Tonight, the real BYU and Ohio State will stand up.

The Cougars will tell us if they are the guys who were expected to be one of coach LaVell Edwards' best groups ever, or just a slightly better than average 6-5 team.The Buckeyes will tell us if they are the team that started the season 8-0 and rose to No. 3 in the rankings, or the guys who blew the Rose Bowl with a tie at Wisconsin and 28-0, season-ending defeat at Michigan.

Of BYU, OSU coach John Cooper said, "I don't think there's any question they're a better team than their record indicates. I think they'll play the best football game they've played all year."

Of his own team, Cooper said, "This will give us a chance to come back and play football like we're capable of playing. You're going to see the best the Big 10 has to offer."

And probably more than BYU can handle.

Everyone keeps hyping this year's Thrifty Car Rental Holiday Bowl as a potential shootout, a clash of styles between the pass-prone Cougars and the run-rampant Buckeyes. There have been constant reminders of the 1990 Liberty Bowl, when OSU was upset by Air Force.

The difference is, before that game, several Buckeyes openly acknowledged that they would rather have stayed in Columbus than be in Memphis, Tenn., to play the Falcons. This year, there has been no such talk. The Buckeyes appear focused, motivated, ready to play.

What this game looks more like is the October matchups with UCLA and Notre Dame. BYU tackle Mike Empey was quoted in a local newspaper Wednesday as saying Ohio State isn't as good as those teams (no doubt providing the Buckeyes with even more inspiration), but even if he's right, so what? You can bet OSU is better than the other three teams BYU lost to - Utah, Utah State and Fresno State.

Still, despite the fact BYU is seemingly overmatched, there are things that could happen to give the Cougars a chance. Namely:

- Turnovers. Obviously, BYU can't have any. And if OSU should suddenly get sloppy, the Cougars have enough quick-strike ability to capitalize. Statistically, though, the Buckeyes have a big edge here. They turned the ball over just 24 times this season, and were a plus-four in turnover margin. BYU turned it over 30 times and was minus-12.

- Running game. If BYU can generate one, it will cause major problems for the OSU defense, which has spent a lot of time preparing for the pass. It will also prevent the Buckeyes from launching wholesale blitzes at Cougar QB John Walsh. Again, the stats aren't on the Cougs' side. BYU was last in the WAC in rushing offense; OSU was 11th in the nation in rushing defense. Edwards says his running backs are all healthy, for the first time this season. BYU tackle Mike Empey offered this view: "They (the Buckeyes) look like they'd be impossible to run on. I don't see any weaknesses."

- Rushing defense. BYU, the team that was 102nd in the nation in rushing defense, must force Ohio State to throw. If OSU has a weak offensive link, it is sophomore quarterback Bobby Hoying. His interceptions are generally credited with costing the Buckeyes the Michigan game. He has just as many interceptions as TDs, and his pass-efficiency rating would have ranked just eighth in the WAC. OSU has a terrific receiver in Joey Galloway, however, so this may be a doomed if you do, doomed if you don't situation for BYU.

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Obviously, there isn't much in the above to give Cougar fans much hope. But maybe it will be just one of those games where everything goes right for the underdog.

"Anything can happen in one game," Cooper noted. "Who knows? Maybe no one has seen BYU's real 1993 team. Maybe this will be the night."

If not, it could be a long one.

The game starts at 6 p.m. (MST) and will be televised live on ESPN.

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