ALBUQUERQUE — As BYU faces UTEP today in the New Mexico Bowl, it marks the program's final game as a member of the Mountain West Conference.
But the Cougars are looking forward, not back, as they prepare to navigate an uncharted course as an independent next fall.
"I've given no thought to the Mountain West Conference part of it," coach Bronco Mendenhall said Friday. "While the Mountain West affiliation has been great, when it comes down to playing a game, representing the institution and the team becomes a lot more meaningful than a particular conference."
After today, the next time BYU takes the field — on Sept. 3, 2011, in Oxford, Miss., against Mississippi of the Southeastern Conference — it will be an independent program.
But today, the Cougars (6-6) are only focused on beating the Miners (6-6). It's a chance to clinch a winning season.
"It's two teams that are very hungry to play one more time and get one more win," Mendenhall said.
BYU certainly doesn't want to embark on its journey into independence on the heels of a losing record.
"We haven't thought about this being our last game (in the MWC) as much as this is the last time this season to make a statement," said junior left tackle Matt Reynolds. "We want to make a statement that, yeah, we may have struggled at the beginning of the season, but that we can learn and grow and that the experience we've gained has been what's helped us get to where we are now."
Today's game also helps the Cougars launch their new eight-year partnership with ESPN. The New Mexico Bowl is the first bowl of the season — the first of 35 to come. BYU is seeking national exposure, and this game on ESPN provides that.
"It's a great stage to open the bowl season," Mendenhall said.
"The fact that it is the first game, hopefully football fans will tune in and watch," said senior safety Andrew Rich. "We hope we can put on a show for them and play at a high level."
Said senior wide receiver Luke Ashworth: "I've heard (the New Mexico Bowl) has better (TV) ratings than the Las Vegas Bowl because it's the first game, and people are watching."
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, who has worked tirelessly to help the school make this transition to independence, knows what today's game means.
"It's one of the nice things about the New Mexico Bowl — that you're first. You get a lot of run from the ESPN advertisements," said Holmoe, who secured deals this week for the Cougars to play in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl and the 2013 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. "A lot of football junkies will tune in. We're kicking it off.
"But we have to play well. If there's a lot of people watching and you stink the place up, that doesn't bode very well. We have a great opportunity, for our seniors and for our team, to take a step forward. We're one of the many stories in college football and people are watching. It's a real important game."
Mendenhall owns a 3-2 record in postseason games at BYU. He has learned about the impact bowl games can have on the program's future.
"They can set the tone for the offseason. There can be a bad taste in your mouth, which can lead to being hungrier," he said. "Or you can have success, which builds optimism.
"The characteristics of the team kind of determines how they take that. As a coaching staff, you have to leverage, know how best to use it. It would sting if we don't win, but that could still be a positive for next season. I would much rather have the win."
New Mexico Bowl
BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
University Stadium, Albuquerque
TV: ESPN Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM