DALLAS — BYU is looking to mark its first season as an independent with double-digit victories.
To accomplish that feat, the 9-3 Cougars must beat Tulsa today (10 a.m., MT, ESPN) when the two teams collide in the Armed Forces Bowl at SMU's Ford Stadium.
"We don't talk about getting to 10 wins a lot, but for me personally as a player, knowing that I was on a team that won 10 games is really something special," said junior quarterback Riley Nelson. "Not a lot of programs do that. It really puts you in the upper tier of college football. People will say what they will about the schedule, but if winning 10 games were easy, everybody would be doing it. And that's not the case. For me, it's definitely a motivating factor. As people look back on the season and the history that you wrote, having a 10-3 record is a great accomplishment that you can take a lot of pride in."
By beating the Golden Hurricane, the Cougars would also notch at least 10 victories in five out of the last six seasons, which, coach Bronco Mendenhall said, "reflects the consistency that we're after."
Winning this bowl game would mean a measure of validation for BYU, as well as serve as a springboard for the 2012 season.
"What I've learned in six bowl games is, it's one thing to go to the game, it's another thing to win it," said Mendenhall. "The momentum it can generate, the finish it lends to your seniors and the feeling overall is just much better for your program when you're able to win."
"We've worked really hard to get to a bowl game," Nelson said. "Once you're in a bowl game, you don't want to lose because it leaves a bad taste in your mouth through winter. Fortunately in my two years here, we won both bowl games. It keeps morale high through winter workouts, which at times can be a bit of a drag. You just want to finish off the season right."
The Cougars are also seeking their third consecutive bowl win for the first time in school history.
And with no conference championship to play for this year, the bowl game offers BYU a chance to claim a trophy.
"That's our goal to win a bowl game," said senior linebacker Jameson Frazier. "That's our championship right there."
Still, Mendenhall said the most important thing to him is seeing the seniors "finish on a positive note."
For seniors like Frazier, today's game amounts to the final opportunity to make a statement. "We want to be one of the best teams in the country," he said. "A win here would definitely propel us forward to that. We lost to some good teams this year and so did they. They're a really good team and they've put up a lot of points. This win would help our program to become an elite team that we want to be."
"As a football team, we're best friends," said backup quarterback James Lark. "We're with each other every day for hours. I see Riley and these guys more than I see my own wife, so we don't want to go out with a loss for our seniors. We want to go out and finish the season right. We want to win."
Not only are BYU and Tulsa (8-4) highly motivated, but they also have plenty in common.
"Both are quality programs looking for a great game with very similar personnel, similar seasons and a lot of the same things to play for," Mendenhall said. "We're playing a good opponent. It's a great matchup for us. We love the matchup because they're a hungry team, anxious to win."
Both lost early-season games — the Cougars started 1-2 while the Golden Hurricane began 1-3 — before putting together winning streaks. Both are led by fiery quarterbacks that are dangerous as passers and runners.
"Our programs mirror each other in a lot of ways," said Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship.
And over the last five years, BYU (48-16) ranks No. 12 in the country in overall record during that span. Tulsa (44-21) is No. 20.
"I'm really intrigued and excited about playing Tulsa," Mendenhall said. "You have two of the most winning programs in the country over the past five or six years and you have two teams with similar seasons."
Because the two teams appear to be evenly matched, with explosive offenses, many observers see this bowl as a shootout that might not be decided until the waning moments.
"I think both teams will be hungry and motivated as most of the bowl games I've seen this year seem to be good matchups and came down to the end. I wouldn't be surprised if that happens in our game," Mendenhall said. "There's a reason most people are predicting this to be an even football game going into it. Both teams are similar. I think both teams are anxious to play a quality opponent on a nice stage to finish the season. A lot's at stake."
COUGARS ON THE AIR
Armed Forces Bowl
Tulsa (8-4) vs. BYU (9-3)
Dec. 30, 10 a.m., MT
Ford Stadium, Dallas
TV: ESPN Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM