McMahon's Hail Mary pass completed an epic 20-point comeback against SMU β€” all in the final four minutes.

Additionally, this is BYU's first time back in Albuquerque's New Mexico Bowl since the 2010 season. That win over UTEP marked the final game of BYU's Mountain West era, while Saturday's 2022 edition marks the end of BYU's 12-year run as an independent.

BYU looks to make it 4-0 all-time against SMU, and the New Mexico Bowl will have offensive fireworks all game (5:30 p.m. MST, ABC). After Saturday, BYU goes through not only a conference transition but also what appears to be one of the biggest roster transitions in program history.

Game Grader

(Opponent-adjusted statistical dominance via Pick Six Previews)

2022 Season: BYU 46.9 (45th of 66 Power Five) | SMU 47.4 (20th of 65 non-AQ, 43rd Power Five equivalent)

BYU reached as high as No. 10 in 2022 Game Grader, but the four-game losing streak sank them down to well below average. BYU's 46.9 grade is currently the program's lowest since 2017.

SMU has a near-identical season Game Grade as BYU. They had two chances to knock off Power Five opponents but came up a touchdown short against Maryland and playoff-bound TCU. The teams share just one common opponent in South Florida, and both BYU and SMU beat the Bulls by similar statistical margins.

SMU enters the bowl game on a 4-1 run, with the lone loss coming in blowout fashion to AAC champion Tulane.

SMU with the ball

(Opponent-adjusted, per-play rankings via Pick Six Previews)

SMU offense: 5th of 65 Non-AQ

BYU defense: 52nd of 66 Power Five

Sonny Dykes left behind a high-powered offense before he took over TCU. While SMU lacks the Power Five label, Dykes did an excellent job of bringing in top-rated transfers via the portal.

Quarterback Tanner Mordecai was originally at Oklahoma before transferring to SMU, and in Dallas he has lit up the scoreboard. He has thrown 70 touchdowns in his two seasons as the starter, including a high 8.1 yards per attempt and a sharp 66% completion rate.

As an offense, SMU is rated the fifth best among non-AQ teams in my opponent-adjusted, per-play rankings. On a conference level, SMU is ranked No. 1 in the AAC in both scoring offense (38.4 points per game) and passing offense (325 passing yards per game). The Mustangs will be without star receiver Rashee Rice, who drew All-America honors after leading the entire nation in receiving yards with 1,355.

Even without Rice, I expect this offense to have success through the air. All season long BYU's pass defense has been a liability; they are still ranked just 116th nationally in the all-encompassing opponent QB rating metric.

BYU with the ball

(Opponent-adjusted, per-play rankings via Pick Six Previews)

BYU offense: 18th of 66 Power Five

SMU defense: 52nd of 65 Non-AQ

On paper, BYU's offense was projected to be a mirror image of the above section. BYU's passing offense has proven elite all season, Jaren Hall is ranked in the top 10 in several passing metrics, and the offensive line has made great strides in both pass protection and run push.

That dynamic passing offense was set to overpower an SMU defense ranked just 52nd among the 65 non-AQ teams, and this game was headed toward an all-out, fast-paced shootout.

But the various press conferences and practice reports trended toward Hall not playing on Saturday. He got off the plane in a large boot, and the coaches have remained doubtful that he will be under center.

Instead, look for BYU to go more run-heavy. I expect BYU to be able to establish the run game on the AAC's second-worst rushing defense and hopefully stay ahead of the chains for new quarterback Cade Fennegan.

Game prediction

This game was essentially a 50-50 coin flip at full strength, but the loss of Hall would be more damaging to BYU's offense than SMU's loss of Rice. Assuming Hall does not play, I expect SMU to have the edge.

SMU 34 | BYU 27

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Brett Ciancia is the owner of Pick Six Previews, a college football preview magazine graded as the "Most Accurate Season Preview" since 2012 (via Stassen). Ciancia was named a Heisman Trophy voter in 2019 and was invited to the FWAA's All-America Team selection committee in 2020.

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