Feature graphic courtesy of Lauren Anikis
BYU (8-4) vs. Wyoming (8-5)
Where: Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, CA
When: Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. EST on ESPN
How they got here:
Because BYU is not a member of a conference, they manage their bowl partnerships year-to-year. Back in 2013, they announced a partnership with the Poinsettia Bowl. They were locked into play in this bowl unless they made the playoffs. However, that should not diminish their season accomplishments, after fifth-year quarterback Taysom Hill came back after an injury caused him to miss almost all of last season. He came in under first year head coach Kalani Sitake and a new system and started the season strong with a win over Arizona. They lost the next three games by a combined seven points. In fact, all four of the Cougars’ losses came by a combined eight points. How they responded to those losses is why they are here. After losing three straight, BYU went on to win seven of their last eight, with their only loss coming at the hands of then No. 14 Boise State in a 28-27 heartbreaker.
Why they can win:
BYU has the 14th ranked scoring defense in the FBS, allowing just over 19 points per game. Led by senior defensive back Kai Nacua, their defense kept games close all year and allowed them to maintain leads. The team forced 29 turnovers on the year, and ranks fifth in the nation in turnover margin; Wyoming is 50th. Nacua is tied for fourth in the nation with five interceptions on the season. On the other side of the ball, senior running back Jamaal Williams leads the team with 1,165 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. They averaged a shade under 200 rushing yards per game while Wyoming has surrendered 202.7 rushing yards per game. If BYU is allowed to execute its game plan and keep Wyoming’s high-scoring defense grounded, the Cougars could walk away with win number nine. BYU will be without Hill for this one — he injured his elbow in the season finale against Utah — but they have a capable starter in Tanner Mangum ready to go. The Cougars do not want to get into a shootout, but if they do, they can count on their defense that has led the way time and again this season to come up with a stop when they need it most.
Player to watch: Quarterback Tanner Mangum
Mangum threw for 3,337 yards and 23 touchdowns as a freshman in 2015, but has spent this season behind Hill. Mangum got the job last season after Hill went down for the year, and it will be another Hill injury that will put him in command of the Cougars for the foreseeable future. He has spent the year on the sidelines learning the new system, and has said the game slowed down for him. It should be interesting to see if he can come in and grab a bowl win to add to his already impressive resume.
How they got here:
Despite finishing third in the Mountain West, Wyoming managed to beat Boise State — who beat BYU — and San Diego State, the top two teams in the conference. They are here after winning only two games last season, making it to their first bowl since they lost to Temple in the 2011 New Mexico Bowl. In his third season at the helm, head coach Craig Bohl has flipped the script and taken Wyoming from 2-10 last season to missing out on the Mountain West title by just a field goal.
Why they can win:
The Cowboys put up points, point blank, period; they scorched defenses for 37.1 points a game. With both a 1,000 yard rusher in junior Brian Hill and a 1,000 yard receiver in senior Tanner Gentry, it has been hard to stop Wyoming. They did get blown out twice — by Nebraska in the second game of the season and against New Mexico on Nov. 26 — but lost their other three by a field goal each. None was more deflating than the Nov. 12 triple-overtime loss at UNLV. Wyoming lost a 69-66 shootout on a 40-yard field goal. After losing three of their last four, a bowl win would cap off a comeback season for the Cowboys. Sophomore quarterback Josh Allen will be tasked with keeping turnovers to a minimum against this tough Cougar defense. He’s thrown for 2,986 yards this year with 26 touchdowns on a 2 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio. He’s going to need to keep the ball in the hands of his playmakers and away from the Cougars defense.
Player to watch: Running back Brian Hill
Hill was, statistically, a top-five running back this season. He finished the season ranked fourth in the nation in both rushing yards and touchdowns, piling on 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground. The problem: the other running backs in the Mountain West are just too good. Hill was named to the MWC First All-Conference Team, but lost the Player of the Year honors to Donnel Pumphrey from San Diego State. There were also some who thought he should’ve been relegated to second-team behind Jeremy McNichols from Boise State. He will be running with a chip on his shoulder to prove he is the best running back in the Mountain West.