BYU and San Diego State renew a former conference rivalry in the Poinsettia (8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN), but are the Aztecs going to be able to move the ball against Kyle Van Noy and company? Predictions, keys to the game, players to watch and more below.
5 Players To Watch
Ziggy Ansah and Kyle Van Noy, BYU. On a couple of different occasions last week, I called Utah State's defense the best mid-major defense in the country. If USU doesn't have it, BYU does (to the extent that BYU is a "mid-major," anyway; who knows what the Cougars should be called at this point). Like Utah State, BYU uses an exciting, disciplined 3-4 defense, though the Cougars make a lot more plays behind the line of scrimmage. (Consequently, they also allow a few more big plays than Utah State.) Perhaps the two most enjoyable players to watch on this defense are Ansah (13.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, eight passes broken up) and Van Noy (18.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, five passes broken up). Van Noy made my Heisman column a couple of times with particularly explosive weeks, but Ansah's story is fascinating. A native of Ghana, he walked onto the team in 2010 despite never having played organized football before. Two years later, he is projected as a potential first-round draft pick. These two, along with senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree, monstrous tackle Romney Fuga and others give BYU a wonderfully athletic front seven, one which should give SDSU fits.
Cody Hoffman, BYU. The BYU offense has been hit-or-miss this year, losing a couple of different quarterbacks to injury, handing control of the running game over to a true freshman running back (Jamaal Williams) and ranking just 56th in Off. F/+ for the season. But you cannot blame Hoffman for any struggles. Hoffman has been targeted more than twice as much as any other BYU target and has almost three times more receptions (90) than any other Cougar (No. 2: slot receiver J.D. Falsev, with 33). That he has managed a 70 percent catch rate and 8.8 yards per target is quite impressive considering the attention he gets from opposing defenses.
Leon McFadden, San Diego State. The senior cornerback has been quite a playmaker for the SDSU defense; he has made 52.0 tackles, picked off three passes (returning them for a combined 124 yards and two touchdowns), breaking up 10 passes and forcing a fumble. We should see a fun one-on-one matchup between Hoffman and McFadden.
Adam Muema, San Diego State. San Diego State lost all-everything running back Ronnie Hillman to the Denver Broncos but managed to improve from 73rd to 48th in Off. F/+, thanks in part to Muema's ability to carry the running game in Hillman's absence. The 5'10 sophomore rushed for at least 98 yards in seven games this season, put up 202 yards and a score against San Jose State, and capped the regular season with 255 yards and four touchdowns against Wyoming. Muema and sophomore quarterback Adam Dingwell, who led SDSU to five straight wins in replacing injured starter Ryan Katz, could be the foundation for a series of dangerous SDSU offenses. That said, the Aztecs will struggle to get rolling against the fierce BYU defense.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. It feels right. One thing about conference realignment: It can give us some exciting bowl matchups between former conference mates. Obviously this season's Cotton Bowl (Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma) is the best example of that, but the Poinsettia Bowl also allows us an opportunity to see former rivals face off. SDSU and BYU faced off almost every year for 35 years before BYU went independent. They know each other pretty well.
2. Muema vs. BYU. Adam Muema is one of the nation's most underrated backs, but he is going to find pretty small running lanes against this front seven, if he finds them at all. Only Notre Dame has run the ball effectively on BYU all season. Can SDSU do something Georgia Tech, Oregon State and Boise State couldn't?
3. No seriously, watch Kyle Van Noy. Three or four times per game, the junior makes a play athletic and interesting enough that you will find yourself saying, "Wow, who was that? Oh right, Van Noy."
4. Bonus football. Bonus football!
3 Key Factors
1. Passing downs. When first-and-10 turns into second- or third-and-long, BYU's defense is ferocious. Meanwhile, with a new quarterback and an iffy receiving corps, SDSU tends to go rather conservative once it falls behind schedule, rushing 48 percent of the time on passing downs (10th-most in the country). In other words, if SDSU falls behind schedule, it will likely be punting pretty quickly. Meanwhile, SDSU's defense has the tendency to suffer some passing downs lapses of its own; do that against BYU, and whichever BYU quarterback is playing -- either Riley Nelson or James Lark (right now, it appears it will be Lark) -- will repeatedly find Cody Hoffman for a first down. The matchups are relatively even on standard downs; SDSU will have to pull some rabbits out of its hat on passing downs to win.
2. Can SDSU establish Muema? Muema is underrated, but BYU's defense is tremendous. SDSU will try as hard as it can to establish the run. If the Aztecs can't do it, they probably won't score enough to win, even if the defense is playing well.
3. Turnovers. BYU has a 1-4 record in one-possession games this year -- at 7-5, they are as close to about 10-2 as 6-6 -- and in each of those five games, turnovers has created the final scoring margin. In terms of turnover points, BYU was minus-12.8 points in a three-point loss to Utah, minus-28.0 (!) in a one-point loss to Boise State, minus-3.5 in a three-point loss to Notre Dame, minus-11.1 in a six-point loss to San Jose State and plus-5.5 in a three-point win over Utah State. If either team wins a blowout, it will probably be BYU (the matchups do favor the Cougars for the most part), but the odds are pretty good that we are looking at a tight game. And in a tight game, the team that holds onto the ball better tends to win.
F/+ Pick: BYU by 5.2.
Bill's Pick: BYU by 13. I'm just not sure SDSU can move the ball.
1 Shutdown Fullback
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