Despite the possibility of reaching a BCS bowl, pretty much everyone knew the Poinsettia Bowl would be BYU's final resting place for the season. The real mystery was the opponent. The bowl receives the #2 MWC selection, behind the Las Vegas Bowl. Early speculation included Boise State, SDSU, Nevada, and Fresno State at the very least.
In the end, the Cougars have ended up with a very good opponent in San Diego State. They ended in a three way tie atop the Mountain West, going 7-1 in conference with Boise State and Fresno State.
What we know about San Diego State (9-3)
The Aztecs are coming into this game on a 7 game winning streak, including wins over quality opponents: Nevada, Air Force, and Boise State. Their losses this season came on the road at Washington and Fresno State, and at home to San Jose State. Each loss was by fewer than 10 points.
San Diego State sports a potent rushing attack, averaging 229 rushing yards per game, which is good enough for 16th nationally. Their top rusher is Adam Muema, who has rushed for 1355 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Also impressive is Walter Kazee, who has rushed for 822 yards and 8 touchdowns. Both average more than 5 yards per carry. SDSU will be without Kazee, however, who tore his ACL against Wyoming.
The Aztecs have been led by backup QB Adam Dingwell since Ryan Katz went down with an ankle injury against Nevada. Dingwell has been impressive, winning the Nevada game in OT, and going 4-0 as a replacement starter to end the season. The passing attack is secondary to the rushing attack, though the Aztecs still throw for 179 yards per game.
The Aztecs are used to being in close games this season, win or lose. They average 35 points per game, while giving up nearly 25. It's tough to pick out a bad loss from the three that they had, but if you use the transitive property, the Aztecs lost to Washington, who lost to Washington State, who got blown out by BYU. So...draw your own conclusions.
What we know about BYU (7-5)
A 7-5 record was definitely below most fan expectations for the year. I hoped we'd win two of our four big games, but we ended up losing all of them, and throwing the San Jose State game in the loss column as a bonus. At least two losses came as a direct result of Riley Nelson being injured and playing anyway. And two more came as a result of Riley being Riley. Oregon State ended up running away with the game, so it's tough to point a finger any single direction.
The Cougars sport average passing and rushing attacks. Riley Nelson leads the way for the Cougars, having thrown for 2011 yards and 13 touchdowns, while also serving up 12 interceptions. James Lark, who may play in the bowl if Riley is unable to start, has thrown for 534 yards and 8 touchdowns (0 interceptions). The Cougar rushing attack is led by freshman Jamaal Williams, who has 744 yards and 11 touchdowns. If you want to feel somewhat depressed, the next two leading rushers are Taysom Hill and Michael Alisa, who both went down to injury about halfway through the season. That's just how alone Jamaal Williams is in the rushing department.
The Cougars score only 29 points per game, but their #5 scoring defense limits opponents to under 15.
Keys to the game
Win the turnover battle. This rule has absolutely proved true this season. When winning or tying the turnover battle, BYU is 7-0 this season. When losing the turnover battle, BYU is 0-5. In seven wins, BYU has given up a total of 7 turnovers, while gaining 15 from the opponents. In losses, BYU has given up 15 in five games, while gaining only 2 from opponents. The margin between victory and defeat is so slim for BYU this season, and turnovers, while not always the deciding factor, have been a perfect indicator for success. This makes winning games very difficult when your starting quarterback has thrown 12 INTs and lost 3 fumbles (despite having fumbled 9 times). That is a lot of turnovers to overcome. If the Cougars do not at least tie the turnover count, they will lose to the Aztecs.
Score at least 24 points. Since losing to Washington 21-12 to open the season, San Diego State has not failed to score at least 21 points in each game, and most of the time they've doubled that. I think it's safe to say that BYU's defense will keep the Aztecs below their average, but the Cougar O is going to have to do their part against this SDSU team that will score. 24 points represents SDSU's recent low score plus a field goal. I think that will be the minimum required to beat them.
Stymie the Aztec run game. At nearly 230 yards per game, this is the really potent part of the San Diego State offense. Luckily for BYU, it's also the strength of their defense. The BroncoD has held opponents to an average of just 84 yards per game. Certainly something is going to give here, and if the BroncoD can tear the heart (rushing attack) out of this potent offense, it will go a long way to securing a Cougar victory.
So that's it. There's your path to victory, and it's not an easy one, but I think the Cougars are definitely capable enough to get it done. I'm picking BYU to beat the Aztecs, 24-21.