Tom Smart, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Skyler Ridley (17) as BYU plays Idaho in the Cougar's final home football game on 2012 Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012,in Provo, Utah.

Today's column has something for the BYU football fan who likes his Cougar news with a positive spin on it.

And then something for the rest of you.

Let's start with the former.

BYU struggles to beat winning teams.

Oh, wait, that was supposed to be for later in the column, for the rest of you. Sorry. Here's what I meant to say: BYU meets San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl, and, if history is any indication, this is good news. To come to the point: The Cougars own the Aztecs.

You remember the Aztecs, don't you? They used to be the Cougars' favorite punching bag when both schools belonged to the Western Athletic Conference and later the Mountain West Conference. The Cougars have beaten the Aztecs 27 times in their last 32 meetings.

Average score: BYU 36, SDS 19.

This season, the Aztecs have nine wins (against three losses) and seem to be a team on the rise under Coach Rocky Long, a defensive whiz who coached with BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall at New Mexico and Oregon State.

The Aztecs have been one of college football's biggest enigmas, a mediocre program located in one of the nation's recruiting hotbeds with the bonus of an ideal climate and large metropolitan area. They are supposedly a sleeping giant, but they've rarely awakened against the Cougars.

They will have home-field advantage, but this is a home away from home for the Cougars. They used to make annual trips to San Diego to play in the Holiday Bowl as perennial champions of the WAC and MWC, and they draw their own crowd from the local Mormon population.

On the field, it figures to be a good matchup: The Aztecs are a running team, and the strength of the Cougars is their defense against the run.

The Cougars return to a bowl game for the eighth straight year in Bronco Mendenhall's eighth year as head coach. This is no great feat, considering that 70 of the nation's 125 teams are in a bowl game this season — oops, that was negative, wasn't it — but at least the Cougars have acquitted themselves well. They've won five of their last six bowls, including three in a row, highlighted by wins over Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA.

For a school that has won only 12 bowl games in its history (out of 30 attempts), this is easily the best bowl streak the Cougars have ever assembled.


Just between us, BYU is at a statistical crossroads heading into the Poinsettia Bowl. Under Mendenhall, the Cougars have an overall record of 73-29. But their record against teams that finish the season with a winning record is only 24-24.

That includes four wins over teams that play at the level formerly known as I-AA — now called the Football Championship Subdivision — Eastern Washington, Eastern Illinois, Idaho State and Northern Iowa.

In other words, if the measure of a program's success is victories over quality opponents — and it is, according to the rankings — then the Cougars have a problem.

Here's the recent breakdown:

This season, they beat one team with a winning record — Utah State, by a field goal.

In 2011, they beat two teams with winning records — Utah State and Tulsa.

In 2010, they beat two teams with winning records — Washington and, ahem, San Diego State.

3 comments on this story

That's just five victories over winning teams in the last three seasons. Since becoming a football independent two seasons ago, they have three victories over winning programs.

The combined record of the opponents Bronco's teams have beaten is 373-524. Give me a minute and I'll figure the winning percentage. On second thought, never mind; if I could do math I wouldn't be doing this writing gig.*

Make of all this what you will as BYU makes its 31st bowl appearance. The Poinsettia Bowl is an opportunity for the Cougars to reverse a trend by defeating a winning team.

* The winning percentage is .415.