SALT LAKE CITY — Over the years, the annual Utah-BYU game has rarely determined league championships, but has often determined where each team spends its holidays playing in a bowl game.
For instance last year, the winner of the annual grudge match was likely headed to the Las Vegas Bowl with the loser going to the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. That's exactly what happened after the Cougars took a 26-23 victory in overtime.
The year before, the Utes needed to win their game against the Cougars in Salt Lake City to get a BCS bowl invitation, which they did and headed to the Sugar Bowl six weeks later, while the Cougars settled for the Las Vegas Bowl.
This year, there might not be as much intrigue as to which bowl game each team may be headed. Most officials of leagues and universities don't want to be quoted about bowl possibilities because of the fear of offending other teams or bowls, but a few things appear pretty clear.
If TCU gets a BCS bowl bid, Utah is likely to be invited to the Las Vegas Bowl, regardless of Saturday's outcome. With a win, the Utes are a shoo-in at 10-2, second place in the league and a probable top-20 ranking. With a loss, the Utes are 9-3, but still tied for second and two games better than BYU's 7-5 mark.
BYU appears to be a good candidate for either the Armed Forces Bowl, which will be played in Dallas instead of Fort Worth this year, or the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque with an outside shot at the Las Vegas Bowl.
The other two Mountain West Conference-affiliated bowls appear to be pretty set, with San Diego State being coveted by the hometown Poinsettia Bowl, and the Independence Bowl wanting Air Force because Barksdale Air Force Base lies on the outskirts of Shreveport, La.
Tina Kunzer-Murphy, the executive director of the Las Vegas Bowl, said her bowl is looking at four MWC teams and a host of other schools for the other berth.
"We're closely watching to see if TCU gets a BCS berth and will obviously look at a 9-2 Utah team and 8-4 Air Force, which has finished its season," she said. "And BYU has played its way into the bowl picture by winning four straight. They've been great for our bowl and we've had a great relationship with them."
Kunzer-Murphy acknowledged that her bowl is not looking at San Diego State because it is most likely going to want to play at its hometown bowl.
The Poinsettia Bowl could look to Utah if the Utes finish 10-2 and are ranked and TCU gets bumped down to the Las Vegas Bowl. But that still may not happen unless the Aztecs happen to lose to lowly UNLV this week and finish 7-5.
The biggest worry for the Las Vegas Bowl is getting an opponent for its MWC representative.
The bowl is supposed to get the No. 5 team from the Pac-10, but it's very unlikely the Pac-10 will be able to fulfill its spot.
Only three schools right now are bowl-eligible — Oregon (10-0), Stanford (10-1) and Arizona (7-3). USC (7-4) is on NCAA probation and ineligible to play in a bowl, while Washington State (2-9) is the only school out of consideration.
The other five schools have chances to finish with six wins, but it may be tough for two more to make it.
Cal (5-6) is the most likely to become bowl eligible, with a home game against Washington.
Oregon State (5-5) only needs one win, but plays at Stanford this week and concludes its season Dec. 4 by hosting No. 1-ranked Oregon.
UCLA, Arizona State and Washington are each 4-6 and would have to win out to become bowl eligible.
"We're looking at everybody, including at-large teams and independents," said Kunzer-Murphy. "A lot of things can still happen."
She said the SEC, Big 12 and ACC might have an extra eligible team and the MAC might have two.
Among the Las Vegas Bowl opponents mentioned as possibilities from various sources are Tennessee, Louisville, Toledo and Notre Dame.
Brent Ringler, the Armed Forces Bowl executive director, said his bowl would be excited to have either BYU or Utah and said they were two of the main candidates since San Diego State and Air Force appear to be going to the Poinsettia and Independence bowls.
"We've had Utah before, but never had BYU," Ringler said. "We'd be happy to have either team."
The opponent in the Armed Forces Bowl is from Conference USA and the league will be able to fill all of its slots. SMU would be an ideal choice since the bowl game will be played in its stadium and other possibilities are Tulsa and UTEP.
Ringler said the bowl is already sold out, so the bowl doesn't have to worry about selling tickets to incoming fans besides those designated for the participating schools.
Any bowl matchups won't be officials until Dec. 5 after the BCS bowl selections are made.
Scenarios. . .UTAH. . .BYU
Most likely. . .Las Vegas. . .Armed Forces
Possibility. . .Armed Forces, Poinsettia. . .New Mexico
Probably not. . .Independence. . .Independence, Las Vegas
Unlikely. . .New Mexico. . .Poinsettia
Mountain West Conference bowl affiliations
Bowl. . .Date. . .Time. . .Place. . .Most likely team*
1. Las Vegas. . .Dec. 22. . .6 p.m.. . .Las Vegas. . .Utah
2. Poinsettia. . .Dec. 23. . .6 p.m.. . .San Diego. . .San Diego State
3. Independence. . .Dec. 27. . .4 p.m.. . .Shreveport. . .Air Force7 comments on this story
4. Armed Forces. . .Dec. 30. . .11 a.m.. . .Dallas. . .BYU
5. New Mexico. . .Dec. 18. . .Noon. . .Albuquerque. . .non-MWC team
*Assuming TCU gets a BCS bowl berth