"It was really good," Coach Mendenhall said of Monday's practice, the first in preparation for the Armed Forces Bowl. "Players were excited, really enthusiastic. We got a ton of great work done in our meetings this morning, and it was really refreshing to have a week where we weren't practicing and doing finals at the same time. That's the first year that that's happened. "
In each of Mendenhall's first five seasons as head coach, his team participated in the Las Vegas Bowl, which was always held before Christmas. Last year, BYU participated in the New Mexico Bowl, another pre-Christmas game. Thus, the team was never afforded the opportunity to get finals over with before devoting their time to bowl preparation in past years.
But with the Armed Forces Bowl taking place later in December, this is the first time under Coach Mendenhall that the team won't be focusing on academics and bowl preparation at the same time.
The only downside is that the players will be limited in how they celebrate Christmas, as they will be unable to travel for any extended amount of time.
"It's a tough tradeoff, but I don't want the kids to have to do what they've done with finals and practice again," said Mendenhall. "That's too difficult. So even though we're having to work around Christmas, I would rather do that."
This will actually be the third time late in this season that the Cougars will play a game after coming off of a break, so the team should know how to respond to the challenge.
"From what I saw today the players looked fresh, they look anxious to play, they remembered exactly how we played and the principles from against Hawaii," said Mendenhall. "And all it is is like a bye week, and we already had two of those and we played well when we come off of it, so I don't see why there'd be any reason we wouldn't play well coming off of another bye week, basically is what it is."
While the team didn't hold practices last week, that doesn't mean that the players were simply taking it easy.
"They were conditioning every day last week, lifting and running, but to not have to practice and not be cramming finals before a bowl game, that was a huge advantage to our program and for the kids academically."
The players also got a good workout on Monday, as they all had to do extra running after the first day of practice.
Despite the new timeframe for his team's postseason, Coach Mendenhall hasn't strayed from his typical practice model for bowl games.
"I'm very confident. It's helped us win [four of our last five] bowl games. First year, I didn't really know how to prepare well for a bowl game, as I didn't really know how to be a good head coach. But starting from my second year and winning [four of the last five], this is a very similar if not identical model."
With the Armed Forces Bowl being played at SMU's stadium in the Dallas area, this will be the Cougars' third game this season in Texas. With each game taking place in a different venue, Mendenhall said, there isn't any overkill with playing in the Lone Star State again.
"Playing against the University of Texas in their stadium was a great experience for us even though we lost by a point. Then we got to play in Dallas's stadium, which is another fantastic venue, and now we're back for a bowl game. So all those things, if they were games like that, you could go three, four, five or six more times ‘cause they're all so distinct and different, and worthy opponents and good games."