This Saturday in Provo, we’ll be treated to an unconventional pairing; it’s the first-ever meeting between the BYU Cougars and the Arkansas Razorbacks. Both teams have fought through challenging early-season schedules, and could well be better than their record might indicate. Let’s take a look at the odds and make some predictions for the first edition of this intriguing cross-country matchup.
Arkansas Vs. BYU Odds
It’s a razor-tight margin in this one, as Arkansas are favored by just a point and a half on the road in Utah. The points total is set at 66, as both teams have featured high-powered offenses with very little semblance of defense.
Arkansas Vs. BYU Prediction & Pick
The Razorbacks of Arkansas are currently sitting at just 3-3 at the midpoint of their season after peaking at #10 in the AP poll, but there may be more to this group than meets the eye; they picked up a solid win against a ranked Cincinnati team, played a solid first half against Alabama, and were just a couple of points away from knocking off Texas A&M. BYU are a similarly battle-tested bunch, having been ranked at #12 in the AP poll at one point, similarly to Arkansas. They dropped a game to a ranked Oregon team, and then came a touchdown short in the always-tough road environment of South Bend, Indiana against Notre Dame.
These teams are both similar in the way they play football: EPA sees Arkansas as being the 63rd-best team in the nation among all FBS teams, on the shoulders of the 30th-best offense and held back by the 108th-best defense. The metric paints an almost-identical but slightly better picture of BYU: the Cougars rank 54th, 20th, and 93rd, respectively in the same categories. Similarly, PFF places the BYU defense in the bottom 5 amongst Power-5 teams, and the Arkansas unit in the bottom 10, while placing the two teams’ offenses at 20th and 11th compared to the same group, respectively. This all serves to illustrate the point that we are in for a lot of points this weekend, especially as both offenses are getting healthier. Hogs QB KJ Jefferson is back after missing last week, and key BYU skill players Puka Nacua and Chase Roberts have been in and out of the lineup as well, but they should both be ready to go on Saturday. The play of QB Jaren Hall has also been very strong for the Cougars, and he will be eager to have a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal this weekend.
As I’m sure will come as no surprise, given all of the metrics surrounding the offenses and defenses on both sides, I’m soundly on the side of the over for the points total in this one; there’s no reason to believe that we have anything other than a veritable shootout on our hands. In terms of the spread, it’s a bit tougher; while a line of +/-1.5 almost amounts to a pick ‘em, I’m not entirely sure who to pick- I really do see this game being pretty close. That being said, I like the return of Jefferson to push his team over the top and take this one on the road, and cover the modest spread.
Arkansas Vs. BYU Key Matchups
BYU Run Defense vs. Arkansas Rushing Offense
One of the few ways these two teams do differ is how they like to pick up their yards; BYU prefers to go to the air, while Arkansas dominates teams on the ground. Let’s first focus on the latter; the Hogs are running the ball on over 65% of their snaps, and they’re doing it well. They’ve put up 233.8 ground yards per game, and average almost 5 yards per carry. Their lead back has been Raheim Sanders, who has accrued 6 total touchdowns to go along with almost 700 rushing yards. The next-most prolific runner on the team is actually Jefferson, who has just less than half of Sanders’s yardage output, but 4 touchdowns on the ground. As is almost always the case, this rushing dominance has come behind a great offensive line- the second-best run blocking unit in power-five according to PFF. This effort has been led by stud guard Beaux Limmer, and a steady performance from tackle Dalton Wagner.
They’ll be looking to block a BYU run defense that has really struggled thus far; PFF sees them as the 60th best unit out of the 64 power teams, plus BYU themselves and Notre Dame. Linebacker Ben Bywater leads the unit with just 2 non-sack tackles for loss, but the best-scored run defenders by PFF’s rating system are edge Tyler Batty, one of the team’s surest tacklers, and safety Micah Harper. However, Batty (84.9) is the only BYU d-lineman or linebacker with a run defense grade of over 70. He’s going to have to have a really strong performance, and be aided by a teammate or two stepping up if he’s going to be able to limit Arkansas’s ground output.
Arkansas Pass Defense vs. BYU Air Game
On the other side of the coin, let’s look at how Arkansas can limit BYU in their preferred method of offense; the pass. The Cougars complete over 68% of their passes, and rack up over 260 air yards per game on just under 32 attempts. Hall has thrown 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions thus far, despite the tough slate of opponents. His top targets have been Keanu Hill (team-high 334 yards) and Kody Epps (team-high 4 receiving touchdowns), but that could very well change with a healthy Roberts and/or Nacua in the fold. BYU have also benefited from what PFF considers to be a top-3 pass blocking o-line in all of FBS, which hinges on outstanding center Connor Pay, who is surrounded by solid to excellent starters at all positions.
Dwight McGlothern is the only Arkansas player to secure a pick this season, but he does have three. Unsurprisingly, he is the team’s highest-rated coverage player as per PFF. Linebacker Drew Sanders, the second-best pass coverage player on the team by the same metric, has also been by far the most prolific Razorback in another statistical category: his team-high 7 sacks are 3 ahead of the next contender, Jordan Domenick. Everyone else across the Hogs’ defense has been pretty subpar in their primary role; the two standouts on this defense will need to have strong performances, and also hope for a little more help if they’re going to limit Hall and company enough to bring their team to a big road win.