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I wrote last week that "the Cougars should roll in the New Mexico Bowl," and while I still feel that way, any complacency or sense of entitlement on the BYU players' part could lead to a let-down that represents a real danger in Albuquerque.
UTEP will come into Saturday's game already feeling like the home team, for reasons that go beyond the team's official designation and locker room assignment.
El Paso is a less than four-hour drive from University Stadium, and BYU has never been popular in these parts to begin with. The Miners can justifiably assume the mantle of local favorite, even though BYU is nearly a two touchdown favorite according to the oddsmakers.
UTEP head coach Mike Price will wisely play up his team's status as underdog, just as some El Paso media members will play up BYU's supposed advantages elsewhere.
In bowl games more so than typical regular season games, the most motivated team seems to win. That may sound overly simplistic, but there's something about the layoff after the regular season that places a increased onus on a team's "raison d'etre."
We all remember BYU dismantling a disinterested Oregon team in the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl--a game that BYU deserved to win, but a game that hardly inspired the Ducks' best effort.
We similarly remember the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl, when a ten-win BYU team played poorly in a loss to an Arizona team that was pumped to play in a bowl game after a lengthy postseason absence. Afterward, BYU players would say a season-ending loss to Utah seemed to sap the team's energy.
I believe the team that won four of five to end the season should have the edge over the team that lost five of six, but UTEP likely feels that it has at least as much to prove as the resurgent Cougars. Both teams are playing for the right to say they had a winning season.
BYU needs to be ready to face a focused Miners squad from the get-go tomorrow, and not get stuck playing slow on what is forecast to be slightly more temperate but not overly warm day in Albuquerque.
Fortunately, fast starts have been BYU's recent forte, having outscored the opposition 99-0 in the first half of the last four games, and 134-7 in the first three quarters over the same span of time.
UTEP was a 3-5 team in Conference USA, but three of its five league losses were by 10 points or fewer, and the last two CUSA setbacks were by four points or fewer.
The Miners have a ton of Texas talent, and their 6-6 record masks individuals that on film have all had impressive showings.
Their QB Trevor Vittatoe has started all 48 games of his career and owns every UTEP passing record around. He is tied with Max Hall at 94 career passing TDs.
Return specialist Marlon McClure will remind many of former BYU star James Dye, from his #6 jersey to his 5'9", 155-pound frame, to his big-play potential (29.8 yds/kor, 14.0 yds/pr).
UTEP has a wide receiver in Kris Adams (917 rec yds, 20.8 yds/rec) who has as many receiving touchdowns (11) as Luke Ashworth, Cody Hoffman and McKay Jacobson combined. The Miners' WR Pierce Hunter is an jump-ball mismatch at 6'5", 235 pounds.
As my colleagues Marc Lyons and Scott Johnson have consistently remind me, this UTEP team looks worthier than its record.
BYU is still better, but BYU had better be ready.