Football

Wait, BYU is favored to win the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl by how much?

What does the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl have in common with the College Football Playoff semifinals?

It’s a projected blowout.

BYU is favored by 12.5 points over Western Michigan in Boise’s 22nd annual bowl game Friday at Albertsons Stadium — but good luck figuring out why.

The Cougars (6-6) did beat Arizona and Wisconsin and nearly stunned Boise State and Utah. But they have a true freshman quarterback leading a struggling offense that heaps pressure on a very good defense.

The Western Michigan Broncos (7-5), meanwhile, looked like they were staying home for bowl season during an ugly, three-game losing streak after their starting quarterback was injured. But, also with a true freshman at the helm, they upset Northern Illinois in the regular-season finale to secure a trip to Boise.

Just about any result — except maybe a shootout — seems plausible for a bowl game featuring these two teams, which is why it’s strange that Las Vegas has placed Alabama-, Clemson- and Georgia-level faith in BYU. Those first three are quite possibly the best teams in the country — and they’re the only others favored by 12 points or more in the 39 bowl matchups.

Here are a few things to know about these teams, and my pick for Friday’s game:

Western Michigan makin’ changes: The Broncos were undefeated and played in the Cotton Bowl two years ago under coach P.J. Fleck, who left for Minnesota. They graduated much of the key talent on that 2016 team and new coach Tim Lester has lost his quarterback to injury in back-to-back seasons.

[Related: Former Idaho high school star provides key leadership for BYU]

When it looked like the Broncos would go 6-6 and miss a bowl for the second straight season, Lester fired his defensive coordinator and asked everyone in his program to change something — anything — leading up to the game against the Huskies, who won the Mid-American Conference title. Four-year starting center John Keenoy, for example, made a point of spending more time with the other linemen — and the group went to dinner the week of the NIU game. He expected to do the same Wednesday night in Boise.

“I made a change,” Lester said. “I got rid of our defensive coordinator, who’s a great man and it just wasn’t working. That was really hard for me to do — the decision wasn’t hard, but the action of doing it was hard. So I just challenged each and every one of them. It’s funny how everyone takes it differently — some people take it from an academic side, to try to get it done earlier so they can watch more film. Some guys wore different color socks.”

Freshman vs. freshman: BYU turned to true freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, the former Boise State commit, to spark its stagnant offense. Wilson averages about 180 total yards per game and has been responsible for 10 touchdowns in eight appearances. He was sacked on the final play of the Boise State game with the Cougars on the Broncos’ 2-yard line trailing 21-16.

Wilson has shown flashes of playmaking potential with his combination of scrambling and passing skills.

“I haven’t met a guy that prepares as much as he does,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.

Western Michigan’s Kaleb Eleby was forced into the lineup when starter Jon Wassink was injured. A promising season collapsed with those three straight losses, but Eleby has had a month to digest what he learned and build on the confidence he gained against NIU.

“When you’re playing an 18-year-old, it’s hard to get them in rhythm,” Lester said. “They haven’t been in rhythm. They don’t even know what in rhythm is. They’re just playing and surviving each play.”

wmu qb.jpg
Western Michigan freshman quarterback Kaleb Eleby made his first career appearance against Toledo, taking over for injured starter Jon Wassink. Western Michigan Athletics

Defense and special teams: The Cougars have the clear edge on defense and special teams. BYU is tied for 21st in yards per play allowed; Western Michigan is 95th. BYU’s special teams aren’t great — the Cougars rank 90th in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings — but Western Michigan is last at 130th.

Keenoy noticed that BYU handled Wisconsin’s offensive line in a 24-21 win. Lester mentioned that Boise State — a program he looks up to — only managed 21 points.

Until Utah reeled off 28 unanswered points in the final 16 minutes to beat BYU 35-27, nobody had scored four touchdowns in a game against BYU since Utah State on Oct. 5.

“We think they’re very similar to us — very physical, really big up front,” Keenoy said. “... We’ve got a challenge ahead of us.”

My pick

BYU is favored by 12.5 and the over/under is 49.5 points. The Cougars are 4-0 against the spread as double-digit favorites this season. They’re also 8-4 ATS overall, with four straight wins. Western Michigan is 3-8 ATS. The line seems crazy high — so I’ll side with the Vegas know-it-alls. BYU 27, Western Michigan 13

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Who: BYU (6-6) vs. Western Michigan (7-5)

When: 2 p.m. Friday

Where: Albertsons Stadium, Boise (36,387)

TV: ESPN (Roy Philpott, Tom Ramsey, Alex Corddry)

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