BYU vs. San Diego State: Poinsettia Bowl Breakdown
BYU (7-5) vs. San Diego State (9-3)
Dec. 20, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: While most bowl games pit two programs relatively unfamiliar with each other, this one features two with plenty of history -- and the animosity between them is real. BYU left San Diego State and the rest of the Mountain West in 2010 to become an independent, thus ending a rather one-sided rivalry that sparked strong emotions. In the teams' final conference game at BYU in 2010, a botched replay review in BYU's favor helped the Cougars win 24-21. It was later revealed that a member of the three-man replay booth was a BYU employee. The employee was cleared of wrongdoing, but the league revamped its policy to prevent future conflicts. A year later, during BYU's realignment flirtation with the Big 12, San Diego State associate athletic director Jenny Bramer emailed Oklahoma's president and AD to warn them about the disadvantages of being in a conference with BYU. On the field, though, the Cougars have held the advantage. They own a 27-7-1 record against the Aztecs and have won nine of the last 10 meetings.
• Keep an eye on: BYU's quarterback situation. The Cougars have been a defensive-minded outfit this season, as they rank No. 3 nationally in total defense but just 56th in total offense. Part of the reason for the latter number has been the spotty play of senior quarterback Riley Nelson, who has 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Nelson injured his ribs in BYU's loss to San Jose State on Nov. 14, and he's yet to be declared 100 percent healthy during the Cougars' bowl practices. Further complicating matters: Backup James Lark went 34-of-50 for 384 yards and six touchdowns in BYU's 50-14 rout of New Mexico State in the regular-season finale. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was noncommittal when the team arrived in San Diego this week and called his starting quarterback a "game-time" decision. Even if Nelson is healthy enough to start, expect Mendenhall to use a quick hook if the Cougars struggle.
• Did you know: BYU and San Diego State had three common opponents this season, and their games produced very similar results. Both teams lost a close one to San Jose State (BYU by six points, San Diego State by four) and blew out Hawaii (BYU by 47, San Diego State by 38). Both teams also saw their matchups with Boise State come down to fourth-quarter two-point conversions: BYU failed to convert and lost 7-6, while San Diego State stopped Boise and won 21-19.
• Final analysis: This looks like a matchup of strength against strength, as BYU's stout defense, led by linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, will face a run-oriented San Diego State offense paced by Adam Muema. The sophomore ran for 255 yards in his last game against Wyoming and finished the season with 1,355 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, BYU's offense could struggle to score. The Cougars faced five above-average defenses in 2012 (Notre Dame, Utah, Utah State, Boise State and San Jose State), and they averaged just 12.2 points in those games. The Aztecs' unit might not quite be of that caliber, but it still ranks No. 43 in the FBS total defense. That, plus momentum -- the Aztecs enter on a seven-game winning streak and will play the game on their home field -- will make the difference.
• The pick: San Diego State 23, BYU 17