PROVO — For BYU, dreams of playing in a BCS bowl game evaporated weeks ago. In their first year of independence, the Cougars can't even compete for a conference championship.
So, fresh off its road victory over the Pac-12's Oregon State, what does BYU (5-2) have to play for the rest of the season?
"There is a sense of urgency to see how fast we can help this team reach its potential. With five regular-season games to go, that is our focus, that is our mindset," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "We have a lot to play for, knowing that we still haven't played to the best of our ability yet. To me, that's what the real motivation is."
The Cougars have won four consecutive games and they host Idaho State of the Big Sky Conference on Saturday (1 p.m., MT, BYUtv).
With a win over the Bengals, a Football Championship Subdivision team, BYU will officially become bowl eligible.
During the offseason, the Cougars signed a deal to play in the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 30, as long as they were bowl eligible and not selected by a BCS bowl. BYU is slated to face an opponent from Conference USA.
The biggest test remaining on the regular-season schedule looms on Oct. 28, when the Cougars face TCU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The combined record of the Cougars' remaining opponents — Idaho State, TCU, Idaho, New Mexico State and Hawaii — is 13-19. The Horned Frogs (4-2) are the only foe on the schedule with a winning record right now.
BYU opened the season with a 1-2 record and is on a bit of a roll. It's reminiscent of other years under Mendenhall, which have featured slow starts, capped by a strong finish.
The Cougars started 1-3 in his inaugural campaign before ending up 6-6. In both 2006 and 2007, BYU was 1-2, but finished 11-2. In 2009, the Cougars opened 2-1 but went 11-2.
"It's shaping out to be a season similar to some of the other double-digit win seasons that we've had," Mendenhall said. "This team, because there is talent and potential, the execution is now starting to catch up with some of that will and talent and potential. That's really what we've been pressing and we'd like to see that continue.
"Now the talent is starting to be utilized and the will is still there and the execution is coming. When all three of those meet, then we become a good team. That's what we're capable of."
Last year, BYU stumbled to a 1-4 start before ending up 7-6.
"We're kind of walking with a swagger," he said. "It feels good, knowing that we're on a four-game winning streak and we want to keep it going. Our performance has been a lot better at every position. The (offensive) line is blocking better and the running backs are running harder and rushing for almost 300 yards a game. It's definitely there. We're just dominating right now."
BYU entered the season with high expectations. After a season-opening victory at Ole Miss, the Cougars dropped a heartbreaker at Texas, 17-16, after squandering a 13-3 halftime lead. One week later, Utah clobbered BYU in Provo, 54-10, in a contest that saw the Cougars surrender seven turnovers, including six fumbles.
BYU then defeated Central Florida by seven points. The turning point of the season came when Riley Nelson replaced ineffective starting quarterback Jake Heaps in the third quarter against Utah State. With the feisty Nelson at the controls of the offense, the Cougars scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to erase an 11-point deficit and down the Aggies, 27-24.
In the past two games as the starter, Nelson has led BYU to wins over San Jose State and Oregon State.
Where did Mendenhall think his team would be seven games into the season?
"I wasn't certain where we would be at this point," he said. "I knew we had some good teams to play, tough road games early on with Ole Miss and Texas. I believed that Central Florida would be a good team, which they were. I knew Utah State would be good on offense, which they were. I knew Oregon State would be a tough road trip, which it was. And we're 5-2, with a chance, gaining momentum, to compete to win every game remaining on our schedule. So it's exciting … Whether I was expecting to be undefeated or not? Hopeful. But I think we're making progress and gaining momentum."
Under coach Bronco Mendenhall, BYU has enjoyed strong performances during the final months of the season. Here's a look at each of Mendenhall's seven years at the helm:
YEAR START FINISH FINAL RECORD
2005 1-3 5-3 6-6
2006 1-2 10-0 11-2
2007 1-2 10-0 11-2
2008 6-0 4-3 10-3
2009 2-1 9-1 11-2
2010 1-4 5-2 6-6
2011 1-2 ??? ???
Cougars on the air
Idaho State (2-5) at BYU (5-2)
Saturday, 1 p.m. MT
LaVell Edwards Stadium
TV: BYUtv Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM