These days, all a college football team has to do to earn a ticket to a bowl game is post a winning record. But 30 or 40 years ago, just being invited to a bowl was a big deal, and winning was even bigger.
Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State was the 31st bowl game in which the Cougars have played. They've posted a 13-17-1 record, with some incredible highs (the 1980 "Miracle" Holiday Bowl) and embarrassing lows (a 65-14 loss in the 1990 Holiday Bowl).
Here's a brief look at all 31 postseason games the Cougars have played, dating back to 1974.
The Fiesta Bowl is known now as one of the Bowl Championship Series games, but in 1974, it had only existed for four years. The Tempe, Ariz.-based contest originally provided an automatic berth for the WAC champion (at this point, Arizona and Arizona State were both WAC teams).
Quarterback Gary Sheide and coach LaVell Edwards had led BYU to a 7-3-1 record and the WAC championship, but the Cougars were stifled by a tough Oklahoma State defense and managed only two early field goals in a low-scoring affair.
Related: 1974 Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State 16, BYU 6
Now known as the Capital One Bowl (and formerly the Florida Citrus Bowl), the 1976 Tangerine Bowl featured the Cowboys and Cougars again. BYU came in as WAC champions again with a 9-2 record overall, while the Cowboys represented the now-defunct Big 8 with an 8-3 record.
This result ended up far more lopsided than the Fiesta Bowl two years prior, as OSU running back Terry Miller scored four touchdowns and broke bowl records for yardage. The Cougars trailed 28-14 at halftime and could draw no closer, running their bowl record to 0-2.
Related: 1976 Tangerine Bowl: Oklahoma State 49, BYU 21
This marked the first of seven straight Holiday Bowl appearances for the Cougars, as the new San Diego-based game now granted the WAC champion its automatic postseason berth. (The previous year, the Cougars were co-WAC champs and slated for the Fiesta Bowl, but with the game scheduled for a Sunday, BYU declined to participate.)
In this inaugural game, Navy came in with an 8-3 record and proved a difficult matchup for the Cougars. BYU shuffled between quarterbacks Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon and built a 16-3 lead in the third quarter. But the Midshipmen roared back in the fourth, scoring 20 unanswered points (including a 65-yard touchdown pass) for the win.
Related: 1978 Holiday Bowl: Navy 23, BYU 16
The Cougars returned to San Diego with an 11-0 record and a No. 9 national ranking. Led by quarterback Marc Wilson, BYU had narrowly defeated a ranked Texas A&M team on the road to open the year. They then romped through their WAC schedule, easily repeating as champions. Meanwhile, the 7-4 Hoosiers were led by head coach and future ESPN analyst Lee Corso.
The game was close throughout, with the lead changing hands several times. Two key plays came in the fourth quarter: Indiana punt returner Tim Wilbur scampered 62 yards for a touchdown to give the Hoosiers the lead, and BYU placekicker Brent Johnson missed a 27-yard field goal as time expired that would have won the game for the Cougars. BYU remained winless in bowl games at 0-4.
Related: 1979 Holiday Bowl: Indiana 38, BYU 37
BYU's first bowl win was also one of the most legendary games in the history of the program. BYU entered the matchup at 11-1, their only loss a season-opener at New Mexico. WAC champions again, the Cougars rode quarterback Jim McMahon to several blowout victories and a No. 14 ranking. Meanwhile, the Mustangs were no slouches, with an 8-3 record and a No. 19 ranking behind two star running backs: Craig James and Eric Dickerson.
Thus began the "Miracle Bowl." SMU leaped out to a 19-7 lead in the first quarter, and it looked like the Mustangs would run away with the game. They expanded their lead to 45-25 with four minutes remaining, and many BYU fans began leaving the stadium.
But no one told Jim McMahon the game was over. He connected on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Matt Braga with 2:33 left, a failed two-point conversion leaving the score 45-31. The Cougars recovered the ensuing onside kick, and McMahon led another touchdown drive, ending in a 1-yard Scott Phillips run. Phillips also caught a two-point conversion pass to make the score 45-39.
This time, the onside kick failed, and SMU looked poised to run out the clock. But the BYU defense stepped up, and Bill Schoepflin blocked the Mustangs' punt with 13 seconds left. After two incompletions, McMahon heaved a pass toward the end zone as time expired, and the Cougars' Clay Brown somehow out-jumped four SMU defenders to claim the ball and the tying touchdown. The extra point gave the Cougars the win, their first bowl victory, and a moment that will live in BYU lore forever.
Related: 1980 Holiday Bowl: BYU 46, SMU 45
The Cougars finished another successful season and WAC championship with an appearance in San Diego. Jim McMahon had led BYU to a 10-2 record and a No. 14 national ranking, while opponents Washington State had posted an 8-2-1 record and a No. 20 ranking.
This time, it was BYU trying to hold on to a late lead as Wazzu mounted a comeback attempt. Leading 31-7 in the third quarter, BYU watched as their opponents scored 21 unanswered points to close the gap to 31-28 heading into the fourth. McMahon added another touchdown pass to widen the lead, but Washington State answered again with a touchdown run and a completed two-point conversion.
Thankfully for BYU fans, Provo's Cougars grabbed the ensuing onside kick and did what SMU could not the year before, running out the clock for the win.
Related: 1981 Holiday Bowl: BYU 38, Washington State 36
In the Cougars' first post-McMahon season, they posted an 8-3 record, but losses at Georgia and Utah State and at home to Air Force left them without a national ranking. Still, led by Steve Young, the Cougars claimed yet another WAC championship and another trip to San Diego, this time against the No. 17 Buckeyes.
BYU took a brief 7-3 lead in the second quarter after a Steve Young touchdown pass to Neil Balholm. But it was all Buckeyes after that, as they scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter to seal the win.
Related: 1982 Holiday Bowl: Ohio State 47, BYU 17
In Steve Young's final year as a Cougar quarterback, BYU secured its eighth consecutive WAC championship and sixth straight Holiday Bowl appearance with a 10-1 record and a No. 9 national ranking. They entered the bowl game as heavy favorites over the 7-4 Missouri Tigers, but the game ended up closer than anyone would have guessed.
Missouri scored first and matched the Cougar offense play for play, even taking a 10-7 lead into halftime. After a BYU score in the third, Missouri took a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter on running back Eric Drain's second rushing touchdown of the game.
That set the stage for another dramatic finish, this time on a trick play. Young handed the ball off to running back Eddie Stinnett, who ran right, then stopped and threw back across the field to Young, who caught the pass and dashed into the end zone for the winning score.
Related: 1983 Holiday Bowl: BYU 21, Missouri 17
While not as dramatic as the 1980 "Miracle" Bowl, this bowl win is probably the most significant in BYU history, as it secured the school's first and only national championship.
The Cougars entered the matchup on a 23-game winning streak, having survived close games against Pittburgh, Hawaii, Wyoming and Air Force. They were the only undefeated team in the nation and ranked No. 1 in the polls. Despite criticism that their schedule was too weak for a national champion, the consensus was that a Holiday Bowl win would give BYU the title.
After being turned down by several teams, the Holiday Bowl finally secured the 6-5 Wolverines, who had had an inconsistent season. They came close to thwarting BYU's undefeated dream, but the Cougars persevered.
BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco suffered a knee ligament strain on the second drive of the game. He was replaced for one possession by backup Blaine Fowler, but Bosco returned and gutted out an incredible performance. He scrambled for a key first down on the Cougars' first touchdown drive and led BYU on the two-minute drill for a field goal just before halftime.
In the third quarter, BYU's mistakes kept Michigan in the game, as the Cougars had five turnovers overall on the day. Michigan blocked a BYU field goal attempt and scored on the ensuing drive, putting the Wolverines up 14-10. They tacked on a field goal in the fourth quarter to make the score 17-10.
Bosco connected with Glenn Kozlowski to tie the game at 17, but a deflection on the Cougars' next possession led to an interception. The BYU defense forced a Michigan punt, and a wounded Bosco led the Cougars on one last drive, culminating with a touchdown pass to Kelly Smith with 1:23 left on the clock. An interception sealed the win and the national championship for the Cougars.
Related: 1984 Holiday Bowl: BYU 24, Michigan 17
The Cougars' second bowl matchup with the Buckeyes wasn't as lopsided, but it still ended with Ohio State on top. BYU's winning streak had snapped earlier that season with a loss to UCLA, but they still boasted an 11-2 record and another WAC co-championship.
The Cougars had numerous late chances to win this low-scoring affair, but three BYU drives in the fourth quarter ended in failure, including a late interception in the end zone that sealed the game.
Related: 1985 Citrus Bowl: Ohio State 10, BYU 7
For the first time in 10 years, the Cougars failed to claim even a piece of the WAC championship, leaving the team at 8-4 and playing in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim against the hometown Bruins, who were ranked No. 15 in the nation.
While BYU's Mike Young and Bob Jensen battled for quarterback time, UCLA's Gaston Green galloped over the Cougar defense for 266 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Green even threw a late touchdown pass to teammate Karl Dorrell in the fourth quarter. The Cougars had no chance in this one.
Related: 1986 Freedom Bowl: UCLA 31, BYU 10
Previously known as the Hall of Fame Classic, the All-American Bowl, played in Birmingham, Ala., existed from 1977 to 1990 and pitted two at-large teams. BYU entered the game with a 9-3 record, but with Wyoming going 8-0 in WAC play, a Holiday Bowl berth was out of the question. They matched up against 7-4 Virginia instead.
Virginia took a 14-3 lead into halftime, and while BYU mounted a second-half comeback led by quarterback Sean Covey, the Cavaliers defense held on for the win. Covey did post 394 yards passing with one touchdown in a losing effort.
Related: 1987 All-American Bowl: Virginia 22, BYU 16
This game is probably best known as Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer's coming-out party. The Cougars had lost three of their last four regular season games, finishing with an 8-4 record, while the Buffaloes were 8-3 and poised for several years of success. BYU looked outmatched in the first half as the Buffs took a 14-7 lead into halftime.
Detmer started the second half for the Cougars and completed 11 of 19 passes for 129 yards, leading the Cougars to two field goals by now-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, including the game winner.
Related: 1988 Freedom Bowl: BYU 20, Colorado 17
The 10-2 Cougars, led by Ty Detmer, finally claimed their first WAC championship in four years and returned to the Holiday Bowl after a five-year absence. They faced the 7-3-1 Nittany Lions, ranked No. 18 in the country.
Detmer posted incredible numbers in a losing effort, completing 42 of 59 passes for 576 yards. But he also made key mistakes down the stretch, including losing a fumble that Penn State's Gary Brown returned 53 yards for a touchdown on what could have been the game-winning drive.
Related: 1989 Holiday Bowl: Penn State 50, BYU 39
After upsetting No. 1 Miami in the second game of the season, the stage was set for the Cougars to have an unprecedented year. They rose to No. 4 in the national rankings twice before losses at Oregon and at Hawaii cut them down. Still, the Cougars entered the 1990 Holiday Bowl with a chance to finish a solid season.
Those hopes were short-lived, as the Aggies ran all over the Cougars. They scored 23 unanswered points in the second quarter to take a 37-7 lead into halftime, and things only got worse from there. Heisman winner Ty Detmer suffered two shoulder separations and had to leave the game twice, but the game was over long before then.
Related: 1990 Holiday Bowl: Texas A&M 65, BYU 14
For a third straight year, the Cougars earned the outright WAC championship and a Holiday Bowl berth. But this time, they were clear underdogs against the 10-1 Hawkeyes, who boasted a No. 7 national ranking.
This final college game for Ty Detmer turned out to be the lowest-scoring game in Holiday Bowl history to date and the last bowl ever to end in a tie. The Cougars had a chance to take the lead with just over four minutes left, and Detmer led them on a drive to the Iowa 18-yard-line. But a deflected pass led to his only interception of the game, sealing the tie.
Related: 1991 Holiday Bowl: BYU 13, Iowa 13
The Cougars have had a difficult time playing in the islands, and this bowl game was no different. BYU had already lost once at Aloha Stadium that season, leaving the Cougars with just a share of the WAC championship. Their opponents, Kansas, came in with a 7-4 record and were playing for their first bowl win in 31 years.
The Jayhawks came away with that elusive win because the Cougars missed opportunities. After Hema Heimuli returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, the Cougars built a 20-10 lead in the third quarter. But multiple drives stalled in Kansas territory after that, including two missed field goals. A botched extra point allowed Kansas to tie the game at 20, and a late drive allowed the Jayhawks to boot the game-winning field goal.
Related: 1992 Aloha Bowl: Kansas 23, BYU 20
The Cougars stumbled to a 6-5 record -- somehow good enough for another three-way share of the WAC title -- and faced their old bowl foes, Ohio State, for the third time in history. Unfortunately for BYU fans, the result was the same.
The Buckeyes entered the game with a 9-1-1 record and No. 11 national ranking, and coach John Cooper had guaranteed months before that his team would win its bowl game. But BYU battled to keep the score close.
Cougar quarterback John Walsh threw two touchdown passes in the second quarter to tie the game at 21. But Buckeye running back Raymont Harris scored his third touchdown of the game in the third quarter, and a last-second throw from Walsh to Eric Drage fell short, giving Ohio State its third straight bowl win over BYU.
Related: 1993 Holiday Bowl: Ohio State 28, BYU 21
BYU earned its first bowl win in six years over the Sooners in Arizona. For the 9-3 Cougars, ranked No. 22 in the nation, it was the biggest margin of victory in the school's bowl history to date, and it tied the Sooners' biggest postseason loss as well.
John Walsh led the Cougars all game, posting 454 passing yards and four touchdowns. The Cougars jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead, and the Sooners didn't score at all until the fourth quarter, when the outcome was already settled. The win gave BYU its first 10-win season in four years.
Related: 1994 Copper Bowl: BYU 31, Oklahoma 6
After missing out on postseason play for the first time in 17 years in 1995, BYU returned to national prominence in 1996. Led by quarterback Steve Sarkisian, the Cougars upset Texas A&M to open the year and posted a 13-1 record, their only loss coming at Washington.
The newly formed Bowl Alliance, the ancestor of the modern BCS, declined to invite the Cougars, despite a higher ranking than at-large choices Nebraska and Penn State. Instead, the Cougars headed to Dallas for their first-ever New Year's Day game, facing the 9-2 Wildcats.
Star BYU linebacker Shay Muirbrook opened the game with a safety of KSU quarterback Brian Kavanagh, and the Cougars added a field goal in the first quarter, giving them a strange 5-0 lead. The BYU defense nearly held the Wildcats scoreless in the first half, but a Hail Mary pass to end the half gave K-State an 8-5 lead.
The Wildcats scored again in the third quarter, after which their star defensive back Chris Canty had to leave the game with cramps. Sarkisian immediately attacked the KSU secondary without Canty, throwing a touchdown pass to James Dye early in the fourth quarter.
Another K-State defensive injury helped Sarkisian find K.O. Kealaluhi for the go-ahead score, and BYU's own secondary stepped up with an interception to seal the win for the Cougars. They ended the season with a No. 5 ranking.
Related: 1996 Cotton Bowl: BYU 19, Kansas State 15
While the Cougars lost the WAC championship game to Air Force, the Liberty Bowl still selected 9-4 BYU as its first-choice WAC representative in 1998. Tulane entered the game undefeated at 11-0 and ranked No. 10 in all polls, led by star quarterback Shaun King.
BYU scored first when quarterback Kevin Feterik found Ben Horton for an 11-yard touchdown, but Tulane scored 34 unanswered points to put the game out of reach. The Cougars' 21 fourth-quarter points were too little, too late.
Related: 1998 Liberty Bowl: Tulane 41, BYU 27
In the inaugural season of the Mountain West Conference, formed when eight teams broke away from the bloated, 16-team WAC, the Cougars earned part of a three-way championship tie with Utah and Colorado State. They posted an 8-3 record and faced another undefeated mid-major team in Marshall, ranked No. 11 nationally.
With star running back Luke Staley playing through numerous injuries, the Cougars couldn't get anything going offensively. Quarterback Kevin Feterik was injured in the third quarter as well, leaving backups Bret Engemann and Charlie Peterson to fend off a hungry Marshall defense. It didn't go well.
Related: 1999 Motor City Bowl: Marshall 21, BYU 3
After missing the postseason in LaVell Edwards' final year as head coach, the Cougars bounced back under Gary Crowton. Led by quarterback Brandon Doman and running back Luke Staley, the Cougars posted a 12-0 record and a No. 10 national ranking entering their final regular-season game at Hawaii.
However, Staley had broken his leg during the previous game, and the new Bowl Championship Series informed the Cougars that they would not be selected for one of its prestigious games. Demoralized by the news and depleted by injuries, the Cougars lost to Hawaii 72-45, sealing their Liberty Bowl fate.
Unfortunately, BYU played no better in Memphis, as Louisville quarterback Dave Ragone led the Cardinals to a 14-7 halftime lead and never looked back. The Cougars would end the year unranked.
Related: 2001 Liberty Bowl: Louisville 28, BYU 10
After a four-year bowl absence, new BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall led the Cougars to a 6-5 record and a second-place finish in the Mountain West Conference. With conference champion TCU headed to the Houston Bowl, the Cougars were selected to play in Las Vegas against 7-4 Cal.
Despite talented Cal stars Marshawn Lynch and Desean Jackson, BYU battled to keep the game close in the first half. But the Bears increased their lead to 35-14 late in the third quarter, and despite a late comeback from BYU quarterback John Beck, Cal held on for the win.
Related: 2005 Las Vegas Bowl: California 35, BYU 28
After a 1-2 start to the regular season, the Cougars reeled off nine straight wins to capture their first Mountain West Conference championship and earn a second straight Las Vegas Bowl berth. They faced the unranked Ducks, who entered the game with a 7-5 record.
Despite predictions of a close matchup, BYU dominated the game. After a scoreless first quarter, the Cougars exploded for 31 straight points, putting the game away early in the second half. Quarterback John Beck threw for 375 yards and two touchdowns and tight end Jonny Harline caught nine passes for 181 yards and a touchdown, earning him MVP honors.
Related: 2006 Las Vegas Bowl: BYU 38, Oregon 8
The Cougars made their third straight Las Vegas Bowl appearance after another 10-2 regular season and a second straight outright Mountain West Conference title. The 6-5 Bruins were led by former BYU quarterback Ben Olsen, who had transferred to UCLA. They also had an interim coach, DeWayne Walker, after former coach Karl Dorrell was fired.
Despite that turmoil, UCLA battled BYU throughout the game. Both teams traded blows in the first half, with BYU taking a 17-13 lead into halftime after both teams scored touchdowns in the final minute of the second quarter.
The Cougars' slim lead held up as their defense strengthened. They capped off their effort with Eathyn Manumaleuna's fingertip block of what would have been a game-winning UCLA field goal attempt as time expired. With that, the Cougars tallied bowl wins in consecutive season for the first time since 1983-84.
Related: 2007 Las Vegas Bowl: BYU 17, UCLA 16
For the third straight year, BYU entered the Las Vegas Bowl with a 10-2 record, though not as Mountain West Conference champions. (The undefeated Utah Utes played in the Sugar Bowl that year.) They faced the 7-5 Arizona Wildcats, led by head coach Mike Stoops and quarterback Willie Tuitama.
BYU entered the game as favorites, but Arizona struck first, scoring 10 straight points to open the game. But the Cougars answered with a Harvey Unga touchdown run and a Max Hall pass to tight end Andrew George, giving BYU a 14-10 lead.
From there, Tuitama took over, leading the Wildcats to three unanswered touchdowns, including one he ran in himself. Hall's late touchdown run wasn't enough to close the gap, and BYU fell to 2-2 in Las Vegas Bowl appearances.
Related: 2008 Las Vegas Bowl: Arizona 31, BYU 21
The Cougars leaped back into the top 10 after upsetting No. 3 Oklahoma in Dallas to open the season. But a home loss to Florida State spoiled BYU's undefeated hopes, and a later defeat at the hands of No. 7 TCU put a Mountain West Conference championship out of reach. Another 10-2 regular-season record and a fifth straight Las Vegas Bowl berth awaited the Cougars.
Strong winds played a large factor in the game, making punting and passing difficult. But BYU still managed to take a 23-7 halftime lead behind the strong running of Harvey Unga and a stout defensive effort. The Cougars held Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers to 63 yards, and Max Hall threw three touchdown passes despite the wind to lead BYU to another 11-2 season.
Related: 2009 Las Vegas Bowl: BYU 44, Oregon State 20
The Cougars struggled in their final season in the Mountain West Conference with a disappointing 6-6 regular-season record. The team struggled to settle on a quarterback, finally going with Jake Heaps for the last few games. UTEP, the Cougars' old WAC foes, also entered the matchup with a 6-6 record.
The bowl game proved to be the highlight of Heaps' BYU career. He threw for 264 yards and four touchdowns, and three of those were to star wide receiver Cody Hoffman. The Cougars leaped out to a 17-3 lead in the first quarter, and the game was never really in doubt after that.
Related: 2010 New Mexico Bowl: BYU 52, UTEP 24
In their first season as a football independent, the Cougars struggled early on. They hung with Texas in Austin, losing 17-16, and got blown away by archrival Utah in Provo. With an easier second-half schedule (and after benching quarterback Jake Heaps in favor of Riley Nelson), the Cougars recovered to finish the regular season at 9-3 and earn an invite to the Armed Forces Bowl in Texas.
Nelson was far from impressive in the game, as he finished just 17-of-40 for 250 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. But he came through when it mattered most. With 11 seconds left, on his own initiative, Nelson called a "fake spike" play, appearing to throw the ball into the ground to stop the block. Instead, he threw a pass to a wide-open Cody Hoffman for the game-winning score.
With that, BYU achieved three straight bowl wins for the first time in school history.
Related: 2011 Armed Forces Bowl: BYU 24, Tulsa 21
For more about BYU's 30 bowl appearances, read the Deseret News BYU Cougar bowl retrospective
Offense? Offense? Who needs an offense when you have all-everything, do-everything linebacker Kyle Van Noy?
While BYU struggled moving the ball and scoring points, Van Noy, who spearheaded another strong Cougar defensive effort Thursday night, pretty much took matters into his own hands and took control of the defensive slugfest in the fourth quarter.
In what could have been his final game in a BYU uniform, Van Noy scored two touchdowns in the Cougars' come-from-behind 23-6 Poinsettia Bowl victory over San Diego State before a crowd of 35,422 at Qualcomm Stadium.
It was arguably the most dominant defensive performance BYU has ever displayed in a bowl game, particularly when compared with how much the offense struggled.
Contributing: Landon Hemsley
Read more about the dominant BYU defense in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl.