Cincinnati Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder

SDA Week 3: Cincinnati Glimpses Playoff Possibility

Perhaps it's just the result of a long two years since the last full non-conference schedule, but the first two weeks of this college football season have been among the most dramatic in recent memory. Georgia took down Clemson in one of the biggest kickoff games ever, while FCS teams pulled FBS upsets on an unprecedented scale—six in Week 1 alone. Things didn't let up from there as Iowa and Oregon established themselves in the playoff chase with blockbuster wins. Meanwhile, USC limped out of the gate in a blowout loss to Stanford that brought a long-overdue close to Clay Helton's tenure as head coach.

The result is a sport in chaos, at least for now. Longstanding titans such as Alabama and Ohio State are still fairly likely to claim conference titles and playoff spots, but they have stronger challengers than usual: Georgia, which has a key choice at quarterback after Stetson Bennett IV showed out against Alabama-Birmingham; and Iowa, with a fairly inept passing game but a crucial, crushing defense. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 suddenly appears in position to stop falling over itself and pave a path to the CFP for one team, with USC and Washington in disarray. Oregon still has a long road to that goal, with solid teams such as UCLA and Utah looming later in the season, but the league's annual self-inflicted decline in the playoff picture is behind schedule.

The lineup of surprise contenders goes beyond such teams, however. With many of the usual suspects showing uncharacteristic struggles—Clemson and Ohio State losing, Oklahoma escaping Tulane, and Notre Dame nearly losing to both Florida State and Toledo—there might just be a playoff opening for a team from the Group of Five. Cincinnati is the clear leader in that category, coming off an undefeated regular season and narrow loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The Bearcats opened 2021 as one of the highest-ranked Group of 5 teams in the CFP era and they have backed up that ranking early, having outscored Miami-Ohio and Murray State a combined 91-21.

The latter win looked uncomfortable at halftime, true, but all will be forgiven if Cincinnati can come away with two wins in the next two games. This pivotal stretch of the season is what sets the Bearcats apart from similar playoff hopefuls of the past: this Saturday, they travel to Indiana; then, two weeks later, they visit Notre Dame. A perfect season with two quality Power 5 wins would provide the best case any Group of 5 team has made, and the early turmoil in the standings raises Cincinnati's longshot odds still further. Once again, there's a lot of work to do between now and Selection Sunday, but this season has produced enough chaos that anything is possible.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Cincinnati (-4) at Indiana—Saturday, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Cincinnati Indiana
Proj. F/+ 20 27
When Cincinnati has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 43 30
2020 F/+ 31 14
2020 EPA/pass 21 17
2020 EPA/rush 55 78
When Indiana has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 6 39
2020 F/+ 3 48
2020 EPA/pass 1 68
2020 EPA/rush 40 89

While the Bearcats offense, led by star quarterback Desmond Ridder (11.4 yards per attempt, six touchdowns, one interception) and workhorse running back Jerome Ford (234 yards, 7.8 yards per carry, four touchdowns), has been electric in their early games, the defense should lead the way. Six Cincinnati defenders have already logged at least nine tackles, led by one of the best linebacker groups in the nation. Darrian Beavers and Deshawn Pace have torn up opposing lines on the edge, while Joel Dublanko has kept opponents honest up the middle.

Cincinnati's greatest defensive strength, though, is in the backfield. Against Miami-Ohio, the Bearcats surrendered a completion on less than a third of AJ Mayer's passes, one of just four games since the start of 2020 in which an FBS quarterback had such a low rate on at least 25 attempts. Granted, Mayer was also responsible for one of the other three, so that's not an unparalleled feat; nevertheless, it was yet another shutdown performance from a secondary that has made a habit of such games. Cincinnati held their foes to an average of -0.3 EPA per pass last year, the best mark in the nation, as opposing passers averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt and tossed 1.7 interceptions per game, the second-highest average forced by any team.

The one group that picked off even more passes per game, with an absurd (and, let's be honest, somewhat unsustainable) 2.1? That would be Indiana, which had a similarly terrifying pass defense. However, the Hoosiers have taken a clear step back this season while the Bearcats have continued to surge. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras wasn't exactly great in Indiana's blockbuster opener, with just 5.4 yards per pass, but he managed to avoid tossing an interception while his opposite number, the much-lauded Michael Penix Jr., threw three in a blowout loss. It was a similar story in Week 2 as Idaho quarterback Mike Beaudry likewise averaged 5.4 yards per attempt but managed to steer clear of turnovers (though in this case, Indiana cruised to a 56-14 win). The returns through the first two weeks of 2021 from last season's most prolific pick-producers: nonexistent.

But unsustainability goes both ways, and the Hoosiers dealt with some brutal luck in that narrative-inducing loss against Iowa. When you break up six passes in a game, you expect maybe one of those breakups to turn into an interception. Individual player talent skews the odds somewhat, but not as much as you might think; almost every defender with any significant volume averages an interception on about 22% of broken-up passes. The rest is more or less up to turnover luck, so you're often hoping fate smiles upon you. That day at Kinnick, it did not; the Hawkeyes came away with three interceptions on six breakups, two returned for pick-sixes, while the Hoosiers got naught but a few incompletions for their three breakups.

That hurts, but what does it mean going forward? Well, if the past is any indication, Indiana should regress to the mean somewhat. Not to two-interception territory, in all likelihood—after all, of the top four in breakups last year, Jamar Johnson is with the Broncos and Devon Matthews was in the hospital until recently. But several key pieces of the Hoosiers' core are still around, and they should make plays against that dynamic Cincinnati passing attack. The Bearcats will likely emphasize deep throws even more than they already have; Ridder is 3-for-10 for 67 yards when targeting receivers between 10 and 30 yards downfield, but 4-for-4 for 214 yards beyond 30 yards. Considering Indiana has bigger questions at safety than at cornerback, expect Cincinnati to go all-in on this potential mismatch.

This game will likely be decided through the air. Both teams had solid-but-unexceptional running back groups in 2020, and while the early returns on those run games have been markedly different, the Bearcats' Ford will likely come back to earth while the Hoosiers' Stephen Carr will likely continue to improve. On the ground, both Cincinnati and Indiana are more or less known quantities. But when it comes to their passing games, as well as to two exceptional secondaries, chaos and uncertainty abound.

Watch for:

  • Ford and Carr do have the capability to take over this game; can either put on a show and change the game plan?
  • How will Penix bounce back after that frustrating outing against Iowa?
  • Can Indiana win (or, at least, avoid losing) in the trenches against Cincinnati's tough offensive and defensive lines?

FEI Outright Pick: Cincinnati by 5.8

Virginia Tech at West Virginia (-3)—Saturday, 12 p.m. (FS1)

Overall Virginia Tech West Virginia
Proj. F/+ 36 42
When Virginia Tech has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 34 35
2020 F/+ 27 15
2020 EPA/pass 24 16
2020 EPA/rush 24 31
When West Virginia has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 49 75
2020 F/+ 59 77
2020 EPA/pass 55 67
2020 EPA/rush 115 108

Virginia Tech's opening win over North Carolina remains fairly baffling. The Hokies were outpassed (208 to 169) and outrushed (146 to 127), didn't dominate the penalty battle, and came away with just one more turnover than the Tar Heels. It's easy to focus on Sam Howell's three interceptions—on eight total pass breakups, compared to just one by North Carolina—but the third-down battle was just as critical. Despite being outgained by 60 yards, Virginia Tech kept relatively even in total first downs (17 to 18) and excelled on third downs, converting six of 13 while North Carolina converted just two of 10 (as well as two of three attempts on fourth down).

It's debatable how much of the gap between overall and third-down performance is down to luck and clustering. In any case, such situations weren't a strength for the Hokies in 2020; North Carolina was better at converting offensive third downs (46.6% to 38.1%) and preventing opponents from doing likewise (38.2% to 40.5%). But Virginia Tech turned that narrative on its head in Week 1, and the reason they did so was decidedly uncharacteristic: they passed.

The team Justin Fuente took over after 2015 already liked to run, ranking 38th in FBS with a 56% rushing rate in Frank Beamer's last season, and his successor built the offense around that tendency. The Hokies have ranked 36th, 33rd, 75th, 11th, and ninth in rushing rate under Fuente's leadership, with a physical offensive line that has become one of college football's best. Despite that overemphasis on the run game, Virginia Tech has remained efficient on the ground, ranking ninth with 5.6 yards per carry last season. In spite of that reliability, however, the Hokies leaned on quarterback Braxton Burmeister against North Carolina.

True, the box score still displays a typical array of Virginia Tech stats. They ran 43 times to just 19 passing attempts, after all. But Fuente was often willing to seek bigger plays through the air, even with a relatively inexperienced quarterback. Virginia Tech had a perfect 100% success rate on passing first downs, and Burmeister's 7.7 EPA per pass led all players. The Hokies averaged over 14 yards on his 12 completions, half of which went for first downs.

Virginia Tech's confidence in their quarterback will be tested against a tenacious pass defense from West Virginia. The Mountaineers' secondary had a banner year in 2020, dropping from 7.8 yards allowed per pass to 6.2 despite facing the 24th-highest passing rate of any team. But two of the three defenders who broke up five or more passes in that group—Dreshun Miller (31 tackles, eight breakups, one interception) and Tykee Smith (61 tackles, eight TFL, five breakups, two interceptions)—transferred to SEC teams. The depleted lineup, led by safeties Alonzo Addae and Sean Mahone, could only watch as Taulia Tagovailoa completed 26 of 36 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns.

It's debatable how Burmeister stacks up against Tagovailoa, but there's little doubt he has the capacity for a career day against West Virginia. However, we shouldn't jump to conclusions and assume the Mountaineers' secondary has regressed completely; they did, after all, lead a shutout of Long Island by surrendering just 3 yards per pass against Sharks passer Camden Orth. It's hard to conclude much based on one game against a difficult-to-evaluate Maryland quarterback and another against an FCS team, but it's reasonable to expect that the West Virginia pass defense will find a match in Burmeister. The results could chart the trajectory of key seasons for beleaguered coaches in the Appalachians.

Watch for:

  • Will West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege be able to avoid the costly errors that played a factor in the Mountaineers' loss to Maryland?
  • Are running back Leddie Brown's struggles against Long Island (31 yards on 15 carries for 2.1 yards per carry) reason for concern?
  • Can Raheem Blackshear fill the rushing void left by running back Khalil Herbert and quarterback Hendon Hooker in the Hokies' backfield?

FEI Outright Pick: Virginia Tech by 4.7

Alabama (-14.5) at Florida—Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Alabama Florida
Proj. F/+ 1 7
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 1 25
2020 F/+ 1 42
2020 EPA/pass 2 92
2020 EPA/rush 17 97
When Florida has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 5 6
2020 F/+ 8 5
2020 EPA/pass 43 10
2020 EPA/rush 54 44

In the five years since 2016, Alabama has lost five times. The Crimson Tide's absurd dominance of college football isn't much of a revelation, but it's a useful reminder that beating this team requires a near-perfect blueprint. Two weeks ago, Miami's game plan was to lean on defense and hope D'Eriq King could put in a career performance. That kind of incomplete team simply doesn't beat Alabama (at least, not outside of Thanksgiving weekend).

Florida should put up more of a fight than Miami did, at least on paper. The Crimson Tide held a Hurricanes rushing attack led by Cam'Ron Harris in check, but the Gators have a far more potent ground game. With quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson totaling 430 yards across two games, Florida has averaged 0.342 EPA per rush, ranking 13th in the nation. Their 381.5 yards on the ground per game are comfortably first overall, and while they probably won't sustain that level of production, the Gators have put together an intriguing offense that should look very different from the one that put up 46 on Alabama in last year's SEC Championship Game.

Can Florida be that good? The answer may lie in the difficult decision Dan Mullen must make regarding Jones and Richardson. The former, a four-star back in the class of 2018, has seen occasional action as a backup to Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, and he has finally taken over the starting role this year. However, Jones has struggled this season, throwing four picks in 49 passes after just one in the 86 attempts he took before 2021. The heir to Trask's throne is averaging just 5.4 yards per attempt, and Florida has taken a conspicuous look at their other option during this stretch.

Richardson hasn't actually been on the field all too often this year, but he has made his appearances count, completing six of 11 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. That includes a 3-for-3, 152-yard, two-touchdown performance last week against South Florida, accompanied by 115 yards on four carries. The dual-threat quarterback has lived up to that reputation, averaging a staggering 25 yards per carry on 11 rushing attempts this season. He'd rank second in the SEC with 275 rushing yards, but doesn't have enough touches to qualify. Nevertheless, his lurking talent was more than apparent at Raymond James Stadium.

Jones has been named the starter against Alabama, but it's expected that both quarterbacks will see the field. Perhaps the bigger question is how the Tide will look to limit the impact of this high-upside duo. The Alabama defensive line was an unusual weakness last year, allowing 2.61 line yards per carry (56th in FBS) and producing just a 6.8% sack rate (25th). This year, they have improved to 2.09 line yards per carry and an 12.5% sack rate, though the Mercer/Miami schedule leaves some questions about the true quality of the defensive line. Still, Alabama's -0.247 EPA per opponent rush (tied for 15th) isn't a stat to scoff at.

Alabama has rotated through numerous players on the line, with DJ Dale, Phidarian Mathis, and Byron Young some of the key pieces in their first two games. The group has combined for seven sacks so far, tied for 19th nationally, and helped hold Miami's running back corps under a hundred yards while allowing no rushing touchdowns—the first such game for the Hurricanes since the 2019 Independence Bowl. Both the Tide's defensive line and the Gators' ground game have impressed so far, but who will prevail when they tangle with their toughest opponents yet?

Watch for:

  • How will young quarterback Bryce Young respond to the raucous crowds at the Swamp in his first-ever true road game?
  • What will Mullen do to manage a tricky quarterback situation without frustrating either potential star?
  • Can an explosive Gators front seven break down the pocket and force Young to display his scrambling ability?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 12.0

Auburn at Penn State (-6)—Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Auburn Penn State
Proj. F/+ 17 11
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 35 9
2020 F/+ 45 25
2020 EPA/pass 59 56
2020 EPA/rush 50 38
When Penn State has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 14 28
2020 F/+ 51 47
2020 EPA/pass 82 58
2020 EPA/rush 73 69

Auburn's run game has taken a big step forward this year, though the quality of their opposition leaves something to be desired. The Tigers have put up some truly phenomenal numbers: 9.9 yards per carry, 0.636 EPA per carry, and a 94-yard run by Jarquez Hunter, all ranking first in FBS. On the other hand, like the rest of Auburn's statistically superb start, those stats come with the caveat that the Tigers have faced Akron and Alabama State, hardly phenomenal defenses.

We'll get a more accurate appraisal of this team against Penn State as Auburn makes their first visit to a Big Ten stadium in 90 years. Stopping the run has been a strength under James Franklin; the Nittany Lions held opponents to 2.9 yards per carry in his first season, second nationally, and similar results have followed. Most years, Penn State hasn't been up at the top, but 2019 proved an exception, as they led the nation by allowing just 2.7 yards per carry. That proved a key strength for a team that went 11-2 despite being outpassed by 30 yards per game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, part of the reason for their impending collapse was regression in run prevention, as their opponents' average ballooned to 3.7 yards per carry in 2020.

This group figures to lie somewhere in the middle. Wisconsin managed 174 yards on the ground against Penn State, but they did so by toting the ball some 58 times for an average of 3.0 yards each. Ball State was similarly held in check with just 69 yards on 26 carries for 2.7 apiece. Both teams were unable to get anything going in the open field, either, with Wisconsin averaging 0.7 yards per carry in space and Ball State averaging 0.1.

Limiting a Paul Chryst–coached team on the ground is an impressive résumé, but it's possible Auburn will be even more difficult to pin down. Both Hunter and Tank Bigsby have more than 240 yards after two games, making Auburn one of only two teams with such a duo. Bigsby, after his 834-yard freshman season, was expected to take the lead, and he has done so thus far with 119 yards against Akron and 122 against Alabama State. Hunter's freshman surge, however, has exceeded all expectations; in his first two college games, the unheralded three-star is averaging over 15 yards per carry and ranks fourth in the SEC in total rushing yards. Not a bad debut.

Part of the reason the Tigers have broken out on the ground is the increased reliability of the passing game. Bo Nix has been many things across his 26 games at Auburn, but consistent usually hasn't been among them. It's worth remembering, however, that he was still an underclassman in 2020, and he started to find his level as that season progressed. There were rough patches, but Nix cut down on turnovers and leaned into his dual-threat ability, and he's off to an incredible start this season. One result: the looming threat of a trustworthy quarterback makes Auburn's rushing all the more effective.

While Nix and Sean Clifford will have a say in the outcome, this Beaver Stadium showdown could look like a good old-fashioned Big Ten battle in the trenches. That's not to say it won't be high-scoring; Bigsby and Hunter are a threat to break the game open on any play, and top Lions running back Noah Cain is no slouch either, with 117 yards and 4.2 yards per carry. But if you're looking for a shootout through the air, Happy Valley may not be the place to go. For everyone else, this rollicking White-Out duel will be one of the highlights of Week 3.

Watch for:

  • Auburn's no stranger to roaring crowds; how will they respond to one of college football's craziest gameday environments?
  • Can Nix keep up his hot start against one of the best pass defenses in the Big Ten?
  • Will Clifford be able to exploit an Auburn secondary that has occasionally struggled with lesser competition?

FEI Outright Pick: Penn State by 2.4

Oklahoma State at Boise State (-4)—Saturday, 9 p.m. (FS1)

Overall Oklahoma State Boise State
Proj. F/+ 24 33
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 38 44
2020 F/+ 44 47
2020 EPA/pass 47 31
2020 EPA/rush 95 64
When Boise State has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 18 37
2020 F/+ 13 51
2020 EPA/pass 41 25
2020 EPA/rush 16 82

The first game of this home-and-home was played back in 2018, and much has changed in the intervening years. That matchup had all the makings of an offensive duel, and while some special-teams plays and late scores shifted Oklahoma State's margin of victory, the box score is peppered with the absurdities common in Big 12 games during the 2010s. Taylor Cornelius, a solid but unexceptional passer, averaged 9.3 yards per attempt and led a 44-point effort; Brett Rypien, for his part, tossed a trio of touchdowns and attempted 56 passes. The Cowboys won going away, 44-21, but the narrow yardage margin (422 for Oklahoma State, 414 for Boise State) indicates that the two teams were closely matched … and, shall we say, defensively limited.

That was then; this is now. Whereas the Cowboys inclined 2018's game towards shootout territory, their focus has now shifted to a staunch defense. Oklahoma State's offense hasn't been awful, necessarily, but gone are the days of thrilling downfield passes and back-and-forth heavyweight fights. This offense is rather tame by Mike Gundy's standards, and it has showed early in 2021: they have scored just 51 total points against Missouri State and Tulsa. Granted, starter Spencer Sanders was out for the former game, but it's still strange to see Oklahoma State struggling to put up 50 in eight quarters, considering they often used to do it in four.

On the upside, this offensive decline has coincided with a surprising defensive improvement. Jim Knowles has pieced together a physical, playmaking group that allowed a tiny 26.7% third-down conversion rate last year, the best in football. (The runner up? Boise State.) The group faced some turnover after that season, but linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez has galvanized them to a solid start this year, doubling up his teammates with 28 tackles in two games.

In some areas, the Cowboys have picked right back up where they left off last year; they stopped 14 of Missouri State's 20 third- and fourth-down attempts, for instance, and nine of Tulsa's 13. For all the clutch play this unit has produced, however, it has bled yardage against a pair of lightweights. Missouri State totaled 336 yards against Oklahoma State; Tulsa had 347. Through two games, the Cowboys have outgained their opponents by just 6 yards, and stopping third-down tries alone isn't likely to make the difference against an opponent like Boise State.

The Broncos took a narrow come-from-ahead loss to future Big 12 member Central Florida in their opener, but their offense is humming along in midseason form, with 85 points and 744 yards through two games. Converting critical downs is one of many things Boise State usually does well, and while Andy Avalos isn't quite the same as Bryan Harsin, things haven't changed too much. Despite the scrutiny Hank Bachmeier has faced, he has been lights-out for the Broncos thus far, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt for 302 yards per game, four touchdowns, and one interception. And, of course, reigning all-conference first-team receiver Khalil Shakir has been phenomenal, averaging 21.4 yards on his 12 receptions. The rushing attack, however, could be cause for concern; Boise State totalled just 49 yards on the ground against UCF, and didn't run over UTEP as one would expect. Considering the Cowboys are somewhat less imposing at the line, a reliable running back group is a luxury the Broncos would like to make use of.

Both teams would dearly like to steal a win in this late-night showdown. Oklahoma State has wavered early on and is seeking a confidence boost heading into the Big 12 gauntlet; Boise State, meanwhile, came away empty-handed in that opener against UCF, a game that could have set the tone for Avalos' tenure quite cleanly. Knowing what exactly to make of these teams might not be much easier after they play, but it's a fair bet that the winner will have found a way to turn things around and capitalize on their lurking strengths.

Watch for:

  • Can the Cowboys create some havoc in the secondary, which has broken up just four passes and picked off none?
  • Will the Boise State pass rush, led by dynamic linebacker Riley Whimpey, get past a beleaguered Oklahoma State line and disrupt Sanders?
  • Can either team instill some much-needed faith after a shaky start to a key season?

FEI Outright Pick: Boise State by 1.4

Arizona State (-3.5) at BYU—Saturday, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arizona State BYU
Proj. F/+ 23 34
When Arizona State has the ball Offense Defense
Proj. F/+ 27 64
2020 F/+ 19 11
2020 EPA/pass 57 50
2020 EPA/rush 1 22
When BYU has the ball Defense Offense
Proj. F/+ 29 16
2020 F/+ 26 3
2020 EPA/pass 84 4
2020 EPA/rush 27 7

A little over a decade ago, BYU departed the Mountain West and bet on itself by going independent. That year marked the beginning of a long, fitful losing streak to rival Utah in the Holy War. Eleven years, 81 wins, 48 losses, and endless discussion about Sunday games later, the Cougars' parlay came good as the Big 12 accepted them from 2023 on. One day later, like magic: the streak was over. BYU took down the Utes 26-17, dominating third- and fourth-down rate (12-of-20 to 2-of-11), turnovers (two takeaways, no giveaways), and time of possesion (35:26 to 24:34).

To call it a defining win is to understate things. Until last Saturday, BYU fans had every reason to fear that their one shot to snap the streak had been lost to the COVID-19 scheduling void. The 2020 team, led by Zach Wilson and one of the best offenses in football, missed its chance at payback by virtue of the Pac-12's cancelled season (later brought back, though too late to add BYU to the slate, more's the pity). But Jaren Hall did a passable Wilson impression, completing 18 of 30 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns, and he added 92 yards on just eight carries. The Cougars opened up a 23-7 lead late in the third quarter, and they cruised the rest of the way to one of the sweetest victories in school history.

What next for an encore? BYU completes a season-opening tripleheader of Pac-12 games this week as a high-flying Arizona State marches into LaVell Edwards Stadium. An off-field investigation has attracted plenty of attention, but the Sun Devils have redirected the spotlight back on the field with a pair of comfortable blowout wins in a season where those have been few and far between. Arizona State's rushing corps has dominated thus far, averaging 6.2 yards per carry behind dominant performances by running backs Rachaad White (148 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, four touchdowns) and Daniyel Ngata (101 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, two touchdowns) as well as quarterback Jayden Daniels (165 yards, 8.7 yards per carry). The Sun Devils ran all over the Pac-12 last year, with White, Ngata, Daniels, and Deamonte Trayanum all taking more than 25 carries and averaging nearly 7 yards per carry. Among other accomplishments, White turned his 420 yards on 42 carries into the second qualifying season with 10 yards per carry in FBS history.

If that superb ground game was the product of a strange pandemic season in which plenty of stats ended up looking patently ridiculous, it hasn't showed so far. Granted, the Sun Devils have played Southern Utah and UNLV, but their rushing attack has sustained a preposterous level of success to start the season. They should come down to earth against a solid opponent like BYU, but how much remains to be seen. And the Cougars' run defense is questionable as well; they have recently been prone to stretches of success interrupted by a handful of far less impressive outings, such as allowing 657 yards in their last three games of 2020, or watching Utah run for 7.7 yards per carry against them last week. BYU has often struggled to create physicality up front to stop opponents from up-the-middle gains, and the Sun Devils might be just the kind of team to take advantage of that weakness.

Uncertainty is the defining trait for both Arizona State and BYU in this game. 2020 produced plenty of it—whether due to short, strange Pac-12 schedules or long, rearranged independent ones—and 2021 is still a long way from resolving many of the questions last year raised. A 300-yard game is on the table for the Sun Devils' running back dream team; on the other hand, a muted 50-yard performance might not be out of the question. Will the mighty Arizona State ground game put up another awe-inspiring performance, or will BYU bring their run to an end?

Watch for:

  • Can Jaren Hall add efficiency to his stability and become a focal point of BYU's work-in-progress offense?
  • Will BYU's shutdown secondary limit Jayden Daniels through the air and create a one-dimensional Sun Devils attack?
  • Can either team get an edge in the crucial third-down battle, where both have excelled this season?

FEI Outright Pick: BYU by 3.4

FEI Picks: Week 3

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick ATS Preston's Pick ATS
Cincinnati -4 at Indiana Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati
at West Virginia -3 Virginia Tech Virginia Tech Virginia Tech West Virginia
Alabama -14.5 at Florida Alabama Florida Alabama
at Penn State -6 Auburn Penn State Auburn Auburn
at Boise State -4 Oklahoma State Boise State Oklahoma State Oklahoma State
Arizona State -3.5 at BYU BYU BYU BYU

FEI's picks ATS in Week 2: 3-3

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 6-6

Preston's picks ATS in Week 2: 4-2

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 5-7

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