This year’s New Mexico Bowl is unprecedented in a variety of ways. SMU will be the first American Athletic Conference school to participate in the game and BYU will appear for the first time since 2010 and likely the last time before they move to the Big 12. Additionally, the game will be broadcast on network TV for the first time ever (Click here to find out why you can thank the Raiders and Patriots for that.)
Despite all the new aspects of this game, the game is also a return to a past college football landscape. For a brief window, BYU and SMU were conference mates in the WAC thanks to the fall of the Southwest Conference.
From 1996-1998, SMU and BYU were part of the WAC’s ill-fated 16-team experiment which resulted in BYU and seven other schools leaving to form the Mountain West in 1999. After the fall of the Southwest Conference, the WAC added SMU, Rice, and TCU along with three other schools from other conferences.
Prior to SMU’s entry into the WAC, the two schools had met once previously, in the 1980 Holiday Bowl. That Holiday Bowl is regarded by many as one of the greatest bowl games of all time as BYU came back from a 45-25 deficit with four minutes left, winning the game on a last-second hail mary.
It would be 16 years until the schools played again, this time as WAC rivals as BYU blew out SMU 31-3 in Provo. The following year, BYU would beat SMU in Dallas 19-16. The schools would not meet in 1998, BYU’s final year of the WAC as the Cougars moved to the WAC’s Pacific Division after spending the first two years of the 16-team alignment in the Mountain Division. This was part of the league’s plan to rotate the four “quadrants” of the league among its two divisions.
As WAC members, SMU played at New Mexico once in 1997. The Mustangs lost to the eventual WAC Mountain Division champion Lobos 22-15. This would be the last meeting to date as New Mexico moved to the WAC's Pacific Division in 1998 and ultimately to the Mountain West in 1999.
While BYU-SMU is a matchup of two programs heading in opposite directions in a Power Five/Group of Five sense, it is also a matchup where college football lifers can ask “what could have been?” SMU and BYU could have been rivals in a conference too vast, and ahead of its time. Forget the 1980 Holiday Bowl, the 90s will be back in Albuquerque this Saturday night.