Reason to watch: It's the very first bowl, the early start to our holiday smorgasbord. How could you not watch? OK then, it's a rematch of long ago WAC rivals (before BYU went to the Mountain West -- and then decided to go independent -- and UTEP to Conference USA). It's UTEP's first bowl since 2005, and BYU's first bowl outside of Las Vegas in five years. Did we mention it's the first bowl of the holiday season? That might be enough to offset the negative vibes emanating from colleague Stewart Mandel's inexplicably low bowl ranking.
Keep an eye on: BYU freshman quarterback Jake Heaps, who was one of the nation's top quarterback recruits a year ago. He chose BYU over a long list of college football's big powers. After sharing snaps earlier in the year with Riley Nelson, Heaps has become the undisputed starter; BYU's late-season surge roughly corresponds to his progress. "He will be one of the best quarterbacks in the history of Brigham Young," UTEP coach Mike Price said. "He will be a great player and he's a very, very good player now."
Did you know: UTEP's Price once got creative trying to recruit BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. When Mendenhall was playing at Snow Junior College, Price, then the coach at Weber State, bought a ticket for Snow's team charter flight to Tulsa. He sat with Mendenhall's parents on the flight, made his pitch, and came up empty. Well, not quite: "I got an offensive tackle and a defensive back out of the deal," Price said. "Not [Mendenhall], but I did pretty good."
Final analysis: These teams finished the regular season headed in different directions. After starting 2-5, BYU won five of its last seven. Heaps became the starter, but a midseason defensive overhaul that included the jettisoning of coordinator Jaime Hill might have been more important. After allowing an average of 27 points in their first eight games, the Cougars gave up just 10.3 points per game in the last four. Meanwhile, UTEP lost five of its last six. The Miners have been plagued by injuries, most notably to senior quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, who is expected to play with an ankle injury before undergoing surgery next week.
The pick: BYU 27, UTEP 17
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SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline shares his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
BYU: OT Matt Reynolds -- Reynolds stepped into the starting job at left tackle as a redshirt freshman and has held down the position for the past three seasons. He's a physical lineman and shows terrific footwork for a large blocker. Reynolds is expected to enter the draft and scouts love his upside potential. Grade: Second-round prospect.
UTEP: WR Kris Adams -- Adams has been productive throughout his college career, displaying big play ability and a nose for the football. He possesses NFL size and speed and projects as a fifth receiver at the next level. Grade: Seventh-round prospect.
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