"It is a great opportunity to play in front of a large crowd, not necessarily at the game, per se, but in front of a national TV audience," said BYU freshman quarterback Jake Heaps. "We get to show them what BYU football is all about, and how far we have come this season. That's been a good motivation for us."
Teams are allowed by the NCAA to practice 15 times between their last regular-season game and their bowl game. But because the New Mexico Bowl is first, the Cougars expect to get in only 11 practices.
Finals week begins Monday at BYU, another inconvenience that has limited practice time. Because the Cougars leave for Albuquerque on Wednesday morning, some players have had to ask their professors if they could take exams early, and took them Friday and Saturday.
"There has been a noticeable difference, in trying to work around" final exams, coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "The guys have to have their finals done by Tuesday, when they normally have all of [the] week to do it. … I think we are still preparing well, but there are a few more things we have to do at the same time."
The Cougars played in the Las Vegas Bowl (which is on Dec. 22 this year) the past five years, an arrangement that worked out well with finals and getting in the full 15 practices, or close to it. Friday, after the team's fifth practice, Mendenhall said none of the practices to date had featured the entire team, due to players missing them to take or prepare for tests, or because of some lingering injuries.
"We have some injuries on the offensive line, so the rest has helped us," he said. "We've had enough [players] to have an effective practice, but it is not a complete team."
The Cougars will practice Monday and Tuesday in Provo, Wednesday and Thursday in Albuquerque, then have a walkthrough at University Stadium on Friday.
Heaps missed last Monday's practice to catch up academically and heal his bruised rib cage and nonthrowing shoulder a bit more, but said Friday the practices have been intense and spirited. The younger players are excited to play in any bowl, and the older players are rejuvenated by a chance to play in a new bowl, after having gone to Las Vegas in the postseason their entire careers, he said.
"We are thankful for the opportunity," Heaps said, when asked if there are too many bowls. "I am not going to say that I would be sad if there was a playoff, or anything like that. It would be a great idea to truly have a national champion. But as far as a bowl game goes, it is a great opportunity for a lot of other teams to play. We're eager to play."
So far, though, it does not appear that BYU fans are eager to attend.
Megan Mayo, communications and tourism manager for the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, said BYU had sold about 1,000 of its allotted tickets as of Friday afternoon. That number only includes tickets purchased through BYU. School officials believe many fans are buying tickets through the bowl's website.
Whatever the case, Heaps said the Cougars expect to play well, but also expect a stiff challenge from UTEP.
A win "would definitely make it a successful season," Heaps said. " Obviously, our record would be 7-6 and not 6-7, so we would have a winning record. To us, it would be a huge accomplishment after the way we started the season. I am just so proud of our guys, for the way we have battled through adversity, and the way we have come together as a team."
Fifth annualNew Mexico Bowl
P Where • University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
Who • BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
When • Saturday, noon
TV • ESPN