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Brian Nicholson, Deseret Morning News
Koa Misi of Utah picks up a fumbled New Mexico ball and runs for the end zone. Utah won seven straight games to become bowl eligible.

In this era of college football, there are the Bowl Championship Series conferences and everybody else.

For non-BCS schools like BYU, Utah and the rest of the Mountain West Conference, victories — in terms of national respect — are difficult to come by. But as they prepare for the upcoming bowl season, the Cougars and Utes will do their best to defend the league's reputation.

That's why it's important that BYU and Utah — and three other MWC teams — win their bowl games.

Over the past year, the Cougars and Utes have upheld the MWC's honor in many ways.

BYU (10-2) completed back-to-back outright, undefeated MWC championships, own one of the nation's longest winning streaks (currently, it's nine straight wins) and jumped back into the national rankings. A year ago, the Cougars won their first bowl game in 10 years with a 38-8 thrashing of Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl.

A win over UCLA (6-6) in this year's Las Vegas Bowl would give BYU a 10-game winning streak. It would also serve as a launching pad for next season, when the Cougars return almost all of their offensive players, to make a run at a BCS bowl.

"It is going to give us another chance to gain some national recognition," said linebacker Kelly Poppinga of the Las Vegas Bowl rematch with the Bruins. "Right now, we're 17th in the BCS standings and winning this game gives us a chance to enter next season ranked and a better chance to get into a BCS game."

Though UCLA finished in fourth place in the Pac-10 and fired coach Karl Dorrell after the season, a victory would be the Cougars' third over a Pac-10 team in two seasons.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is taking the approach that this bowl game against UCLA will help to keep building the program.

"We're not looking to ignore or view this game as one that we are settling for," he said. "We have a tremendous chance to improve our team and I view it as a real blessing and an opportunity to do that. Our conference championships have paved the way to return to national prominence, but playing well in the postseason will solidify that. There's

a lot to play for.

"I'm pleased we've won the conference two years in a row, and we have done some very impressive things," Mendenhall continued. "On the national level, under the current circumstances and criteria, unless you are undefeated those games aren't available to us. So, we'll continue to work as a program to perform week-in and week-out to perform at that standard. Right now, we have another chance to grow and get better, and it's a great

opportunity for us."

Utah (8-4), meanwhile, arose from the ashes of a 1-3 start to win seven consecutive games before concluding the regular season with a heartbreaking setback to the Cougars. In the Poinsettia Bowl, the Utes face Navy (8-4), a team that leads the nation in rushing, but recently lost head coach Paul Johnson to Georgia Tech.

Utah boasts victories over BCS teams like UCLA and Louisville this season and claims the second-longest active bowl-winning streak in the country. The Utes have won six consecutive bowl games, including the Fiesta Bowl, which capped its amazing 12-0 campaign in 2004. Only Boston College, with a seven-game bowl-winning streak, has been as consistently good as the Utes in the postseason.

"We've got one goal in mind, and that's to win seven bowl games in a row," said Utah safety Steve Tate. "That's the only thing on our mind right now."

"We take it serious," coach Kyle Whittingham said of his team's bowl preparation. "It's all in the preparation of the players."

For the first time in league history, the MWC has five teams going bowling. TCU (7-5) faces Houston (8-4) in the Texas Bowl; New Mexico (8-4) takes on Nevada (6-6) in the New Mexico Bowl; and Air Force (9-3) meets California (6-6) in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Four of the league's five bowl games — the Las Vegas, Poinsettia, New Mexico and Armed Forces — will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. That's ironic, since the MWC bolted out of its television deal with ESPN to sign a new contract with CSTV, one that has prevented much of the country from watching MWC teams play. In other words, bowl season is about as close as MWC teams come to a national stage.

Should BYU and Utah, the MWC's two flagship schools, lose their bowl games, the momentum they've built up will all but vanish. On the other hand, wins over UCLA and Navy won't raise any eyebrows, either.

The MWC is coming off an outstanding bowl performance a year ago. The league went 3-1, with BYU, Utah and TCU recording impressive victories.

If the MWC is to earn more respect, it needs to continue to win its bowl games.

Current bowl-game winning streaks

(of teams playing in bowl games this season)

7 — Boston College

6 — Utah

4 — Bowling Green

3 — Oregon State, Southern Miss, Texas, Maryland, Hawaii

2 — Cincinnati, TCU, Mississippi State, Penn State, California, Wisconsin, Florida, West Virginia, LSU

Longest current winning streaks in college football

13 — Hawaii

9 — BYU

7 — Central Florida

6 — Georgia

5 — Virginia Tech

4 — Illinois, Navy, Bowling Green, USC, Florida

3 — South Florida, Memphis, Air Force, Oregon State, Louisiana-Monroe

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com