Las Vegas Bowl preview: Can Utah top BYU in a surprise Holy War?
No. 22 Utah (9-3) vs. BYU (9-3)
Dec. 19, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Reason to watch
A surprise Holy War! These programs were members of the same conference from 1922 to 2010 and had played every year since 1946 before agreeing to a brief respite in 2014 and 2015…until bowl organizers saw a matchup they couldn’t resist. It’s more than a gimmick game, though: Each team has won nine games. Utah had three players—defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei, linebacker Gionni Paul and defensive back Marcus Williams— named to the All-Pac 12 first team. BYU has freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum, who was as efficient a passer this year as Michigan State’s Connor Cook. This is the rare early bowl season tilt with high quality teams, talent and built-in drama.
Keep an eye on: Utah’s ability to force mistakes and BYU’s tendency to avoid them
The Utes ranked sixth in the nation in turnovers gained, with 29. Williams led the team with five interceptions and Paul was next with four. But the Cougars have done a commendable job holding on to the ball with 15 turnovers lost—only 23 teams nationally were better in that department. Mangum has thrown seven interceptions overall and just one in his last four outings, which featured a combined 145 pass attempts. The freshman signal caller hasn’t seen a defense as proficient at creating havoc as this one, though. It’s usually reductive to say the winner of the turnover battle will win a game, but it might be entirely accurate here.
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Utah’s Tom Hackett has now won back-to-back Ray Guy awards as the nation’s top punter. The Australia native averaged 47.8 yards per boot, with 20 sailing longer than 50 yards and 24 landing inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He’s also perhaps the funniest man in college football, or at least in that conversation, after explaining to ESPN’s Chris Fowler why he is taking on American football with an Aussie Rules football background. “The main reason I’m playing this sport is because deep down I’m fat and I don’t like running very far,” Hackett said. It’s worth tuning in to see replays of that zinger or—if we’re lucky enough—seeing Hackett give another interview after some random zaniness occurs.
Utah slumped toward the end of the season after emerging as a contender to make the College Football Playoff; the Utes 3-3 down the stretch after a 6-0 start. And they won’t have the services of 1,200-yard rusher Devontae Booker for the game because of a torn meniscus in November. Still, it’s BYU that seems even more unsettled following coach Bronco Mendenhall’s surprising departure to take the head coaching gig at Virginia. The players will have only about two weeks to digest their new reality and prepare for another Power 5 conference foe—and they’re 1-3 against such teams this season. It does not appear that BYU is looking in-house for a permanent replacement, which means there may be a bit of a leadership vacuum—a difficult dynamic to navigate in such a short window. For various reasons, neither side is precisely who they were early on, or who they hoped they’d be at the end of the season.