Outside of the usual, run-of-the-mill, primary motivation for wanting to win another football game, just because it is there, here are five other reasons BYU has to care deeply about a positive outcome in Friday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl:
1. Zach Wilson’s development.
The freshman quarterback, despite some expected undulations, is off to a fairly promising start in setting the foundation at the most important position on the field for seasons to come. BYU needs that, relies on that, even now, years after the well-known former greats played QB for the Cougars.
A bowl game, even one in Boise against Western Michigan, is significant in that ongoing good-feel, good-hope development, reestablishment. As one of the greats, Robbie Bosco, once put it:
“At BYU, the quarterback is the focal point. When you’re the quarterback, people criticize the bad things and take the good things for granted. That’s the beauty of it. Everyone is looking at you. If you are a competitor at all, you take that and run with it. … There are so many little things to take care of. You’re in charge of everybody. You are the guy everyone looks to. The play starts when you start it. Depending on how you act, how you react, they key off of that. If you’re making plays, keeping drives alive, moving the chains, there won’t be anyone on that team who won’t go to war with you. If you have that, you’ll win a lot of football games.”
And if you don’t win, you get the blame for the loss.
2. Kalani Sitake’s job security.
Sitake is a strong-minded man who has learned as he’s bumped and skidded through his first three seasons as a head coach. He’s admitted to making some mistakes in the past, and he’s made adjustments. All of that has been reflected in his team’s win-loss records. Ending the season with one more win is huge for him, considering that BYU football — after suffering through the worst nadir anyone could remember last season (4-9) — had been teetering on the edge of a major and meaningful step down in quality.
Bouncing back just enough to qualify for and win a bowl game now isn’t completely satisfying for BYU and its fans, but it is modest progress, progress Sitake can build on, at least theoretically, moving into the difficult schedules independence has placed in front of him in the seasons ahead.
As of the moment, Sitake’s coaching record sits at 19-19, a mark he desperately would love to push to — and keep on — the positive side.
3. The symbolism of a winning season.
Speaking of records, perception-wise, going 7-6 is profoundly better than ending up 6-7, although Utah State proved this season that, in the course of reestablishing a program, a determined team can ricochet just fine from 6-7 to 11-2. Still, in BYU’s fragile state, regaining a winning mark would prop up the coaches’ and players’ spirits and raise the tone and tenor of a significant offseason.
4. Winning a bowl game, any bowl game.
BYU’s all-time bowl record is a mediocre 14-20-1. Even in the Cougars’ better years, they often punctuated seemingly solid regular-season accomplishments with a bitter end.
Meaning can be assigned to that, namely that BYU traditionally has played softer schedules, going back to the Mountain West and the WAC, that didn’t stand up against even-compromised teams from other conferences in postseason play. Now that the Cougars play tougher competition overall during the season, that should prepare them for whoever they face — including the MAC’s Western Michigan — in a bowl game.
5. It’s Western Freaking Michigan.
BYU is favored by a mile, and a loss would be embarrassing. But that’s a condition the Cougars aren’t all that unfamiliar with in recent times.
The Broncos finished tied with two other teams for the fifth-best record in the Mid-American Conference. But there’s little room for BYU to take any opponent lightly, not even one that is an average MAC team. It’s also a team that beat an outfit (Northern Illinois) that came into LaVell Edwards Stadium in October and took out the Cougars. That loss to the Huskies was BYU’s low point of the season, what with NIU holding the Cougars to a mere six points.
Western ended a three-game losing streak — losses to Toledo, Ohio and Ball State — with a 28-21 victory over NIU. During that skid, though, the Broncos were outscored by the count of 152-79. WMU did get invited to the Cotton Bowl a couple of years ago, where it lost to Wisconsin. The somewhat-reduced-back-then Cotton Bowl was the scene of one of BYU’s best postseason wins ever, where and when one of the best teams in school history defeated Kansas State in the 1997 game.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.