SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- When the BYU Cougars declared their independence and left the Mountain West Conference following the 2010 season, it ended a conference association with San Diego State that began in 1978. Now fate -- and bowl tie-ins -- have reunited the teams when they meet tonight in the Battle of Coolest Coaches First Names Bowl (Rocky and Bronco), also known as the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
In the decades these teams squared off in the WAC and Mountain West, more often than not the Cougars walked away victorious. They owned a 27-7-1 record against SDSU, and that left the folks on Montezuma Mesa feeling a bit, well, emasculated over the years. As a result, a bitter rivalry was forged -- even if it was only recognized by the Aztecs.
"It seems like a lot of teams and programs view us as a rival," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. "I think that stems from the old WAC and Mountain West, the more history there is, and especially with as a strong of a tradition that BYU has, if you've had a lot of success then you become the team to beat or the team that's disliked. I think coach [LaVell] Edwards did a great job of having an excellent program and BYU is viewed as that wherever you go."
Which is a polite way of saying the Cougars saw San Diego State the same way they saw Wyoming, Colorado State, New Mexico and every other conference opponent. BYU has one rival, and it plays in the Pac-12.
As for rekindling that "rivalry" tonight, Aztecs head coach Rocky Long isn't going to dig deep into his bag of motivation. Because the truth is, what's the point of trying to motivate players for a phantom rivalry?
"It would just be wasted talk for me to explain it to them," said Long, whose team enters the contest riding a seven-game win streak. "It doesn't mean a darn thing. And I don't think either team feels the rivalry. A rivalry was built up with BYU and everybody else because BYU was so good and so dominant. I think at San Diego State and my former university (New Mexico), those fans always felt there was a rivalry. I bet if you ask Bronco, there is one rivalry in BYU's vocabulary and that's Utah."
That's not to say the two programs didn't share some memorable moments during their three-plus decades as conference opponents. There was the greatest/worst tie ever (depending which colors you wear) in 1991, when Ty Detmer tossed six touchdowns and threw for 599 yards in helping BYU erase a 45-17 deficit. The teams tied 52-52, which gave BYU the WAC crown.
In their final Mountain West meeting in 2010, a potentially game-changing fumble wasn't overturned by replay officials -- and it was later revealed that two members of the instant-replay team in Provo were BYU alums and one was a paid school employee. While it was ultimately ruled as a technical error, it ignited both fan bases and prompted the Mountain West to change its policies regarding alumni in the replay booth.
It didn't help either that during basketball season, San Diego State's student section, "The Show," wore white dress shirts and bike helmets whenever BYU would come to town.
But none of that matters. Two years removed from being conference foes, it's ancient history.
"These guys don't remember it, nor do they really care," Mendenhall said. "And until you mentioned it, I didn't remember it. There is so much that goes into every year. There are certain folks that have an exceedingly vibrant passion for looking for something to invest their energy and emphasis in and those are the ones who keep it alive.
"I think any time there is time before games or extra time before games, to build intrigue, anything can be viewed as to add some more value or slant as to why this particular game has significance. It's really just two good teams playing as hard as they can. In terms of anything rivalry-wise, that's certainly not viewed from our perspective. We're just preparing for a really good team."
So that leads us to the real storyline in this game: SDSU's running attack versus BYU's staunch defense. The Aztecs (9-3, 7-1 MWC), playing in a third consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history, are paced by running back Adam Muema. He's a top-20 runner nationally with 1,355 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He faces a BYU squad that ranks third nationally in total defense, fifth in scoring defense and second against the run. The Cougars (7-5 as independents) pushed Boise State and Notre Dame to the brink (worth noting that SDSU beat Boise) and they topped Utah State, which finished the season 11-2 and ranked 22nd.
Long and Mendenhall also have a history. Mendenhall was Long's defensive coordinator for four seasons at New Mexico and the two remain good friends. But like the imaginary rivalry, we shouldn't read too much into that, either.
"All the other stuff doesn't mean a thing," Long said. "Bronco isn't going to catch any passes. I'm not going to carry the ball. It's going to come down to the only people who matter. And that's the players on the field. We're glad the fans are into it. But the combatants, they are just going to go out and play football."