The better they play, the more games they win, the more obvious their dominance, the more bite is added to their two early losses. The first, a defeat at Arizona, was entirely beneath them. The second, at Boston College, also should have been a victory. BYU was the better team both days.
But the gas that fuels that painful hindsight, and make no mistake, the Cougars feel the hurt - "It kills me," said linebacker Bryan Kehl, "because we'd be headed for a BCS bowl game" - is all good for the Cougars: how terrific they are playing now.
The latest evidence is the self-assured way they handled the Falcons here. BYU bounded to a 24-0 lead before Air Force scored late in the third quarter. And, for the miniscule moment it seemed the momentum could jog away from them, the Cougars grabbed it by the throat with 13 minutes left via a 94-yard drive that ended in a bit of goofy improvisation, a TD pass from John Beck to Fui Vakapuna, inspired by either stupidity or supreme confidence. The quarterback, who completed 23 of 31 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns, warbled to his left, then flipped the ball sideways to his running back.
Door slammed shut.
"I was just trying to make a play there," Beck said. "It was backyard ball. I've played a lot of backyard ball, so, if it comes down to that, I feel pretty good about our chances."
Don't all the Cougars.
Confidence seems to be at the center of their world at present, after five straight dominant wins - they nearly doubled the Falcons' offensive-yardage output Saturday - and nothing but smooth, open road ahead.
"We're stroking it right now," said longtime Cougar assistant coach Lance Reynolds. "We came into this game with extreme confidence. That part of it feels just like the old days. That helps the guys make plays. They believe in themselves and their teammates . . . big time."
But not to the point, added Bronco Mendenhall, that the Cougars are "arrogant, they're not at risk of overlooking an opponent."
Defensive back Ben Criddle bounces credit for that last part back to his head coach: "Every week, he comes up with something new. For this game, he talked to us about playing at 212 degrees. Not at 211 degrees, but at 212, because there's a big difference between the two - 212 degrees is the boiling point. By now, we know how good we can be. So, we're motivated."
Apparently, motivated to keep the bad memories of losing, of landing south of what might have been, in the far reaches of the past.
"We know what it's like to come up short," said senior offensive lineman Jake Kuresa. "We know what it takes to transform that, our hard work, into want we want - a conference championship."
In a happy postgame effort to characterize the evolution - or revolution - that's happening to his team, week by week, still in the long aftermath of those early-season disappointments, Kehl initially struggled to find the right words. "It's unique," he said. "I've never seen anything like it. It's . . . the confidence. It's skyrocketing. It's talent, and success, and success breeds success, confidence breeds confidence. It feeds into each other."
It then turned into a feeding frenzy, when the linebacker briefly wandered from his one-game-at-a-time focus to add one last confident thing.
"Nobody on this team has ever beat Utah," he said, beaming. "That's something to look forward to."