It may not be the sexiest week in college football -- at least to those outside of the state of Utah -- as just two games (Arizona State @ Stanford and Michigan State @ Notre Dame) features two teams from the top 25 in our College Football Power Rankings. However there are several other notable games between two top 45 teams that could ultimately have significant ramifications on conference races, including: Utah State @ USC, Boise State @ Fresno State, Auburn @ LSU, UNC @ Georgia Tech and Missouri @ Indiana. And then there is Utah @ BYU, the most spirited of these games. The "Holy War" features our strongest pick from this group of games and will take center stage as one of the last games of interest to kick off on Saturday. Though we think the game will be competitive, we do not expect too many points.
Utah enters this game at #52 in our College Football Power Rankings after falling to Oregon State at home in overtime (an upset pick we accurately picked, though we got some help from a dropped interception on the game clinching play for the Beavers). The Utes appear balanced overall, ranking #50 offensively and #54 defensively, but that's a little misleading. Utah remains among the better teams in the country at stopping the run. That's very important to note as BYU runs the ball 64.1% of the time.
BYU, which gets an extra week to prepare for this game after an impressive, 40-21, throttling of Texas at home, currently ranks 35th in our Power Rankings. The Cougars have our 79th ranked offense and the third best overall defense in the country. Like Utah, BYU is even better against the run than the pass as the Cougars rank as the 20th most efficient team against the pass and fifth against the run. And like BYU, Utah runs the ball more than it passes at 59.9%.
Despite both teams each scoring 40+ points in their most recent games, these are defensively sound (elite against the run), physical, run-oriented programs who each put a defensive player in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft (Ziggy Ansah for BYU and Star Lotulelei for Utah) and may do so again in 2014 (Kyle Van Noy of BYU is one of the best defensive players in the country). The eyes of the fans and analysts may be on the quarterbacks -- Travis Wilson (Utah) and Taysom Hill (BYU) -- who have both had prolific games in the first three weeks of the season, but NFL scouts and coaches are more likely to be looking on the other side of the ball for talent. Both defenses are better than the offenses they will be facing, especially in this matchup.
To further the overall point, only six of the last 28 games involving BYU and just six of the last 28 games played by Utah have resulted in more than this 61 point total line (technically, that's just 11 of 54 games or a total of 20% of the games played by either team since the start of the 2011 season - when Utah joined the Pac-12).
The low scoring game should keep things competitive, which ultimately yields very little value in either team against-the-spread, yet a better team and home field advantage lead to an expected BYU victory. According to 50,000 games played by the Predictalator, BYU wins over in-state rival Utah 58.1% of the time and by an average score of 28.7-21.3. As seven point favorites, neither team covers the spread with the 52.4% of greater confidence needed to justify a wager at typical -110 odds. However, with just (exactly) 50 points scored on average, the UNDER (61.5) looks strong. The UNDER covers 59.5% of the time in our simulations, warranting a $75 wager from a normal $50 player.