This Saturday, much of the college football world's focus will be justifiably centered on Salt Lake City, as Utah hosts TCU — both ranked among the top 5 teams in the latest BCS rankings, with a BCS bowl berth hanging in the balance.
Forty-five miles south, in Provo, a 3-5 BYU team will welcome 1-7 UNLV in a comparatively insignificant game, although the Cougars' postseason hopes will also be in play.
A win over the hapless Rebels will leave BYU two wins away from bowl eligibility, with a realistic shot at finishing no lower than third in the Mountain West Conference standings. In a season that went from "promising" mode to "rebuilding" mode in a matter of weeks, a top-three finish in the league and a sixth consecutive bowl appearance would represent a best-case scenario, if also a serious come-down from the Cougars' previous lofty levels.
With victories over UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico — teams with a combined current record of 4-21 — BYU could secure postseason qualification even before its season-ending game at Utah. Three consecutive conference wins in the next three weeks would leave the Cougars with a 5-2 league record heading to the hill, and five league wins should be enough for no worse than a third-place tie with San Diego State and/or Air Force — teams with whom BYU would be competing in the bowl pecking order, once it comes time for MWC-affiliated postseason games to choose their dance partners.
Let's assume for a moment that the winner of the TCU-Utah game will play in a BCS bowl, and that the loser of that game will be picked by the Las Vegas Bowl. The MWC's next selection belongs to the Poinsettia Bowl, which could very well end up picking between three teams tied with 5-3 league records — those teams being San Diego State, Air Force and BYU.
The Poinsettia Bowl has reportedly coveted BYU for the last number of years, but this year's Cougar team is not of high-flying vintage. And now that SDSU is finally bowl-eligible, the hometown Aztecs and their built-in fan following are all but certain to stay home for the holidays.
Poinsettia Bowl Executive Director Bruce Binkowski said last week that "we have always had hopes we could one day match up San Diego State and Navy." The Midshipmen are tied to the Poinsettia Bowl, if postseason-eligible.
The ball would then be in the Independence Bowl's court, with that bowl using its third-selection status to ostensibly choose between Air Force and BYU — two teams which could conceivably end up separated by only one game in their overall records.
In years past, picking BYU would be a no-brainer for a bowl given the choice. But again, the Cougars have some work to do to be considered an overwhelmingly appealing selection — their nationwide fan base notwithstanding. Also a potential factor: Barksdale Air Force Base is just 10 miles outside of bowl venue Shreveport, La.
Conversely, while Air Force has some history with the Independence Bowl (appearing there in 1983 and 1984), BYU would present some novelty and coincidental buzz, if the Independence Bowl were to select a team going independent next season.
Of course, in this instance and all others, expect the execs at BYU's new business partner ESPN to carry some weight in determining which matchups will be the most ratings-worthy (ESPN is televising all five MWC-contracted bowls).
The Armed Forces and New Mexico Bowls are given the final two selections, but it is probable that only one of the bowls will be able to draw from the Mountain West Conference, since a maximum of five league teams are projected to qualify for the postseason. In that instance, the Fort Worth-based bowl would most likely be given priority, if it preferred to pick an MWC school.
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