Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you enjoy your day of turkey and family and friends... and maybe some smack talk with said family and friends if they happen to be on the other side of the BYU-Utah rivalry.
Unlike last year, there aren't BCS implications for either team this time around. That said, both the Utes and the Cougars are 9-2 and coming off big wins against conference opponents. BYU handled Air Force pretty easily last Saturday and the Utes destroyed San Diego State. TCU is clearly the cream of the MWC for 2009, but the second tier isn't that bad.
One thing that continues to strike me about this rivalry is how ridiculously close the final scores have been over the last 13 years. In fact, the margin of victory for the winner has been seven points or less 10 times over that time span: one BYU blowout (1996) and two Utah blowouts in 2004 and 2008. All three of those teams were among the elite in college football at the time.
Bottom line, unless one team is transcendentally great, this is a dogfight. And in 2009, neither team is transcendentally great. Get out your heart meds, because this one is going to be a nail-biter once again.
Last year the game was lost by Max Hall's complete and utter meltdown. The defense played about as well as could be expected, but every time they got a big stop, Hall threw a pick. It was amazing.
I'm not convinced things are all that different this year. Max Hall has had some great games as a senior, but I don't see him making the throws he should as a third-year starter. Utah should be able to sit on the throws he can make and dare him to try and squeeze the ball into areas he's not comfortable with.
BYU's defense is pretty good against the run and terrible against the pass. Can Utah's Jordan Wynn find open receivers often enough to keep the safeties in the secondary and away from run support? It's apparent that unless they are facing terrible, terrible passers in the vein of Air Force last week, BYU's secondary will give up big pass yards. And even though Wynn is a freshman and doesn't have that much experience, that doesn't seem to matter all that much. See: Brett Ratliff in 2005.
Utah might even use Terrance Cain for his running ability as a way to mix it up against BYU's slow defense. Eddie Wide is a typical Utah back: strong, pretty fast and a hard hitter. He'll get his yards if the passing game is moving the ball at all.
The one difference for BYU on offense this year is Dennis Pitta. He was injured last season, and only caught two balls for 33 yards against Utah. This yeah he's a Mackey finalist and seems to catch everything thrown anywhere near him. If he can find space underneath the safeties, expect Hall to find him and have a big day. Harvey Unga is reportedly injured and limping around right now, but he looked great against Air Force last week, so I expect he'll be able to handle 15 to 20 carries on Saturday.
Can Utah get to Hall? Will BYU's defense be able to make stops when they need to? These are the factors that matter most, in my opinion. I expect a high-scoring game with BYU coming out on top in a squeaker.
Just like last year, I'm holding a prediction contest. Post your final score prediction in the comments section, along with how many yards and touchdowns Max Hall will throw for Saturday. The winner gets a $10 Amazon.com gift card.