Hello all. With the slowing down of apparel threads - much to our collective chagrin - I thought I'd take some time to look at some of our opponents. I'll start with the team that intrigues me the most on the 2015 schedule - the BYU Cougars.
Last year around this time I pointed to game 4 vs Utah as the game on the schedule that could most dictate the direction of the 2014 season. UM at worst would be entering that game 2-1 (App State, Miami OH wins, ND loss) or 3-0 and then face - at home - a well coached Utah squad, a team that doesn't get much respect in the casual football fans eyes but is fundamentally sound, has a top 25ish coach, and is just a tough matchup. We know how that went.
While I will not point to BYU as much of a "make or break" game in 2015 because Harbaugh >>>>> Hoke and I expect UM to actually improve as the year goes by (novel concept around these parts the past 7+ years) this is one of 3-4 games that will swing UM anywhere from a 6-7 win team to a 9-10 win team. It also happens to fall into the same slot as last year's Utah game and again UM should enter no worse than 2-1 (UNLV, Ore State, @Utah). So it's a big game that the casual UM fan will count as a "very probable" win but serious CFB fans will see as a very problematic game. Frankly if Hoke was coaching I'd mark this as a near sure loss as I have this game tied with Minn as the 4th toughest on the schedule. #Harbaugh
BYU was on its way to a top 20ish type season with a 4-0 start, including a complete demolishment of Charlie Strong's Texas (41-7) in Austin. Now that Texas team had UM 2013 and PSU/Florida 2014 like offense but a very good defense - and was just undressed in Oregon v UM (Dennis Dixon like) fashion. Then their all everything dark horse Heisman candidate QB Taysom Hill fell to injury in game 5 and the season spun out of control for a while (0-4 but against 3 quality teams). BYU recovered to go 4-0 to finish out the season - depsite losing their main rb in November - before a crazy bowl game 2 OT loss. With that said Boise State was the only team that clearly outclassed BYU last year so a healthy Hill would have probably had BYU as a 10-11 win squad. Another reason not to underestimate this team.
Aside from Hill, top RB Jamaal Williams had a tough year - after missing game 1 due to suspension he came back to play only 4 games in a truly healthy state. This is not the BYU of your childhood (for you guys in your 30s/40s) - while they still throw a lot they are much more run oriented so losing their best RB (who happens to play QB) and their 2nd best rb was a lot to overcome. That said they found a nice backup QB who in the Big 10 (on paper) would probably have been the 4th or 5th best QB in the league. Somehow it is easy for other teams to develop QBs.... sigh.
BYU actually brings back a team with many similar strengths and weaknesses to its 2014 squad. But much healthier. Prolific offense with dynamic QB - stout run defense, horrid pass defense. Also after last year's defensive debacle in the bowl Bronco Mendenhall has deciced to take back the reins of the defense personally. I highly recommend Bill Connelly's fantastic preview here.
Now it is always difficult to compare an independent to a team in a P5 conference because the competition is not quite there but BYU would be very competitive in the 2nd tier of the Big 10 behind OSU and MSU IMO. While they all have different strengths and weaknesses I'd put BYU in the cabal with UM, PSU, Nebraska, etc. On any given Saturday any of these could beat the other - if they played 10 times the series would probably be 5-5ish or 6-4ish.
And wouldn't you know it - BYU plays 2 of those teams in the first 4 weeks. In fact BYU's September will be the toughest in the nation - road trips to UCLA, UM, Nebraska (3 of the best venues in sports!), sandwiched around a home game vs a resurgent Boise State who will be gunning for a legit undefeated season (and playoff berth) this year. (12-2 last year) This is a brutal start to the year on paper but all the P5 teams have issues - both Neb and UM are breaking in new coaches and have lost NFL talent on both the offense and defense and UCLA is breaking in a new QB - who might be a true freshman (Josh Rosen). In fact, the Boise State will be the team with the least questions that BYU faces early.
The elephant in the room - Taysom Hill
Fun fact: Taysom Hill was an original Stanford recruit....of Jim Harbaugh. He is that old (Mormon missions) that Jim could leave for the NFL for 4 years and return and still face a former recruit. Not so fun fact? Everything else I am about to write.
Forgive me for my PTSD when it comes to running QBs when it comes to UM. This guy just scares me and I envision him giving UM all the trouble in the world. From the McNabb's to Dixon's to Young's to Smith's to ... well I need not go on. There is a long and ugly history of mobile / running QBs single handidly destroying a UM defense. Let us hope Hill is not another name we add to this list.
Who is Hill most like? Take your pick - a "good day" for Braxton Miller, a "normal day" for college Tim Tebow, Drew Stanton with better wheels. The 2013 Taysom Hill was more easily defendable - he was a great runner who completed passes at a 53.9% clip (but still put up 3000 yards!) while running for 1300+ plus! (5.5 yard ave that INCLUDES sacks) Those are Denard Robinson like data points. Scary player but one you can defend with a quality defense.
The early 2014 Taysom Hill? Frightening - the completion % surged to 66.7% while the rushing yardage was consistent as 2013 both in total yards and average. If you exclude sacks Hill ran for 7.4 yards per carry! That is called a "non defensible" QB. You just hope he makes errors in the passing game. His main weakness is supposedly long distance throws but you can imagine how safeties have to cheat up to account for his running so he'll have wider windows to deal with downfield than the average bear. And it's not just his pure running that kills you - it's how difficult he is to bring down in a pocket - how many Troy Smith plays did we see year after year when we had him in our grasp on a drop back only to see his scamper for 8 yards on 3rd and 6? That's what a day vs Taysom Hill is all about. When I watch Hill highlights what I marvel at is his balance - guys constantly swipe at his legs and feet and he is able to maintain balance through that. It's impressive as hell. If you don't have 2 arms around him, you rarely bring him down. That's an issue.
I pro-rated Hill's first 4.5 games of 2014 over 14 games and measured v Tebow's senior yr. Hill would have thrown for more yards (albeit a lower yards per attempt). And Tebow never hit 1K+ yards rushing in a season, Hill already had 500 when he went down. (and again 1350ish the year before). Again you have to adjust for quality of competition but we are comparing Hill to one of the best CFB playes in the past 20 yrs. Hill's history is also well ahead of the rushing pace Braxton Miller ever put up. He good; real good. It will be a Saturday full of butt clenching when we are on defense.
(Do not watch the video below without the assistance of alcohol)
The rest of the offense
Disclaimer - some call me a pessimist, I call me a realist.
As I line up BYU's offense vs UM's offense I don't see a spot UM comes out ahead aside from TE. That sucks. Their top QB is dynamic top 10 in the country. Ours* is a solid high floor guy who lost his job. Their backup QB had stats similar to Connor Cook despite playing 4.5 games fewer and getting paltry preseason snaps as a sure #2 (2600 yards, 57% completion rate, 25 TD, 9 INT). Ours is [redacted for sanity]. Their top running back goes off for 5 yards per carry. Ours might have been the 5th string at USC. Or is currently recovering from a 2nd ACL. Their top WR had just under 1000 yards despite being thrown to by a backup QB 2/3rds of the year. Ours is a Carolina Panther. Their 2013 OL was one of the best in the country ranking # 7 nationally in adjusted line yards (Football Outsiders measure of OL) - then suffered a boat load of injuries in 2014 and despite playing tons of backups plummeted all the way down to...errr #18. Michigan - despite being mostly healthy in 2014 was #50. 2013? Just Funk off. Thankfully Football Outsiders only starting publishing the OL stat in 2014. But we have Jake Butt so take that BYU!!!! BYU's TE had 20 catches last year but is now in the NFL.
Long story short this is going to be IMO tied with MSU for the 2nd best offense UM plays in 2015. They have a stud senior QB, very good senior running back, and very good senior #1 wide receiver, with an experienced OL. This is exactly the type of offense (sans running threat at QB) which UM used to run out regularly in the 1990s. While Cook is a better pro prospect, Hill is a true dual threat which I utterly hate facing. I'd rather be dissected by a Hackenberg than play a Hill type. It's the one position that can take over a game - Devin did it here for us vs Notre Dame, Indiana, and even OSU 2013. With Jamaal Williams in the backfield you can't just concentrate on Hill as a running threat. And senior WR Mitch Mathews is no slouch with his 73 catches and 922 yards. BYU did lose its #2 receiver but return a few guys of the Darboh / Chesson ilk who had 200-400 type yard years. All this behind an OL that lost players to graduation but the bevy of injuries in '14 allowed 10 guys to start at some point last year so I would not expect a drop off. Also assume most of these OL guys are going to be 22 to 24 years old due to their missions.
Again this is an offense that destroyed Charlie Strong's Texas defense in Austin - a defense that was better than UM's by a good amount last year (#20ish on both FEI and S&P+ vs UM's #35-40ish)
Cumong man - you make them sound like Miami from the 1980s
Well we haven't talked about defense yet. And BYU does have a pros and cons on their defense. Pro is their rush defense. Per Connolly they gave up a national best 6 rushes of 20+ yards all last year. Overall they run defense ranked pretty similar to UM's but their ability to not give up huge runs is the main difference vs UM's. So you don't get big plays against their rush defense. Period. However their con is you can destroy BYU through the air. They ranked in the bottom 15 in pass yards allowed at 269.7 per game. BYU also does not have a great pass rush esp from their DL. They did move 260! lb OLB Bronson Kaufusi back to his original position on the DL late last year and apparently that is the place to keep him - he netted 7 sacks and 11.5 TFL. All other DEs combined for 2.5 sacks so that's an issue.
UM rush off v BYU rush def - Adv: BYU. UM's rush offense was solid vs MAC teams or when Drake Johnson ran late in the year. Otherwise it was mostly a meh year. And that was with a QB who was a running threat. While Rudock* has some mobility he is not going to have DC's game plan vs the run like Denard or Devin. So it means UM needs to be able to run using you know... running backs. A lost art here since Molk's 2011 squad. BYU has a UM like rush defense that does not give up big plays and UM hasn't done well against top 20ish rush defenses in years.
UM pass off v BYU pass def - Adv: UM. For UM to win this has to be a big win. Jake* needs a 250+ yd game IMO and the OL needs to have a good game in pass protect. Which shouldn't be TOO difficult considering BYU basically has 1 sack threat. Darboh needs a big game, Butt needs a big game and someone not named Darboh or Butt needs to emerge for balance in the pass game. BYU will score so UM needs to match that - and it's going to have to come via the air.
BYU rush off v UM rush def - Adv: BYU. This one is tricky because UM generally had a nice rush defense in 2014 when NOT playing badass rush offenses. Then Minn comes to town and makes UM rush defense look like tissue paper. MSU ran basically at will (I think they only threw 4x in the 2nd half). So let's compare to Minn. While Cobb was a better running back than Williams is, Hill is way better than Mitch Leidner. And BYU actually throws to non tight ends. Realistically speaking, Taysom Hill will probably be the best running back on the field that Saturday. So my worry here is how exposed the "stout" rush defense is when actually playing teams that excel at running. And with a QB who runs 7.4 yds per carry you have to give this to BYU. UM also lacks speed on the edges in their linebackers IMO outside of James Ross so I fear Hill getting outside the hashes and breaking off a 40+ type run. Or two.
BYU pass off v UM pass def - Adv: BYU. Pass defense was UM's worst unit last year. Peppers is there now but he is still a young pup and could be tasked with spying on Hill all game. The linebackers are going to be busy tasked with the run game and containing Hill as well so this is going to open up seams and the DBs will be asked to do a lot in relative isolation Until they prove they can (outside of Lewis) you have to be concerned.
Maybe it is oversimplying the bazillion words above but I see this game as QB v QB. If Taysom Hill has a great day I don't see UM winning. If he has a bad day, UM has a great chance. If Taysom Hill has a "normal day", Jake Rudock* needs to have a great game. UM needs to prove it can contain a dual threat QB, it can stop a strong rush offense and its pass defense has improved from 2014. Jake Rudock* is more than capable of carving up BYU's secondary. But he needs the OL to provide time, and he need some semblance of a running game to keep BYU from cheating to the pass all game. A secondary receiving threat not named Darboh or Butt emerging (Canteen? Ways? Cole? Chesson?) would be a big help for this game.
The path both teams get to this game is interesting. UM will face the complete opposite of BYU in Utah in game 1 - a special teams, defensive powered unit that has a ho hum offense (but a very nice RB). Then face one of the bottom three Pac 12 teams in Oregon State and then have an effective bye with UNLV. They will be enjoying the comforts of hope for 3 weeks. Meanwhile BYU will be going through a hell of a gauntlet traveling to Nebraska and UCLA and hosting a very good Boise State squad. You can look at this either as a pessimist or optimist - UM will have time to test some things and get players experience post Utah but will they be ready to match the intensity BYU will constantly forced to have through September? Will BYU stay healthy after playing two P5 teams and a top non P5 squad? Will they be mentally exhausted with the travel by then?
I expect a high scoring affair in the 30s as both defenses have areas to exploit and the opposing team has weapons to exploit those holes. I expect a lot of exasperation from UM fans as Hill makes "stick save" types of plays all day. If Rudock* has a 250+ yard passing type game I expect a game decided on a FG in the last minute - either way. Last line was UM favored by 6ish; it seems smart to take those points and expect a nail biter.
Silver lining? UM fans should be thrilled Harbaugh found little known Taysom Hill (3 star, #762 overall. #29 QB). Having a QB like down the road that would be a dream....right Victor Viramontes?
** I wrote this piece assuming Rudock is our starting QB. The variabilities of a Shane Morris start are far to broad to even forecast with the limited data points.