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While many college football teams across the nation prepare for rivalry games surrounding Thanksgiving, BYU will head down south to take on the New Mexico State Aggies.
As the dust settles over the surprising 14-20 loss to San Jose State, the Cougars head into their last game with a determination to close out the season with a win — determination that might be hard to find thanks to the already-accepted invitation to the Poinsettia Bowl.
The long season, though, has taken its toll on BYU, and players like Riley Nelson enter this weekend's game on the maybe list.
"He’s hurt," head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "Hopefully he’ll be back by the game, but he got pounded against San Jose State. He took a lot of shots. He didn’t practice (Monday). Hopefully he’ll be back by Saturday."
On the other hand, BYU's star player on the defensive side of the team, Ezekiel Ansah, was recently named a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy — an award honoring the nation's best player who began his career as a walk-on.
But even with players like Ansah and true freshman hero Jamaal Williams at running back, BYU has had a tough season. Now with a 6-5 record, a loss to the Aggies would mean the Cougars would break even with a 6-6 record.
At this point in the season, many sports experts are almost begging their readers to not forget BYU really is a good football team.
"Don't be fooled by BYU's record," wrote Joseph Zucker of the Bleacher Report. "The Cougars are a very good football team. Three of their losses came against ranked teams. They're heavy favorites for this one (New Mexico State), and considering their loss last week to San Jose State, they'll be very motivated to win their last regular season game."
BYU's rushing defense is still holding down the fort, ranked No. 4 in the nation, while passing defense fell to No. 17 after the San Jose State game.
But the biggest news involving the Cougars this week had nothing to do with this weekend's New Mexico State game — it concerned the future of their home conference.
BYU's chat with the Mountain West about rejoining because of bowl eligibility permeated sports gossip this week.
"As an independent, BYU would have to finish among the top 10 to 12 teams in the nation to earn an access bowl berth," wrote ESPN's Brett McMurphy. "However, if the Cougars were in the Mountain West Conference or Big East, they could get an access berth by being the highest-rated champion of the 'Group of Five' (Mountain West, Big East, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences)."
The Cougars' current independent title, while pitting them in games broadcast across the nation, doesn't hold the same game appeal to viewers who could watch any other rivalry on TV than BYU's favored domination of the 1-9 Aggies.
Now that the Cougars have battled their way through the meat of their season, independence simply makes available random, oftentimes "cupcake" opponents who aren't dealing with conference championships.
"That part isn’t as different, in terms of playing for conference championships, as just preparing for a lot of new and different opponents," Mendenhall said. "There’s not much history. With San Jose State, we had film from a year ago as we do for New Mexico State, so that helps a little bit. Some of the teams we’re playing for the first time, that’s been good and kind of refreshing."
Concerning New Mexico State, which BYU steamrolled 42-7 last season, Mendenhall views them as a talented team that turns the ball over and struggles with consistency.