Picking BYU and Utah games is mental gymnastics.

The 5-2 Cougars are winning games statistics say they shouldn’t; 6-1 Utah’s remarkable game-winning drive in a win at USC is a testament to gutsy, never-say-die resilience.

Now the Cougars take on Texas, close to a three-touchdown favorite, and Utah faces an Oregon team that is far better on defense than the Trojans. And, the Ducks can quack on offense with Heisman Trophy candidate Bo Nix.

Utah should defeat Oregon at home on Saturday in an ESPN “College GameDay” affair, and although BYU has a 4-1 winning record on Texas and is playing against its third-straight backup quarterback, the Longhorns are favored by almost three touchdowns.

The Utah-Oregon game?

Since 2018, the underdog has won every game. Favor Utah, Oregon wins. When oddsmakers say Oregon wins, Utah actually does. This week, Oregon is a 6.5-point favorite over the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium

The tag point on this Utes-Ducks game is defense. 

Utah’s defense has been stout all season and ranking among the top 30 in a myriad of categories, including No. 2 in third-down defense, No. 14 in total defense, No. 5 in rush defense, and 11th in scoring defense. Utah is No. 1 in time of possession, a way of keeping opposing offenses off the field.

Utah’s 84-36 record (.700) is the best in the CFP era, prompting high expectations every week for Kyle Whittingham’s team that has overcome injuries, a struggling offense and simply found ways to continue to win and stay high in the rankings at No. 13.

Oregon is the only team in the country whose offense ranks in the top 10 in passing and rushing. The Ducks offense is No. 2 in the country, No. 6 in rushing, No. 8 in passing, No. 4 in pass efficiency and No. 3 in scoring offense.

The Ducks bring the same statistical superiority to defense with the nation’s No. 11 rush defense, 16th scoring defense, No. 3-ranked third-down conversion percent offense and No. 20 total defense.

You can see just how tough these two defenses rank, but the difference is Oregon’s outstanding, dependable offense that is both consistent and explosive. Also, Utah’s offense ranks 94th in red-zone offense, which could be a deciding factor.

If Whittingham finds a way to neutralize Oregon and continue the trend of the underdog triumphing, he is indeed a wizard. He’s been the chairman during 29 wins in the last 30 games at home. It is the primary reason for two Pac-12 championships.

In Austin, the Cougars will face backup quarterback Maalik Murphy, a big, strong-armed quarterback who will likely rely on an elite running attack led by Jonathon Brooks. But head coach Steve Sarkisian could take a page out of TCU’s playbook and attack the Cougars with a short passing game to help Murphy ease into his role as a starter.

Either way, BYU has its hands full facing an elite crew on both sides of the line. Texas ranks 15th in total offense, 36th in rushing and 24th in passing with starter Quinn Ewers, whom Sarkisian has mentored for seven games. Defensively, Texas is 16th in rushing defense, 17th in scoring defense.

Where could BYU find an edge?

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Well, it will be tough, but the Cougars have a weird statistical niche, something we haven’t seen before out of a BYU team.

The Cougars may be the only team that has gained four fumbles on punt returns. BYU is not a statistical threat on offense, especially with the run, but it is extremely efficient at forcing turnovers, controlling field position and scoring in the red zone. 

 BYU can score without gaining a ton of yards, converting third downs and winning time of possession. The Cougars rank No. 3 in turnover margin, No. 59 in scoring defense, No. 9 in net punting and No. 23 in red zone scoring offense. The Cougars are ranked 24th in fewest yards penalized per game.

BYU’s total offense and rushing offense are ranked among the bottom in the NCAA, yet at 5-2, the Cougars have proven to be a challenge, but for the TCU blowout loss.

If you look at this graph in team efficiency, BYU ranks ahead of Oregon — doing the most with the least plays and time of possession.

BYU’s defense, while struggling to get off the field, is making big plays. Corner Jakob Robinson is the only player in the country to be named twice as the National Defensive Back of the Week by the Jim Thorpe Award committee.

Robinson has four picks and Weber State transfer Eddie Heckard has three picks and are among the interceptions leaders in the Big 12. BYU’s defense has 11 interceptions, behind conference leaders Iowa State and Oklahoma with 12. BYU ranks seveth in defensive touchdowns and fourth in turnovers a game.

BYU’s Kedon Slovis has a big edge on Murphy in experience and for the Cougars to have any chance, he’ll have to deliver his best game of the season against the best front he’s faced all year. 

BYU’s staff and players have certainly watched last week’s film of Texas at Houston, where the Longhorns jumped to a 21-0 lead only to have Houston race back and tie the game at 24 with just over seven minutes to play. Houston had a chance to win that game in the fourth quarter.

In that game, Houston QB Donovan Smith completed 32 of 46 for 378 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. It was the most yards passing by Smith in the season, including a game against TCU.

This week’s picks:

  • Georgia 31, Florida 24.
  • Oklahoma 38, Kansas 21.
  • Kansas State 34, Houston 28.
  • West Virginia 24, UCF 21.
  • Southern Cal 37, California 28.
  • Washington 38, Stanford 21.
  •  UCLA 33, Colorado 27.
  • Washington State 37, Arizona State 31.
  • Oregon State 27, Arizona 17.
  • Oklahoma State 27, Cincinnati 17.
  • Oregon 35, Utah 28.
  • Texas 37, BYU 21.

Last week 10-2; 72-24 overall (.750).

BYU coach Kalani Sitake talks to his team during game against Kansas Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. | Charlie Riedel, Associated Press