Ravell Call, Deseret News
With Brigham Young Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall at left, Brigham Young Cougars running back JJ Di Luigi and Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson smile during the fourth quarter as Brigham Young University faces Idaho State in NCAA football in Provo, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011.

PROVO — BYU's football program just might join the Big East someday.

Or maybe not.

For now, the Cougars are in their first season as an independent, and getting used to the idea of not having a conference championship to play for anymore.

Most seasons, dating back to the 1970s, BYU entered the month of November poised to challenge for a league title in either the Western Athletic Conference or Mountain West Conference. From 1974 through 2010 — 37 seasons — the Cougars claimed 22 conference crowns. Six times, they finished in second place.

"We've always been in the conference race right until the end," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "But now the focus is really on how good we can get our team to be. That's kind of fun, too. It's a different approach. But there are no issues with motivation. The kids are having fun and they see themselves getting better ... We can improve as a football team. We have three weeks left to do it in the regular season. I'd like to see significant jumps in relation to how clean that we play on offense, defense and special teams."

With three regular-season games remaining on the schedule, including a contest at home against Idaho on Saturday (7:15 p.m., MT, ESPN2), and with no shot at a conference title, what is BYU playing for?

Senior linebacker Jadon Wagner said that he and his teammates have discussed how different it would be this year without a conference championship to chase.

"It kind of dawned on us at the beginning of the season. I had that conversation with a few of the players," he said. "There's no conference (championship) or that kind of goal. Since I've been here, the last four years, the conference championship has been our main goal. Without that there, there's different motivating factors, to take each game one at a time and do our best, to see if we can reach our potential as a team."

Going into the season, Mendenhall and some players stated that the goal moving forward as an independent was to win a state championship and a national championship. This season, dreams of a national title disappeared following a 17-16 loss at Texas. The following week, a chance for a state title was erased with a 54-10 loss against Utah.

"We're just a really competitive team," Wagner said. "A lot of our guys, not much has kept them motivated more than just wanting to win. I don't want to lose to anyone, just because a BCS title is out of the question, that doesn't take away my motivation on the field."

For senior center Terence Brown, just playing football is "enough motivation for me. It doesn't matter who's on the other side of the field, especially with this being my senior year. I'm going to give it all that I have. That's the kind of team we have."

Brown added that winning a conference championship has "never been a motivation for me, personally. Maybe some guys feel that way. I just have a chance to keep playing football. I'm lucky and very blessed. Just to be out there playing football is enough for me. I'm going to give it 100 percent and at the end of the day, win or lose, I'll know I gave it my best and it's a great experience to have that not a lot of people get."

BYU is coming off a disappointing 38-28 setback against former MWC rival TCU prior to the Cougars' bye week.

"Even though we lost the TCU game, I think we gained momentum through that game," Mendenhall said. "And if you ask our team, I think they would say they're frustrated, but I think they would say they gained momentum."

BYU (6-3) is already bowl-eligible and will face a team from Conference USA in the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 30.

"There's a 10-win season that's still possible, which is hard to do. There's a bowl win that's still possible," Mendenhall said, adding that his teams have gone bowling every year since he took over the program in 2005. "It might not be enough for some, but I think it reflects consistency, regardless of who we're playing. I hope that's noted."

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Mendenhall is looking for his team to finish the season on a strong note.

"Idaho is just the next opponent. To me, the focus is much more on ourselves than anything else," he said. "We can play better than we're currently playing. I would love to build momentum through how we play and how we execute through the remainder of the year and I'd love to have a great postseason opportunity and continue to play well."

Cougars on the air

Idaho (2-7) at BYU (6-3)

Saturday, 7:15 p.m. MT

LaVell Edwards Stadium


Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

email: jeffc@desnews.com