PROVO — When BYU and UTEP square off in the New Mexico Bowl, it will pit a pair of teams that have come up sixes so far.
Both the Cougars and Miners own lackluster, mediocre 6-6 records. And while those numbers certainly aren't scintillating, Saturday's outcome carries stark implications — the winner of the game will boast a winning season, and the loser will be relegated to a losing season.
Under coach Bronco Mendenhall, who's in his sixth year at the helm, BYU has never experienced a losing season. Under coach Mike Price, UTEP hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2005.
Basically, the difference between a 7-6 record and a 6-7 is only one game, but it can mean a lot more. What's the difference between 7-6 and 6-7?
"Quite a bit. It just sounds different," said Mendenhall, whose team posted a 6-6 mark, including a bowl loss, in his first season in 2005. "I think there are two teams who are hungry to play well and would love to finish their seasons rather than being 6-6, being 7-6. You get nice closure to one part of your year but you also get a nice start to your next year and so there is a lot to play for."
The Cougars say they are more concerned about preparing for this game instead of focusing on their record right now. Senior safety Andrew Rich said when it comes to motivating factors, it's not so much the final record as it is simply wanting to play well.
"I don't think we really thought about it as a winning record. It was more ... to play the best that we can and another opportunity to battle together," Rich said. "We haven't talked too much about the record or being above .500. It's about being able to compete and playing the best that we possibly can."
Said freshman quarterback Jake Heaps: "The biggest thing is ending the season on a win and carrying the momentum over to next year. That's obviously a goal. We set a goal to win a bowl game this year and that's what we're going to do."
BYU and UTEP took opposite roads to 6-6. The Cougars opened the season 1-4 amid a difficult early-season schedule before winning five of their last seven games to become bowl eligible. The Miners, meanwhile, opened with a 5-1 record before dropping five of their final six contests.
"The matchup makes complete sense and I think it's very compelling," Mendenhall said. "You have two teams that are 6-6 and have got their different paths, one having a great first part of the year, the other having a great second part of the year."
Rich added that he and his teammates won't have any trouble getting up to play a 6-6 opponent.
"We're 6-6 (too)," he said. "I think there's a lot to prove for both teams, that we're better than a 6-6 team — which, when we started 1-4, I didn't think we were a 6-6 team. I thought we were worse than a 6-6 team. But the way we've turned it around and played hard, I think we've definitely gotten better.
"We're going to go down to New Mexico and get another chance to play for the seniors and for the underclassmen, set the tone for the 2011 season."
UTEP hasn't played since dropping a 31-28 decision at Tulsa on Nov. 20.
"The hardest part is losing momentum, but since we had no momentum, finding momentum is what we plan to do," Price said. "We only gave (the players) one week off. If we had played January 6th, it is a factor losing momentum. It's not an issue for us at all. They (BYU) finished stronger than we did. Their team improved, their quarterback improved, their defense improved as they finished the season. They are pretty hot right now. They might be one of the hottest teams in college football. Their freshman quarterback has really turned it on lately and he's not a new freshman anymore. He's got 12 games under his belt so he knows how to play."
The Miners have battled through injuries this season, but they are healthier now.
"We've got some of our offensive linemen back and I think our running back will be back. Our quarterback will be back," Price said. "I think we will be as healthy as we've been for probably six games. The thing about it is we are really excited and we want to be here. That's the beauty about this game and I think BYU feels the same way. We've got something to prove."
Mendenhall said UTEP's late-season swoon can be attributed to the Miners' schedule and "playing really good teams," including a 58-21 loss to No. 8 and Sugar Bowl-bound Arkansas.
"They were going into score against Tulsa and had a ball intercepted on fourth down," Mendenhall said. "They beat SMU in their third-to-last game. They're certainly capable. But I think quality of opponents back-to-back-to-back had something to do with it."
New Mexico Bowl
BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
University Stadium, Albuquerque
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM