BYU Cougars vs. Utah Utes, Saturday December 19, 3:30 p.m. ET
The story here practically writes itself. After a two-year hiatus we get another edition of The Holy War - the bitter rivalry between these two schools. Usually a regular-season fixture, scheduling has gotten in the way, and now this is what we get. I couldn't be more excited - at least about an early bowl game. Many college football fans and a lot of BYU fans seem to feel the same way.
For a lot of Utah supporters, though, this is just not where they want to be. After rising to as high as No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings earlier in the season, playing one of the first bowls of the year was not what they were dreaming of. It remains to be seen whether Utah is going to have their heads in this game, or if they, too, feel like they deserve to be somewhere else. The rivalry factor makes that less of a concern than it might otherwise be - hate can snap you out of a funk.
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Las Vegas Bowl Betting Storylines
Bronco Mendenhall has the best name in college football coaching, and I don't think it's even close. He's been a fixture at BYU for a long time - 11 years as head coach and two before that as an assistant. All good things must come to an end, though, and Mendenhall is somewhat surprisingly heading for the top job at Virginia. Unlike most guys in his position, he is sticking around to coach this final game before he goes - a step made easier because the game comes so early in the bowl schedule. It's hard to know if it is better to have a head coach with one foot out the door who is inevitably trying to get started in his new job while finishing his old one, or an interim coach filling the top job for the bowl game. Another coaching factor to consider here as well is the status of the search for a replacement - a task made much more difficult than other schools because the coach must be a practicing Mormon. As I write this the new man has not been tabbed. When a coaching change is made, I much prefer when the new coach has been named before the bowl game. It doesn't directly affect the team - the new coach won't be involved in bowl preparation - but it can have a big impact on motivation. When the players know who the next guy is they can focus specifically on impressing him for next year. When the new coach isn't known, that motivation is lessened. The status of the search, then, is worth a close look leading up to the game.
It's a study in contrasts at quarterback in this game. Utah will start Travis Wilson, a senior who has been starting for four years now. He can't be accused of being the most exciting or dynamic player in the country, but he is stable and experienced, and he is pretty easy to trust. He won't win many games single-handedly, but he won't cost his team games, either. BYU is in more of a risk-reward situation. Tanner Mangum is a freshman who was called into starting action this year after Taysom Hill was injured yet again. He is an exciting player with massive potential, but he doesn't always rise up against the best opponents, and he can be rattled. He's a better bet for the big play but also for the big mistake.
Wilson will have one handicap here, and it's a big one. Devontae Booker, a truly special senior running back, missed the last two games of the season with an injury, and he won't be back here, either. His college career is over, and that means Utah comes into this one without their best offensive weapon - he had 1,261 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in 10 games this year. Booker's absence was a big factor in the loss to UCLA that contributed significantly to the Utes winding up in this spot.
Las Vegas Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with Utah favored by the key number of three points, and that has since shifted to 2.5. More than 80 percent of bets have come in on the Utes so far, so it's clear that sharp money has hit BYU hard - particularly hard in this case because books don't generally like to move off of three without a good reason. The total sits at 53.5.
Utah has won the last four editions of the Holy War, dating back to 2010. They have covered the spread in the last three. The Cougars have gone "under" the total in four of their last five neutral-site games. The Utes are 1-5 ATS in their last six games this season but 8-2 ATS in their last 10 bowl games. The underdog is 5-0 ATS in the last five Holy Wars.
BYU vs. Utah Las Vegas Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
I'm concerned about the focus of Mendenhall. I'm more concerned, though, about the mindset of the Utes. They have not played well down the stretch, and they want to be elsewhere - a potentially combustible combination. The sharp money effect is striking here as well. Add it all up and BYU is worth a shot - though there will be better value in other bowl games than there is here.
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