I don't want to sound picky here. I really hate to bring this up; it's hardly worth mentioning at all. But the BYU Cougars are getting ready to play Oklahoma in the Copper Bowl this week, and, well, I was thinking they might appreciate some constructive criticism.

It's great that they make it to a bowl game every December. It's swell that they get to hang in some sunny, warm spot every winter. It's really rad they get all that publicity and rub shoulder pads with big-name teams and future NFL draft choices. But maybe this year the Cougars should try something new.Such as winning.

You know, just for a change.

It's just a suggestion.

Every year the Cougars march through an impressive regular season and then run off to some bowl game. And lose. The Cougars and bowl games are like a Steven Seagal movie or a Louis L'Amour novel. You can see the ending coming from a mile away.

Not that the ending answers all the questions. For instance, how can a team that sports a record of 206-76-3 for two decades be 5-12-1 in bowl games? How can a team that has averaged nine wins a season during LaVell Edwards' 22 years as head coach, win only five bowl games in 18 tries? How is it that they have won just one of their last nine bowl games - the last one in 1988?

"Really?!" said one longtime BYU assistant coach incredulously when told that BYU has won just one bowl game since 1984. "Is that right?"

Clearly, this was news to him.

If the Cougars are worried about their December follies, they're not letting on. It's business as usual this week in Tucson.

Maybe the Cougars' trouble is that they don't know how to make a graceful exit. Maybe they should quit when they're ahead. Maybe they should call it a wrap after the regular season ends and forget about playing football in December (recreational and financial considerations notwithstanding). Let's face it. December isn't their month, although with a break here or there things would be dramatically different. Of their 18 bowl games, 13 have been decided in the last minute of play, by an average of 4 points. Eight of those games were losses.

Isn't it always something? Last year they lost because they couldn't score on four downs at the 6-yard line. Two years ago it was two missed field goals. Three years ago it was a tipped pass/interception in the end zone with 30 seconds left. Four years ago it was a fumble return for a touchdown.

Must we go on?

It hasn't mattered who was on the field for BYU; the bowl jinx has claimed them all. Ty Detmer, the Heisman Trophy winner, was 0-2-1 as a bowl starter, and 1-0 as a reliever. Steve Young was 1-1. Jim McMahon 2-1. Robbie Bosco 1-1. Marc Wilson 0-1. Gifford Nielsen 0-1. Gary Sheide 0-1. John Walsh 0-1.

You figure if those guys can't get it done, you might as well run up the white flag.

Is anyone surprised that the Oklahoma Sooners are considered the favorites for Thursday night's Copper Bowl - despite an ill quarterback and a lame-duck coach and a medicore 6-5 record.

Would YOU pick the Cougars? By now you're wondering: What is BYU's problem? Why all the bowl bombs? There are a few theories. Take your pick:

- The We've-Played-Great-Teams Theory. Not. Aside from Ohio State, '82 and '93, and Iowa, 1991, the Cougars have played mostly so-so teams - also-rans from the Pac 10, Big 10, Big Eight who had seven or eight wins. BYU has beaten these kind of teams during the regular season.

- The Keeping-the-Offense-Warm Theory. Coaches say the BYU offense loses its punch in the month-long break between the end of the regular season and the bowl game. Their opponents have the same break, but the Cougars say it's more difficult to maintain the timing of a pass offense than, say, Ohio State's power running attack.

- The Lack-of-Preparation Theory. For years, the Cougars didn't arrive at the bowl site until four days before the game because it saved money. Instead, they stayed in Provo, where the cramped Smith Fieldhouse and the cold weather made it difficult to practice. Meanwhile, their opponents had spacious indoor practice facilities and arrived at the bowl site earlier than the Cougars.

Since watching the Cougars get slaughtered by Texas A&M in the 1990 Holiday Bowl, Edwards has taken his team to the bowl site a week ahead of time to improve their preparation. Result: ta-dum, they're 0-2-1 since then - but the games have been close (scores: 28-21, 23-20, 13-13).

"Everyone used to think BYU was a pushover in bowls," says tackle Evan Pilgrim. "I think we've changed the tone the last three years."

Tone, yes, but not the bottom line. Now the Cougars should try winning some time.

You know, just for a change.