Texas Longhorns QB Hudson Card

SDA Week 2: Hawkeyes, Longhorns Building Momentum

It may be a few weeks too early for thoughts of the College Football Playoff, but you can't blame teams such as Iowa and Texas for considering the possibility. While many teams—including conference leaders Ohio State and Oklahoma—struggled with opponents that most saw as easy outs, the Hawkeyes and Longhorns delivered confident statement wins in Week 1. Now, both face tough tests in competitive non-conference rivalries.

For Iowa, the door to an undefeated Big Ten season was blown wide open by the results of college football's opening weekend. Not only did Kirk Ferentz's team crush ranked Indiana 34-6, they saw nearly every division opponent lose (including Northwestern and Wisconsin, expected to be the other top challengers in the West). With a schedule breaking out nicely—from an extra day's rest before a home game against Penn State to a bye week before a visit to Camp Randall Stadium—it's not too difficult to talk yourself into a CFP case.

But Iowa's road to the playoff runs through Ames, where highly-ranked rival Iowa State has been building its own postseason aspirations. The Cyclones' hopes were nearly over before they could really begin as they narrowly escaped FCS Northern Iowa for the second time in three seasons. On paper, you'd expect Iowa to win this game, but like many rivalries, Cy-Hawk is one in which the rest of the season rarely implies much. In the past three meetings alone, we have seen the Cyclones blow winning odds upwards of 90% in 2017 and lose a 2019 game on a muffed punt caused by two teammates running into one another. In the slightly more distant past, Iowa State overcame a 14-3 second-half deficit in 2014 and outdueled their foes in a 2011 triple-overtime showdown. Whatever the outcome, this game will send ripple effects across playoff chases in the Big Ten and Big 12.

While that game won't affect conference standings, it could provide a blueprint on taking down the Cyclones, which teams like Texas will be looking to use. The Longhorns proved the hype around new head coach Steve Sarkisian was no smokeshow with a 38-18 victory over Louisiana. With Oklahoma narrowly escaping Tulane while Iowa State and Oklahoma State eked out one-score wins over FCS opponents, Texas' path to the Big 12 title game cleared up very quickly. Before they can get to the free-for-all in conference play, however, they'll need to take care of business against the remainder of their non-conference slate: Arkansas and Rice, who faced off in Week 1. While the Razorbacks looked shaky at times, they eventually pulled away to defeat the Owls 38-17, backing up an intriguing 2020 improvement under first-year head coach Sam Pittman. They could be just the test Texas needs; we know Sarkisian's group has talent and high upside, but they'll need to steer clear of the upsets that were all too frequent under Tom Herman.

Elsewhere across the nation, Oregon will attempt to pull off an upset of an imperfect Ohio State, Appalachian State looks to drop Miami to 0-2, Texas A&M and Colorado build cases as contenders in tough divisions, and BYU seeks their first win over rival Utah since 2009. A chaotic CFP chase sets up high stakes in a strong lineup of early-season games.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Oregon at Ohio State (-14.5)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Oregon Ohio State
Proj. F/+ 15 3
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 20 15
2020 F/+ 23 24
2020 EPA/pass 14 66
2020 EPA/rush 87 2
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 16 2
2020 F/+ 41 2
2020 EPA/pass 74 6
2020 EPA/rush 81 3

In Week 1, Ohio State survived a surprisingly potent upset bid by Minnesota. Now the Buckeyes are back in Columbus to welcome Oregon from across the country. We have seen that this team, as talented as it is, could be prone to an upset. But with the Ducks coming off a rough 2020 and a nearly disastrous opener against Fresno State, do they have what it takes?

That question revolves around Oregon's best player—and quite possibly the nation's best player outright—defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. The highly touted edge rusher put up the first of many tackles for loss against Fresno State, in the process forcing a pivotal fumble early in an eventual one-score win. But with Thibodeaux injured later in the games, a normally stout Ducks defense surrendered 24 points to the Bulldogs, their worst defensive performance against a non-Power 5 foe since the 2018 opener against Bowling Green. It remains unclear whether he'll return in time for this week's game, but if he doesn't, Oregon's front seven will need to step up in his absence.

The likely leader without Thibodeaux would be precocious freshman Noah Sewell, the younger brother of offensive lineman Penei, who was drafted seventh overall from Oregon earlier this year. In his 2020 debut, Noah racked up 48 tackles, 6.5 of them for loss—but even with Thibodeaux's help in the backfield, the Ducks were unremarkable at best in the trenches, surrendering 2.63 yards per rush at the line (63rd in FBS) and averaging a sack rate of just 4.8% (101st). The group's improvement is hard to gauge this early in the season, but holding Fresno State to -0.44 EPA per rush and sacking quarterback Jake Haener four times is a solid start.

It should go without saying, however, that Ohio State's pass protection is a bit better than the Bulldogs'. The Buckeyes line was formidable last season, leading a rushing attack that generated 3.14 yards of offense up front (sixth overall) and gaining yardage on 87.4% of rushes (eighth). In spite of Justin Fields' impressive scrambling ability, though, the line was unable to hold back the pass rush effectively, surrendering a dismal 8.4% sack rate (103rd). If Thibodeaux is able to play, he has a winnable matchup against the outside of that line.

But the Buckeyes made some adjustments over the offseason, and like Oregon, they may have dealt with some of the weaknesses that made them beatable in 2020. Behind veteran tackle Thayer Munford, Ohio State's ground game clicked against the Golden Gophers, putting up 201 rushing yards on 26 carries. Meanwhile, C.J. Stroud starred in his debut, averaging 13.4 yards per pass and tossing four touchdowns to just one interception—in large part because his offensive line didn't allow a single sack. Once again, qualifiers are in order; the Golden Gophers were among the nation's worst in sack rate last season, managing one on just 3.2% of their plays (119th). Nevertheless, we got a glimpse of what the Buckeyes' offense can do if their line takes care of business, making an already-elite unit better across the board.

Both Oregon and Ohio State showed signs of potential improvement in this clash at the line, but it's difficult to determine how real that progress was. All eyes will be on Stroud and a Buckeyes receiving corps capable of generating explosive plays on a dime, but the Ducks can flip the script by blowing up plays in the backfield if they can get past a retooled offensive line. The winner of this pivotal showdown should emerge with clear title hopes—and the loser could have questions to answer if they're to mount a comeback charge.

Watch for:

  • Can the inexperienced but talented Stroud make plays under pressure if his line is unable to keep the pocket clean?
  • How much can two fascinating secondaries, both rebuilt over the offseason, limit big plays downfield?
  • Can Anthony Brown keep up his progression in an up-and-down career that has landed him as the surprising starting quarterback for the Ducks?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 16.2

Texas A&M (-17) at Colorado—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (FOX)

Overall Texas A&M Colorado
Proj. F/+ 12 59
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 17 59
2020 F/+ 15 58
2020 EPA/pass 33 35
2020 EPA/rush 15 57
When Colorado has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 12 57
2020 F/+ 20 67
2020 EPA/pass 46 98
2020 EPA/rush 39 81

One of the biggest questions of the offseason was how competent Texas A&M would be as Haynes King took over from Kellen Mond under center. But in the season opener against Kent State, the Aggies put forth an offensive style that made King's performance more or less inconsequential. A&M dominated one of the MAC's better teams, despite their quarterback tossing multiple interceptions—which was almost always disastrous in the Mond era, leading to three losses and ugly wins over Arkansas (2018) and Ole Miss (2019). The Aggies turned the ball over a staggering five times, their worst figure in a single game since 2013 against Vanderbilt ... yet, as in that 2013 game, they won comfortably, cruising to a 41-10 victory.

The reason: they leaned heavily on the run game. Behind returning stars Devon Achane (124 yards on 12 carries) and Isaiah Spiller (113 yards on 17 carries), the Aggies rushed for 303 total yards, averaging some 7.4 yards per carry. Texas A&M cleared that total yardage mark just once in 2021, during a 31-20 win over Auburn that demanded plenty of clock management, and they haven't cleared the 7.4 yards per carry mark in a game since the 2018 Gator Bowl win over North Carolina State. Suffice it to say that this run-focused look was an unfamiliar one, even for a team which averaged a solid 205 yards per game on the ground last season.

That performance is especially remarkable given how much the Aggies replaced on the line. After a decent but unexceptional 2020 showing, four of the five starters graduated, leaving All-America offensive guard Kenyon Green as the sole experienced returner. Even Green shifted to the outside, leaving A&M with precisely zero starters playing the same position in 2021 as they head the previous season. Head coach Jimbo Fisher indicated over the offseason that he thought the new line might be even better than the old one, but that's the kind of coach speak which usually gets brushed aside.

Well, here we are in 2021, and the Aggies' OL helped produce a staggering 3.92 line yards per carry. Yes, it was against Kent State, which wasn't particularly great on the line last year, but Texas A&M relying on their run game against anybody is an unusual sight. The resulting offense hummed along nicely against the Golden Flashes, but doing so against Colorado is a different matter. The Buffaloes gave up 181 yards per game on the ground (82nd nationally), which looks iffy until you compare it to Kent State's dreadful 262 (fifth-worst). This run defense might not be good, strictly speaking, but it'll be a much more competent opponent for the Aggies. Simply overrunning their opponent won't be a possibility here.

Colorado's front seven is built around fifth-year linebacker Nate Landman, who sets the scheme for the defense from the Mike position. Landman is a versatile piece, offering strength up front (two 100-tackle seasons, 36 career tackles for loss, 10 career sacks) and a threat in coverage (seven passes defensed and three interceptions in the last three years). While the Buffaloes were average in overall run defense, the line dominated opposing running backs, allowing just 2.23 yards per carry up front (15th) and a minuscule 42.9% power success rate (second). That would make Texas A&M, which built its attack around pure physicality in Week 1, potentially prone to an upset.

You have to figure A&M is the favorite in this cross-country matchup, but they'll likely roll out a very different look from the one they showed against Kent State. Of course, there are few coaches you'd prefer to orchestrate such a shift over Fisher, but changing things up so drastically without much confidence in the passing game could be dangerous. The Aggies had little worry in their opener despite a questionable performance by King, but that's unlikely to be the case against an explosive, aggressive Buffaloes defense.

Watch for:

  • Can King clean up the turnovers and settle into the offense, opening up the passing attack?
  • As for the Buffaloes' offense, which saw 49 carries to just 15 passes, can they adjust to match a tenacious run defense by the Aggies?
  • Will penalties tell the story for two teams which have had questions of on-field discipline lately?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas A&M by 11.8

Iowa at Iowa State (-4.5)—Saturday, 4:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Iowa Iowa State
Proj. F/+ 9 8
When Iowa has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 56 19
2020 F/+ 53 10
2020 EPA/pass 78 60
2020 EPA/rush 60 15
When Iowa State has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 3 7
2020 F/+ 4 14
2020 EPA/pass 11 34
2020 EPA/rush 17 25

Iowa's 34-6 win over Indiana in Week 1 was indeed a dominant performance, but don't let the final score mislead you as to the nature of that win. The Hawkeyes were just as much a defensive powerhouse as ever; quarterback Spencer Petras went just 13-for-27 for 145 yards and didn't pass for a single touchdown, while his defense took two interceptions to the house. Until the midpoint of the game, when Iowa kicked a field goal to make the score 31-3, those pick-sixes had provided half of their scoring.

It was a quintessential Kirk Ferentz win, even if those 34 points look out of place on his résumé of gritty victories. Bill Connelly put it best, calling the Hawkeyes "the best a team can possibly be ... with absolute dreck for a passing game." Making Michael Penix Jr. look like one of the worst passers in football is a difficult feat, even on one of his off days. And the schedule doesn't ease up for that secondary and pass rush; next up is Iowa State's Brock Purdy.

The Cyclones faced uncharacteristic problems in their opener—what else is new?—but Purdy was one of the relative bright spots for a tepid Iowa State offense. The senior regressed in both 2019 and 2020, dropping from 10.2 yards per attempt in his debut to 8.4, then to 7.5. All the while, the Cyclones have grown more talented elsewhere and improved on the whole, climbing from 8-5 in Purdy's first season to 9-3 last year. They earned a No. 7 start in the AP Poll, their best ever by a wide margin—in spite of, not because of, Purdy's development.

He's still been a decent quarterback, of course; plenty of teams would happily take a passer averaging 7.5 yards per attempt with touchdowns more than doubling his interceptions. While he hasn't lived up to the towering standard of his early days, Purdy has grown more consistent, and Iowa State has been able to build an offense around him that has produced through the air and on the ground. More of the same was expected this year, but against Northern Iowa, that run game sputtered out of the gate. The Cyclones' 25 running back carries—23 of them by last year's breakout star, Breece Hall—went for just 78 yards, 3.1 apiece.

Purdy stepped up to keep Iowa State afloat, though, completing 21 of his 26 passes for 7.6 yards per attempt. His efficiency can be knocked, and the Cyclones' one-dimensional attack struggled to generate critical plays, as they went just 5-for-14 on third downs. But Iowa State survived to maintain their playoff hopes, and Purdy was the primary reason they did, generating over 70% of the team's yardage on their four scoring drives. The Hawkeyes' terrifying secondary will provide a much tougher opponent, but this passing attack should have enough explosivity to give Iowa State a multifaceted offense.

With Iowa's defense looking as dominant as ever, having held Indiana to -0.28 EPA per rush and -0.40 per pass, it'll take all the Cyclones have to come out ahead in a huge showdown. Forget bragging rights; playoff hopes hinge on the outcome of the biggest Cy-Hawk game in history.

Watch for:

  • Will Iowa State's run game return to form against a formidable Hawkeyes front seven?
  • Can Matt Campbell employ his unusual, tight end-heavy offense to outsmart a wily Iowa defense?
  • Can the Hawkeyes get the third- and fourth-down stops they need to keep Iowa State in check?

FEI Outright Pick: Iowa by 0.4

Texas (-7) at Arkansas—Saturday, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Texas Arkansas
Proj. F/+ 16 71
When Texas has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 13 61
2020 F/+ 13 63
2020 EPA/pass 42 47
2020 EPA/rush 34 93
When Arkansas has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 32 72
2020 F/+ 34 56
2020 EPA/pass 54 50
2020 EPA/rush 20 83

The jury's still out on whether the Sam Pittman hire will carry Arkansas back to the upper half of the SEC, but the early returns have been promising. After Chad Morris spent two years dropping every single SEC game he coached, the Razorbacks turned to one of the most experienced offensive line coaches in football. Over the past quarter-century or so, Pittman has been to Cincinnati, Norman, Kalamazoo, Columbia, Lawrence, DeKalb, Chapel Hill, Knoxville, Fayetteville, and Athens—a remarkable run that finally landed him a spot as Arkansas' head coach. In his first season, Pittman delivered, winning three SEC games and losing another to Auburn on an officiating error.

It was an encouraging season, but there are reasons for skepticism. For one thing, Florida transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks was pivotal to the Razorbacks' rise, averaging nearly 9 yards per pass as he led Arkansas from 99th to 52nd in passing yards per game. With Franks now with the Atlanta Falcons, the new starter is K.J. Jefferson, whose offense mustered just seven first-half points against Rice before waking up and finishing the game with 31 unanswered. There's potential here, but Arkansas can't afford to be inconsistent against an opportunistic Texas team.

On the other hand, the Razorbacks' run game offers an interesting wrinkle. Arkansas was mediocre on the ground last year, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry (89th) and 151 yards per game (75th), but the group looked much better against Rice last week, putting up 245 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, and four touchdowns. Arkansas reached those marks a combined four times in 2020, three of them coming in their best offensive showing of the season (48 points in a narrow loss to Missouri). Behind Trelon Smith, the heart of the run game and an occasional passing target in 2020, as well as a remarkable dual-threat performance by Jefferson (9.9 yards per carry, two touchdowns), Arkansas generated 0.11 EPA per run against the Owls, a massive improvement on last season.

Things won't be so easy against Texas. The line stepped up to force Louisiana, which ran the football around 57% of the time last year, into a game plan structured around passing. Suffice it to say that, against superstars like D'Shawn Jamison and DeMarvion Overshown in the backfield, going all-out through the air probably wasn't the best scheme. But with the rushing attack averaging a mere 2.6 yards per carry, they didn't have much choice, and Texas picked apart a fairly talented Cajuns receiving corps to win comfortably. With a passing game far less potent than Louisiana's, the Razorbacks will need to find a way past the dominant Longhorns line.

When Texas takes over on offense, they'll look to target Arkansas' safeties in the passing game. With experienced stars like Montaric Brown and LaDarrius Bishop at cornerback, the Razorbacks' defensive back unit is strongest at the edge. Fortunately for Texas, they just took on a similar secondary and dismantled them up the middle, as Hudson Card went 9-for-11 with two touchdowns against the heart of Louisiana's backfield. If the Razorbacks hope to surprise Texas on this side of the ball, some unorthodox moves—perhaps shifting Brown to safety, the position at which he was originally recruited—might be in order. Stunning the Longhorns is a tall task, but Pittman and an improving Arkansas squad could make things interesting.

Watch for:

  • Can the Razorbacks' run defense step up to limit superstars Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson at the line?
  • Can Jefferson continue his progression and balance Arkansas' run game with a significant passing threat?
  • Will receivers like Treylon Burks and Tyson Morris start to open up more explosive plays, or will the Longhorns' secondary continue to impress?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 12.8

Appalachian State at Miami (-8.5)—Saturday, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)

Overall Appalachian State Miami
Proj. F/+ 30 18
When Appalachian State has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 51 22
2020 F/+ 35 44
2020 EPA/pass 37 77
2020 EPA/rush 10 76
When Miami has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 20 25
2020 F/+ 19 26
2020 EPA/pass 6 28
2020 EPA/rush 86 78

Miami, like many teams, has a coaching culture that could justifiably be called odd. Since Larry Coker's 2006 firing, the tenures of the Hurricanes' head coaches have grown progressively shorter. Coker lasted six years before a dip to 7-6 ended his time at the U; Randy Shannon made it through just four before a down season doomed him; Al Golden was ousted on the heels of a 58-0 loss halfway through his fifth season; and Mark Richt retired after a brief three-year stint. Miami is still a preferable seat to, say, Nebraska, but the expectations on the shoulders of a coach here are unenviable.

After a horrific 6-7 debut season capped by late losses to Florida International and Louisiana Tech, Manny Diaz has wrangled the temperamental Hurricanes back to something resembling respectability. Miami went 8-3 last year, finishing 22nd in the AP Poll, but that record included blowout losses to Clemson (42-17) and North Carolina (62-26). Few expected the Hurricanes to put up much of a fight against top-ranked Alabama in the season opener this year, but perhaps in his third season with a talented roster, it was hoped that the crushing defeats would be no more.

Well, the Crimson Tide walloped Miami soundly, going up 41-3 at one point and eventually winning 44-13. What exactly that means for the future of Diaz, as well as for the Canes in general, is an exercise left to the reader. Whatever the case, a win over Appalachian State—a good Sun Belt team, but precisely the kind that Miami should out-talent to beat—is critical to right the ship. The passing game, for both the Canes and the Mountaineers, could decide things.

D'Eriq King was uncharacteristically shaky against Alabama, though in fairness, there are worse teams to look bad against. The sixth-year senior tossed two interceptions and averaged just 6.0 yards per attempt, failing to lead a touchdown drive until the Tide were already up by 38. It's hard to take too much from that performance, though, especially considering how comparable it was to his 2020 Clemson game (12-for-28, 121 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT). You'd expect him to rebound against any other calibre of opponent.

But Appalachian State might be an exception. The Mountaineers secondary dominated every quarterback unlucky enough to face them last season, surrendering more than 205 yards just twice and allowing more than two passing touchdowns just once. They were among five teams to hold their opponents under 6.0 yards per attempt and among fourteen to average 1.4 or more interceptions per game. Perhaps most impressively, the Mountaineers were the first team in all of football to force a sub-50% completion rate since 2018, and the first in the Sun Belt to do so since 2013. Shemar Jean-Charles' ridiculous 16 pass breakups led the way, and Appalachian State will have to replace his production, but other stars like Kaiden Smith, Shaun Jolly, and Ryan Huff return for 2020, and the group adds impact transfers from Stanford (Stuart Head) and Wisconsin (Madison Cone). It's little surprise they held East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers to 7.4 yards per pass and a 55% completion rate, though King will undoubtedly prove a tougher foe.

On the flip side, the Mountaineers' clearest offensive concern lies under center. Appalachian State has replaced the rock-solid Zac Thomas with former Clemson and Duke quarterback Chase Brice, who has hardly been the model of consistency across his career. There's reason to believe Brice's miserable 2020, in which he averaged 6.2 yards per attempt and tossed five more interceptions than touchdowns, was in part the result of playing for one of the worst teams in FBS, and the Mountaineers should provide a significant upgrade to the offense around him. Indeed, Brice had a solid debut in Boone, completing 20 of 27 passes for 259 yards (9.6 per attempt), two touchdowns, and one interception. On the other hand, that showing came against East Carolina, whose opponents averaged a 65.3% completion rate, 246 yards, 7.5 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, and one interception last year, so take it with a grain of salt.

It's unclear how good or bad King and Brice can truly be, but their showdown this week could reveal more of their trajectories and set the tone for key seasons. On paper, the Hurricanes should have an edge, but Appalachian State is one of the most reliably risky Group of 5 teams for a power program to take on; in 2019, the last time they faced Power 5 competition, the Mountaineers beat both North Carolina and South Carolina. The Hurricanes will be on upset watch in an enthralling quarterback duel.

Watch for:

  • Can Miami come out of the gate with momentum despite their dispiriting loss to Alabama last week?
  • Will a dynamic Mountaineers run game, led by record-shattering running back Camerun Peoples, take over the offensive attack?
  • Will Appalachian State head coach Shawn Clark, previously their offensive line coach, maintain a strong performance up front despite significant losses from last year?

FEI Outright Pick: Appalachian State by 0.2

Utah (-7) at BYU—Saturday, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Utah BYU
Proj. F/+ 19 34
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 44 64
2020 F/+ 68 11
2020 EPA/pass 82 50
2020 EPA/rush 71 22
When BYU has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 8 16
2020 F/+ 17 3
2020 EPA/pass 18 4
2020 EPA/rush 10 7

A little over a decade ago, Utah and BYU shared a conference. The Holy War, fueled by geographical proximity and pure bad blood, was among football's best. Then, in 2011, BYU became independent, Utah joined the Pac-12, and just like that, the longest era of dominance in the history of the rivalry began. Some of the Utes' wins have been close, like the near-comeback by the Cougars in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl, the dramatic two-point stop in 2016, and the 20-point Utah comeback in 2018. Others have been blowouts, with final margins of 54-10 (2011) and 30-12 (2019). But perhaps no game in that streak was more important than this one, the 101st meeting between the in-state rivals.

Utah is favored to extend their winning streak to 10 games, which would break a tie for the longest such run by either team. But BYU has been right there with the Utes throughout most of the last decade, and while it's hard to say for sure, most of the Cougars' fans would agree that last year's team was robbed of a victory by the Pac-12's lost non-conference slate. This group, primarily because of Zach Wilson's departure to the NFL, is likely a step back, but it should still be a competitive game.

BYU's biggest losses, however, arguably come on the other side of the ball. Switching from Wilson to new quarterback Jaren Hall will be a step down, but replacing the lost defensive talent from 2020 requires a radical shift to the Cougars' approach. BYU held opponents to a mere 15.3 points per game last year, a huge improvement from the 25.5 they allowed the previous season, but the underlying numbers aren't quite as exceptional, and it's worth remembering that the strength of schedule was lacking to say the least. Still, it was an impressive season, and the leap was a crowning achievement for defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. With tons of veteran talent spread across his unit, Tuiaki leaned into his roster's experience, going all-in on hybrid DL/LB and LB/DB concepts.

The resulting defense was a work of art. The freeform alignment not only allowed BYU to shift their look on a dime in reaction to opponent's offensive schemes, it also let the Cougars drop back into coverages with as few as three linemen once they had a comfortable lead, which did wonders for their health and conditioning up front. (Not only does that alignment reduce the number of players in the trenches, it also encourages opponents to feed the run game, reducing the number of plays in which BYU could either lose their lead or face injury concerns.)

But the Cougars are losing a lot of the players who made that coach's paradise possible, including the core of the line (Bracken El-Bakri, Zac Dawe, and Khyiris Tonga) as well as crucial hybrid players such as Isaiah Kaufusi, Zayne Anderson, and Troy Warner. That being said, BYU does bring back some players from last season, particularly in a loaded linebacker group led by Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili. It remains to be seen how much they'll test the waters in shifting their alignment against Utah, but expect to see some trickery from the Cougars in the backfield.

Utah has the tools to punish BYU if they open up the run game too much, though. After the tragic death of 2020 star Ty Jordan, the Utes' running back room was left without a leader, but they have rebuilt around a pair of transfers. Tavion Thomas, who totaled 693 yards for Cincinnati across 2018 and 2019, impressed immediately against Weber State, rushing for 107 yards, 8.9 yards per carry, and two touchdowns. T.J. Pledger, fresh off a 451-yard season for Oklahoma, only went for 10 yards on two carries against the Wildcats, but he should step up as one of the primary rushers for Utah in this game. Overall, the group averaged 6.1 yards per run despite taking some 31 carries in the opener.

BYU will have to put up a physical attack up front to limit that attack, and they have a defense capable of adjusting to match that need. But holding Utah down on the ground is hard for anybody, let alone a team swapping out all three primary linemen. If the Cougars are to deliver their first victory in this rivalry since 2009, their versatility and experience in the front seven could be crucial.

Watch for:

  • After decent but unexciting first games, which quarterback will rise to the occasion: BYU's Hall or Utah's Charlie Brewer?
  • Can the Utes target BYU's safeties up the middle, where they lose some key defensive leaders from 2020?
  • If the Holy War goes down to the wire, as it so often has, can BYU defeat their demons and eke out a close win?

FEI Outright Pick: BYU by 0.0

FEI Picks: Week 2

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick ATS Preston's Pick ATS
at Ohio State -14.5 Oregon Ohio State Ohio State Oregon
Texas A&M -17 at Colorado Texas A&M Colorado Colorado
at Iowa State -4.5 Iowa Iowa Iowa Iowa
Texas -7 at Arkansas Texas Texas Texas
at Miami -8.5 Appalachian State Appalachian State Appalachian State Appalachian State
Utah -7 BYU BYU BYU BYU

FEI's picks ATS in 2020: 47-40-1

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 3-3

Comments

5 comments, Last at 13 Sep 2021, 7:55pm

1 Ohio State O-line

It's a bit of an exaggeration to say Ohio State struggled to beat Minnesota.  Ohio State figured things out at halftime, and Minnesota never had the ball with a chance to tie or go ahead in the 4th quarter.  Not a blowout, but not a nailbiter, either.  This was not a cupcake game against an overmatched MAC team.

"Behind veteran tackle Thayer Munford ..."  While Munford played LT in 2020, he shifted to LG in 2021, and Nicholas Petit-Frere moved from RT to LT.  These moves occurred to get Dawand Jones on the field at RT (he is too big for guard), as Ohio State felt this put its 5 best O-linemen on the field.

I expect Ohio State to win comfortably over Oregon and cover.

4 Bad performance

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

Yeah.  I didn't expect Ohio State's defense to play that poorly.  It gave up 3 TDs on basically the same play.