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The big 2013 Fight Hunger Bowl breakdown: The West is the new Southeast

It's hard to stand out in the west these days, and the Fight Hunger Bowl (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will feature two stout teams that got lost in the shuffle. Led by BYU's Kyle Van Noy and Washington's Bishop Sankey, San Francisco will host two high-level squads that just weren't quite as high as others in the time zone.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't the best year to be a pretty good team from the western part of the United States. At least, it wasn't good if you wanted to be recognized.

Of the top 37 teams in the current F/+ rankings, a whopping 11 of them are from either the Pac-12 or now or recently in the Mountain West: Stanford (third), Arizona State (sixth), Oregon (eighth), USC (12th), UCLA (13th), Washington (19th), BYU (26th), Arizona (30th), Utah State (33rd), Utah (34th), and Boise State (37th). If we're comparing regions, the SEC and ACC, two BCS conferences in the most football-fertile area of the country, combined for only 14 in that sample.

Utah put its best product on the field in quite a while, beat Stanford, and still managed to only finish 5-7. USC beat three of the above teams, currently ranks 12th overall, and has four losses.

And there's Washington, of course. Head coach Steve Sarkisian finally broke through the "Seven-win Steve" ceiling and put a strong, top-20 product on the field ... and went 8-4 before leaving to take the USC job.

It's tough to stand out in the West. Washington really didn't do it, and even without a Pac-12 schedule, BYU couldn't really do it either. The Cougars destroyed Texas, Georgia Tech, and Boise State by a combined 54 points, and still finished 8-4 with three road losses (two to Wisconsin and Notre Dame) and a home slip-up to Utah. And with a glut of strong teams on that side of the country, the Fight Hunger Bowl got itself a heck of a matchup.

How they got here

BYU's season to date

BYU is still figuring out life as an independent, but the Cougars certainly put together an intriguing schedule in 2013. The Cougars had road games in the Eastern (Virginia, Notre Dame), Central (Wisconsin, Houston), Mountain (Utah State), and Pacific (Nevada) time zones, and hosted Texas, Utah, Georgia Tech, and Boise State. Building a national brand takes time, effort, and luck, I guess, but BYU is certainly going full-speed with the first two.

The results were ... fine. As mentioned above, BYU did score some big wins, never got blown out (worst losing margin: 10 points), and even got Texas' defensive coordinator fired, but wins still matter, and if the Cougars lose to Washington, they'll end up with either seven or eight wins for the third time in four seasons. That's good, but it doesn't meet the bar that Bronco Mendenhall set from 2006-09, when his squad finished with at least 10 wins, and in the AP top 25, each year.

Washington's season to date

It began in incredibly promising fashion with a 38-6 romp over Boise State. Washington beat Illinois in Chicago, then returned home for an easy 31-13 win over Arizona to move to 4-0 and 15th in the country.

But the quality of the Pac-12 overtook the Huskies in October. They fell three points short at Stanford, gave out in the fourth quarter at home against Oregon, then went down to Tempe and got crushed by Arizona State. (All three of those teams are in the F/+ top 10.)

They won four of five down the stretch to finally get over the seven-win hump, but their timing was poor overall. They chose to break through in the same year that the entire Pac-12 did. And in the end, they still went only 5-4 in conference. And then they lost their head coach to USC. (Not that they didn't hire a pretty impressive replacement...)

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
BYU 8-4 NR 26 47 10 89
Washington 8-4 NR 19 -3 20 21 44
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
BYU Offense 29 69 15 72 74 84 46
Washington Defense 23 3 45 7 72 12 117
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
BYU Offense 5 36 26 41 93 114 78
Washington Defense 70 86 62 108 13 46 13
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Washington Offense 59 24 38 39 21 48 34
BYU Defense 20 19 11 28 23 34 23
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Washington Offense 24 29 5 24 97 60 104
BYU Defense 24 10 15 28 63 92 65
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
BYU Special Teams 44 65 95 73 106 38
Washington Special Teams 52 11 17 104 91 67

BYU's biggest advantages:

BYU's defense is still BYU's defense. Raw numbers can distract you. Last year, BYU allowed 266 yards per game, and in 2013 the Cougars have allowed 384. But while per-play yardage has increased a bit, from 4.4 per play in 2012 to 4.8, the biggest reason for BYU's defensive regression (so to speak) is the fact that the Cougars are facing almost 20 more plays per game this year. BYU went all-in on a hurry-up offense, but with mixed results. The Cougars improved from 28.7 points per game to 31.3, but when they fail, they fail very quickly.

Whereas the BYU defense faced just 60.8 players per game last fall, it's seeing 79.8 this year. There are some big-play glitches here and there, but in the end, despite the pace issues, despite the loss of high Draft pick Ziggy Ansah, and despite the loss of star corner Jordan Johnson to injury before the season, BYU ranked 10th in Def. F/+ in 2012 ... and 10th in 2013.

This is a long way of saying that BYU's defense is still very good and could be capable of making some stops against a lovely, balanced Washington offense that also moves very quickly when it gets the chance. The Cougars hold the advantage in all of the advanced categories above, they stuff the run well, and in case you forgot, Kyle Van Noy is still dressing in a BYU uniform.

You can run on Washington. Washington's defense ranks 45th in Rushing S&P+ and 70th in Adj. Line Yards. The back seven of the Husky defense, led by sticky corners and linebacker Shaq Thompson, is fast and stout, but if BYU can get a push up front and move the chains relatively consistently, the high-octane offense could actually have its intended effect of slowly wearing down the opposing defense.

Jamaal Williams has rushed for 1,202 yards (5.9 per carry), and not including sacks, quarterback Taysom Hill has rushed for 1,416. Both have solid explosiveness, and while Washington's pass rush is outstanding (the Huskies have logged 36 sacks), they have only 31 non-sack tackles for loss.

BYU could be able to move forward and keep Hill in comfortable situations. The BYU passing game has plenty of issues, but a healthy run game could help to solve those issues.

Washington's biggest advantages:

If you can't run on Washington, you're done. Thanks in part to a ferocious pass rush (mostly from end Hau'oli Kikaha) the Huskies rank third in Passing Downs S&P+. Once you are behind schedule, they harass you in the pocket and stick to your receivers. Corners Marcus Peters and Gregory Ducre have combined for 22 defensed passes, and if you can get your hands on both the quarterback and the ball, you're in good shape. (Obvious statements are obvious.)

Despite Hill's mobility, BYU doesn't have many good options on passing downs. Hill has completed only 54 percent of his passes for the season, and while you can get away with that if you have strong explosiveness, BYU has Cody Hoffman (16.2 yards per catch) ... and that's about it. Ross Apo averages 14.6 yards per catch, but with a woeful 44 percent catch rate, and options like Skyler Ridley and J.D. Falslev are are not big-play threats.

If BYU can keep moving the chains with the run and convert on occasional third-and-sixes, the Cougars could be in good shape, both in terms of scoring points and keeping the defense off the field. But if there are more second-and-eights than second-and-fives, BYU's in trouble.

If special teams matters, it's probably a good thing for the Huskies. Washington kicker Travis Coons is 14-for-15 on field goals and nine-for-nine under 40 yards, and his only miss was a block. He is also an effective punter, downing 21 of 56 punts inside opponents' 20-yard lines with 19 overall fair catches.

BYU will probably need some easy scoring opportunities, but if Washington is moving the ball enough for Coons to make some field goals and/or pin BYU deep, the tide should eventually turn in Washington's favor. Sankey really is good enough to hold his own against the Cougar D if his line helps him out a bit, and as long as the game is close enough for special teams and field position to matter, that's a lovely thing for the Huskies.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

It's getting increasingly difficult to emerge on the West Coast, and Washington will undergo some solid transition in 2014 -- not only has Sarkisian left (quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo is the interim for the bowl game, and former Boise State coach Chris Petersen will take over afterward), but quarterback Keith Price is a senior, Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (juniors) are probably gone for the NFL, and three-quarters of the awesome starting secondary is graduating. If Washington wins big, those players will probably be the primary reasons why.

There is a reasonably strong nucleus here (quarterback Cyler Miles, receivers Jaydon Mickens and Damore'ea Stringfellow, Thompson, and most of the front seven), but our opinions of the 2014 Huskies probably won't change based on the final game of 2013. (They should never change based one game, but they do.)

For BYU, a big day from the offense could cause a bit of an overreaction from the field. Hill and Williams are both sophomores, and there is almost no senior presence on the offensive line. (There are seniors at receiver, but aside from Hoffman, new blood would be fine there.)

The defense has some rebuilding to do; seven of the top 12 tacklers will be gone, including Van Noy, safety Daniel Sorensen, and tackling leader Uani 'Unga. The team's offensive improvement could be balanced out by defensive regression, but it's hard to imagine a Mendenhall defense sinking too far.


F/+ Projection: Washington 27, BYU 22
Win Probability: Washington 66%

BYU's defense will give the Cougars a chance, but between special teams and passing-downs defense (and a lack of BYU passing-downs offense), Washington has the advantage overall.

We'll learn a lot by watching how each team runs the ball early. If BYU is struggling to find creases, that's a terrible sign. If Sankey is gashing away, BYU will have to score quite a bit to keep up. Between Sankey and Van Noy, this game features two of college football's best players; the supporting casts are pretty strong, too. This is a pretty high-caliber matchup, even if both teams got lost in the West Coast shuffle a bit in 2013.

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