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San Diego • In one of the most entertaining, dramatic and meaningful BYU football games I've ever witnessed, the Cougars won by tying San Diego State.

In Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl against the Aztecs, BYU can only lose.

That's just a slight exaggeration. The Cougars would benefit by beating SDSU at Qualcomm Stadium, but they have a lot more to lose in this game. If they finish this season with a 7-6 record and a loss to the only Mountain West school they've met since leaving the league, it would make for an awfully long winter in Provo.

BYU earned a Western Athletic Conference championship with an amazing comeback that gave them a 52-52 tie with SDSU here in 1991. There's no chance of a tie Thursday, thanks to overtime provisions. With so much fan discontentment regarding BYU right now, I'm not sure a bowl victory could significantly alter the perception of the program. But a loss definitely would make it worse.

The only redeeming factor that could emerge from the Poinsettia Bowl is a big performance from freshman running back Jamaal Williams. He's the one player who could inspire hope for 2013, when the Cougars will face an ambitious schedule.

Otherwise, major offensive production will only make fans feel worse, especially if senior quarterback James Lark ends up starting and playing well. If junior receiver Cody Hoffman has a huge night, he'll be more likely to leave for the NFL. Same for linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

The circumstances were different in the 2010 New Mexico Bowl against Texas-El Paso or even the 2011 Armed Forces Bowl vs. Tulsa. Two years ago, the promise exhibited by BYU's three freshman stars — quarterback Jake Heaps, running back Joshua Quezada and Hoffman — brightened the offseason. Of course, two of those three transferred by the start of this season.

Last December, quarterback Riley Nelson's game-winning pass to Hoffman was enough to encourage fans about his ability to become more than a serviceable QB. But now? No matter what happens against SDSU, the Cougars will be starting over offensively, with quarterback Taysom Hill recovering from a knee injury and the specter of more coaching staff changes to follow the minor overhaul of two years ago.

For the sake of this season itself, BYU's No. 3-ranked defense deserves to be rewarded with a good finish. Yet there's no going back and replaying the tough losses to the likes of Boise State and Notre Dame that could have changed the Cougars' season dramatically.

As it is, they underachieved only because the defense generally performed so well. With the schedule sending them to Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, the Cougars were likely to finish about 8-4. Ultimately, the fact BYU could have won any of those games makes the defeats more disappointing.

As it turned out, Oregon State was better than anyone expected and Georgia Tech was worse. So those games evened out. Where the Cougars really fell short was in losing at San Jose State.

That leaves them looking for an eighth win Thursday, when a victory just will leave their fans wishing for more.

Twitter: @tribkurt