Albuquerque, N.M. • On the eve of his BYU football team's appearance in the fifth-annual New Mexico Bowl, coach Bronco Mendenhall said Saturday's game against the 6-6 UTEP Miners is "not make-or-break" and not more or less significant than any of the past six or so the 6-6 Cougars used to turn their season around.
But at least one of the team's leaders, running back Bryan Kariya, begs to differ, mostly because the outcome of the noon game at University Stadium to be televised nationally by ESPN will mean the difference between a winning record and a losing one.
"The difference between 7-6 and 6-7 means the world," Kariya said. "We still have a lot to fight for, and, hopefully, everybody out here has that in mind. Losing would mean giving away a lot of what we've built these past two months, a lot of positive momentum."
It is under that backdrop that the Cougars face another hungry team hoping to be able to call the 2010 year a winning one. The difference is that BYU enters the contest having won four of its last five games, while narrowly losing in the other one to Utah.
UTEP has lost five of its last six.
"We can't talk about momentum because we haven't got any," UTEP coach Mike Price said.
Aside from improving their historically poor bowl record (10-17-1) and showing they can win a bowl game under Mendenhall outside Las Vegas where they were 3-2 the past five years the Cougars have far less to motivate them than the Miners do, but seemingly much more to lose.
UTEP is almost a two-touchdown underdog, and Price is selling the idea to his players that a win over a perennial winner such as BYU, regardless of the Cougars' mediocre record, will bring recognition nationally. Some people close to the UTEP program say a win will be the biggest in program history.
Meanwhile, Mendenhall is sticking to his just-another-game philosophy and painting it as another chance for a young team with just eight seniors who contribute extensively to improve.
"Next year's team will learn from this game no matter what the outcome," Mendenhall said, downplaying the notion that what happens in Albuquerque will carry over into offseason attitudes and effort. "It would be nice to have a victory, but I would just like to see them play closer to their potential than they have in each successive game to this point."
As evidence, Mendenhall can point to results in seasons after the Cougars lost bowl games. They went 11-2 both seasons after losing in the 2005 and 2008 Las Vegas bowls and, of course, started 1-4 this season after pummeling Oregon State 44-20 in the 2009 postseason game.
"It will sting if we don't win, but [just playing in the game] will be a positive for next season," Mendenhall said.
However, even a BYU senior who won't be around next year says a loss will do some damage.
"It is another chance for us to go out there and play BYU football and show how we play, and to keep that momentum rolling," said senior linebacker Shane Hunter. "This is about moving forward as a program, not having a bad taste left over from what's been a roller-coaster year."
The game could also have a big impact on the quarterback situation. Freshman Jake Heaps, solid since the turnaround began, has a chance to prove once again that the job should be his entering spring camp.
Mendenhall has said that Heaps is the leader but that the race will be reopened once early-season starter Riley Nelson returns from shoulder surgery.
"To us, a win would be a huge accomplishment after the way we started the season," Heaps said.
"We're playing so our record will be 7-6 and not 6-7. That means a lot."
BYU after the bowl
Year Bowl Result Next season's record
2009 Las Vegas Bowl BYU 44, Oregon State 20 6-6
2008 Las Vegas Bowl Arizona 31, BYU 21 11-2
2007 Las Vegas Bowl BYU 17, UCLA 16 10-3
2006 Las Vegas Bowl BYU 38, Oregon 8 11-2
2005 Las Vegas Bowl California 35, BYU 28 11-2
2001 Liberty Bowl Louisville 28, BYU 10 5-7
BYU vs. UTEP
P At University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
Kickoff • Noon
TV • ESPN
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 6-6, UTEP 6-6
Series record • BYU leads 28-7-1
Last Meeting • BYU, 31-14 (Nov. 14, 1998)
About the Cougars • They are making their sixth straight bowl appearance. … They have won three of their last four bowl games. … Receivers coach Patrick Higgins was UTEP's offensive coordinator from 2000-2003. … They are averaging 24.0 ppg. and yielding 21.4 ppg. … They have not had a losing season since 2004.
About the Miners • They have lost five of their last six games. … They have held the Cougars to fewer than 30 points just once in the past 12 meetings. … They have been outscored 82-57 in the fourth quarter. … They are led in rushing by Joseph Banyard, who averages 5.7 yards per carry. … QB Trevor Vittatoe has competed 54.5 percent of his passes for 2,511 yards and 19 touchdowns.