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BYU expert previews the Arizona game, makes a score prediction

BYU v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats will open the Jedd Fisch era Saturday when they take on the BYU Cougars at 7:30 p.m. MST in Las Vegas.

The two programs arrive in Sin City on completely different trajectories. BYU went 11-1 last season; Arizona has lost 12 straight dating back to 2019. As expected, the Wildcats are heavy underdogs against the Cougars, with the most recent odds pegging them as 12.5-point underdogs.

We wanted to know more about Arizona’s enemy, so we caught up with Robby McCombs of our sister site for more info.

Below is what he had to say. (We answered questions about Arizona for VTF. You can check those out here.)

Ryan Kelapire: Coming off that 11-1 season, what are expectations like for BYU this season?

Robby McCombs: Zach Wilson is an all-time great player and BYU lost multiple other guys to the NFL. However, expectations I’d say are around eight wins, despite the losses and increased schedule strength of schedule (seven Power 5 teams plus Boise State). This is Kalani Sitake’s sixth season at BYU and all the players on the roster are his guys, which takes longer at BYU due to the amount of two-year missions.

RK: What are expected to be BYU’s strengths and weaknesses?

RM: Offensively, BYU’s skill positions should be better. They lost wide receiver Dax Milne to the NFL, but they bring back two 600+ yards receivers in Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u, tight end Isaac Rex—who had 12 TD catches— and add transfer wide receivers Samson Nacua from Utah and Puka Nacua from Washington.

Additionally, TE Dallin Holker is back from his mission after a nice 2018 season. The running back room includes 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa, who has over 1,200 rushing yards. Defensively, linebacker is the strength as BYU returns good production and a full-time linebacker coach.

As far as weaknesses, BYU won’t be able to replace Zach Wilson. Jaren Hall has shown flashes, but he’s not Zach Wilson. Along the offensive, BYU has a good starting five, but if one of the tackles go down BYU is really thin at OT depth. Defensively, BYU has struggled to generate a pass rush for years. They have a promising defensive end in Tyler Batty, but BYU struggles to generate consistent pass rush. BYU is also vulnerable at safety, so if UA is able to establish the run, they could get some deep shots down the field.

RK: BYU is dead last in the country in returning production. Is that a concern? Why or why not?

RM: Bill Connelly updated his projections and BYU is closer to 115th out of 127th, so not dead last but still not great. It’s obviously a concern, but BYU played quite a few guys last year. Zach Wilson is by far the biggest loss, but BYU should be better at RB, TE, WR, LB and CB. I expect drop-offs at QB, safety, and a slight dip at OL. DL should be about the same. If Jaren Hall can be good, then he has enough weapons to not experience much of a drop off.

RK: Jaren Hall was recently named BYU’s starting quarterback. What should Arizona fans expect to see from him and how confident are you that he can be an effective replacement for Zach Wilson?

RM: Jaren Hall started two games in 2019 after a Zach Wilson thumb injury and went 1-1 (loss at USF, win at Utah State and Jordan Love). He was spectacular in the first half versus Utah State before going down with a concussion, passing for over 200 yards and rushing for 54 yards and 2 TDs. Hall is athletic and has shown good accuracy. The number one concern for him is injuries. He went out early in both games he started due to concussions and missed all of 2020 with lingering injuries. If he’s healthy, I expect him to be good, although there will probably be some struggles early in the season.

RK: Other than Hall, which BYU players should Arizona fans know about?

RM: Allgeier rushed for over 1,100 yards last season. He will be a focal point of the offense. Defensively, LBs Trajan Pili and Payton Wilgar form a nice 1-2 punch and anchor the LB unit. Also keep an eye on 6-foot-6 tight end Isaac Rex, who likely has an NFL future and had 12 TD catches last season.

RK: What worries you most about Arizona?

RM: What will Arizona look like in game one? BYU has no film on Arizona and I expect players to come out fighting for their new head coach. Also, if Arizona can establish the run they can take advantage of BYU’s vulnerable safeties in play action. Coastal Carolina’s run game last year milked the clock against BYU and took the offense off the field. If UA can do the same, then they can pull off the upset.

RK: Is BYU’s roster really as old as everyone likes to claim it is?

RM: Many players go on two-year missions around the world, so there are a handful of players that are a couple years older. BYU only returned a couple “super seniors” since the team played 12 games last year, so it’s really not much older than many teams around the country. Here is something crazy for you — BYU kicker Jake Oldroyd made the game-winning field goal versus UA in 2016 as a true freshman. He is only a sophomore now, five years later! 2016 was a redshirt year since he played in fewer than four games, he went on a mission in 2017-2018, was a redshirt freshman in 2019, and got the free COVID year in 2020. One of the weird BYU things.

RK: What do BYU fans like to do in Vegas?

RM: This is a great question for me since I grew up in Vegas! Most BYU fans don’t drink, so that takes a lot of things off the table. Vegas has surprisingly many things to do outdoors, so I would do a lot of hiking. Outside of that, some BYU fans enjoy the occasional gambling and the good food in Vegas.

RK: Some people, like me, would love to see the Pac-12 add BYU. Which conference do you think is the most realistic landing spot for the Cougars if they decide to make a change?

RM: All the buzz right now is on the Big 12. I think BYU will ultimately join that conference by the time Texas-OU bolt.

RK: Score prediction?

RM: BYU is currently an 11.5-point favorite. I think Jaren Hall has some struggles, but BYU’s defense will carry them in this one after a close first half and BYU comes out on top 27-13.