Both teams finished the season with a record of 9-3, but it can be argued the University of Utah may have deserved a better bowl than the Las Vegas Bowl. Typically the 6th best team in the Pac-12 gets invited to the Vegas Bowl and Utah was 3rd in its conference. At the same time, it's actually the "6th choice" that goes to the Vegas Bowl and it appears the Utes were 6th choice, so maybe they're in the right bowl. Regardless, even if the bowl should have been different, this is a matchup that has fans and media alike buzzing. "The Holy War in Sin City." It's just worked out too perfectly.
Going into the season the best players for BYU and Utah were Taysom Hill and Devontae Booker, respectively. Neither of the two are going to be playing in this one. BYU's offense has still played well this season under freshman, Tanner Mangum. Utah's has been noticeably weaker sans Booker. Running back, Joe Williams has proved himself to be a capable replacement. Williams has rushed for 308 yards on 60 carries the past two games for an average of 5.1 yards per carry. Neither opponent, UCLA and Colorado, have strong run defenses. UCLA is 88th in the country, allowing 187.8 rushing yards per game and Colorado is 99th, giving up 198.7 yards per game. So one could argue the numbers aren't as impressive based on who they came against.
Utah averages 30.4 points per game, which is good for 57th in the country. But in the two games the Utes have played since losing Booker, they have scored a total of 29 points. 14.5 points per game would put them at 126th in the country. For comparison's sake UCLA, a team Utah scored nine against, gives up 25.1 points per game, 51st in the country. Colorado - Utah scored 20 on them - allows 27.5 points per game, 71st in the country. Utah wasn't exactly playing vaunted defenses the past two games. Averaging a little more than half of what the two teams give up combined is troubling for an already struggling Utah offense.
Utah hasn't been known for a dominating offense for most of the past decade, but the defense is another story. Defense has continued to be its calling card this season. The Utes give up 111.8 yards per game on the ground, which puts them at 6th in the country. With how bad BYU's running game has been, don't expect it to be rejuvenated on Saturday. The Cougars have not run the ball well against the Utes in recent memory, Vegas will be no different.
I'll just say this, Saturday's game is likely to be a low-scoring affair. Will BYU's strong passing offense be enough to overcome Utah's strong defense? On to the final bold predictions for the season.
Tanner Mangum will throw for more than 300 yards
He's eclipsed this mark four times this season and was just barely less than 300 in two other games. If BYU hadn't dominated Utah State in the second half as they did then I'm sure Mangum would have hit her 300 in that game too. In a rivalry game for a freshman against a defense like Utah, hitting that 300 mark is not an easy task. But as stated earlier, Utah is 6th in the country in run defense. BYU is 108th in the country in rushing yards per game. This seems like a clear indicator that BYU isn't going to have much success running the football against a tough Utah front seven. Expect to see BYU to go the pass early and often, and all but abandon the run in the second half.
Another thing of note is that the Utes are 97th in the country in pass defense. Utah gives up 253.4 yards through the air in each contest. Utah doesn't have a weak secondary, but that is the weakness the Cougars will need to exploit. In order to truly exploit this matchup though, Mangum will have to take care of the football. The Utes are 7th in the country in interceptions with 19 this season. If he can protect the ball and get into a rhythm early then Mangum has a chance to pass for at least 300 yards through the air.
BYU will win the turnover battle
This could be a tough one. In his tenure, Bronco Mendenhall has always focused on winning the turnover battle. It will be no different in his final game as the BYU Football head coach. In order for Bronco to get his 100th win as the head coach, he will need to do just that. Naturally that is easier said than done. Both teams have done a great job forcing turnovers this season. Utah has 29 takeaways (19 INTs, 10 fumble recoveries) and BYU has 22 (15 INTs, 7 fumble recoveries). in 12 games this season, Utah has lost the turnover battle three times, in a win against Fresno State and losses against USC and UCLA. The Utes also had the same amount as their opponent in games against Oregon State (0) and Arizona (2). Losing the turnover battle in just 25% of games is a surefire way to win a lot of game and that is exactly the amount of games Utah lost. That's a strong indicator that if BYU can win the turnover battle they'll have a great chance to win this game.
What's more important is how they'll do that. Travis Wilson has thrown 10 interceptions this season. That number doesn't seem too bad considering Utah played 12 games. A little less than 1 per game isn't great, but it's solid enough if you have a strong running game. But Wilson missed the game against Fresno State - a game Utah lost the turnover battle oddly enough - which leaves him with 10 INTs in 11 games. He's thrown 298 passes this season, good enough for one pick thrown every 29.8 passes. Again, that is a respectable number but leaves it at about one pick per game if he's hitting 30 passes which he's done 5 games this season. Wilson has thrown multiple INTs in two games this season, four against USC and two against Cal. If BYU can contain the Utah run game with Booker out the Utes will need to rely on Wilson more and that could cause him to make a few throws and give the Cougars the chance to take advantage. BYU is tied for 21st in the country in interceptions and safety Kai Nacua is 5th in the country with six, so you just never know.
Neither team will score more than 20 points
Just like the past few games, I expect to see another low-scoring affair. Utah doesn't have a strong offense and is without its best player on the offensive side of the ball. Based on the two games without Booker, scoring more than 20 points is not going to be easy for Utah. BYU hasn't put a lot of points on the board against Utah in many games this decade. The last 5 games have seen BYU score 13, 21, 10, 16, and 26. That 26 point game was also the last time the Cougars beat the Utes.
Utah and BYU both allow 21.8 points per game so each team scoring less than 20 is not out of the realm of possibility. Though, both teams do score at least 30 points per game with BYU having the higher output at 34.2 points per game. Something is going to have to give this game as I'd be shocked to see both teams or even one team reach its average scoring output. The Utes defense tends to step it up against BYU, particularly in the run game. This could cause some problems for the passing game too as the Utah secondary seems to love press coverage as well. When it all comes down to it, don't expect to see a lot of points from either side.
This is one hard game to predict. Many of the stats suggest that BYU should be able to win, though Utah is a slight favorite. BYU is higher in many offensive categories and comparable in most defensive categories. Utah does have some key injuries as well. But the Utes have played great against the Cougars lately. BYU just hasn't seemed ready to play the past few seasons. This is Bronco's going away party so that could mean Saturday's game is different and he goes out in style. My heart says BYU, my gut says Utah and my head can't decide. I just can't bring myself to pick the Utes so I'm going to say BYU wins 20-17 in a furiously contested game.