FORT WORTH (AP) – When BYU opted for football independence, the Cougars no longer had a conference title to play for and were out of any possible BCS contention after two early losses.
Things certainly change when you’re out on your own.
“You kind of have to be more introspective as a team to try to figure out what you can pull out of every player, see how good of a team we can become,” senior linebacker Jameson Frazier said. “That was more of a goal for us because we didn’t have the conference there.”
After a rough start as an independent this year following their departure from the Mountain West Conference, the Cougars (9-3) have a chance for their fifth 10-win season in seven years under coach Bronco Mendenhall.
They play in the Armed Forces Bowl on Friday against Tulsa (8-4), playing for the first since its seven-game winning streak was snapped by Houston. The Golden Hurricane started the season 1-3.
BYU has won eight of its last nine games, quite a rebound after losing by one point at Texas and then by 44 points at home against rival Utah.
There was also the quarterback switch, with Riley Nelson taking over for Jake Heaps in a comeback victory against Utah State on Sept. 30. Nelson then became the starter, and the Cougars have averaged 41 points their last seven games.
“That at kind of stretch of a loss to Texas, a loss to Utah, then trailing to Utah State, was what prompted the move and a change at quarterback,” Mendenhall said. “Once that happened, the team seemed to stabilize, become re-energized and take on an identity of more resilience than what we had. … I think without those (losses), we wouldn’t have been the same team. With those, we’ve become a very good team.”
Tulsa has been set at quarterback for three seasons with G.J. Kinne, who has thrown for 2,876 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior.
The Golden Hurricane, whose four losses this season were all to top-10 teams, had won 12 consecutive Conference USA games before the 48-16 home loss Nov. 25 to then-undefeated Houston with a spot in the league’s championship game on the line.
“The thing I like to focus on is the growth of our team from about the first of October on. They showed some resilience, some toughness, really matured and grew together as a team,” Tulsa coach Bill Blakenship said. “Bronco and I have both talked about this. Our programs mirror each other in a lot of ways. … The losses to really good teams, nine wins and eight wins, respectively. I don’t think that’s anything to have to apologize for. We’ve both been a part of consistent winning teams over the last five or six years.”
Tulsa is playing its seventh bowl game in nine years. That includes a 25-13 loss to Utah in the Armed Forces Bowl five years ago before the Golden Hurricane won bowl games each of the last three seasons.
This will be the eighth time BYU and Tulsa have played, and past games have usually been high scoring. BYU’s only loss in the series came in the last meeting, 55-47 on the road in 2007. The two schools have averaged a combined 73 points a game in the series.
Before the loss to Houston, Tulsa had scored at least 57 points in consecutive games.
“We’ve got to prove things to ourselves, just come out and win that last game like we’re supposed to,” linebacker Curnelius Arnick said. “To end the (regular) season on the note that we did, we fell a little short against Houston and now we’ve got to pick it back up where we left off.”
BYU is back in Texas, where it suffered two of its losses this season.
Along with the loss against the Longhorns the second week of the season, there was a 38-28 loss against TCU at Cowboys Stadium on Oct. 28, their only setback the last two months.
“I’m not a superstitious man, but yeah, we’re definitely looking for some redemption,” Frazier said.
There was speculation earlier this year that BYU might become part of the Texas-based Big 12 Conference. For now, with an ESPN deal to televise most of their games, the Cougars are maintaining their independence. But that could change.
Mendenhall knows that the Cougars might not stay on their own in football long term, “unless we’d be able to get (BCS) accessibility as Notre Dame has. If that was the case, that would be ideal.”
“If that access can’t come, then at some point, a conference would really, No. 1, have to want us because of the institution,” he said. “I think the athletic programs qualify, but they’d have to want everything that BYU is, and at some point that might happen.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)