SAN DIEGO — Throughout the week of practice, during the pregame run through the stadium tunnel and even while the national anthem is being play, the San Diego State players each year really believe they have a chance to beat Brigham Young University.
That is the way it has always been, and that confidence usually lasts about as long as it takes Jim McMahon or Steve Young or Robbie Bosco to throw his first touchdown pass.
Not long, in other words.
Once again, just two days before the teams meet in Cougar Stadium, the Aztecs are confident.
"I know that we have to come out and score some points," said fifth-year senior running back Casey Brown. "If we can score three touchdowns, even if they score five, we'll know we can play with them.
"Really, I don't think we have to play a spectacular game to win. But we do have to play a steady game."
As hard as it may be to believe, Brown thinks the team has to guard against overconfidence after they soundly defeated Stanford, 41-22, Saturday night.
BYU has won eight straight games against the Aztecs dating back to 1970, when SDSU won 31-11 at home. Last year's score was 34-3. In 1983, it was 47-12. And the year before that, it was 58-8.
The games have been one-sided and have usually been decided early.
"Those quick scores take the wind right out of your sails," said fifth-year senior linebacker Jack Eaton.
Before the crowd has settled in its seats, Aztec players have gone from enthusiastically raising their fists to sitting dejectedly on their helmets.
"They get up early," said senior tight end Jim Laughton, "and I think, oh no, here we go again."
Last year, Chris O'Brien kicked a 27-yard field goal to give the Aztecs an early and brief 3-0 lead at Provo. Within a two-minute stretch late in the first quarter, BYU scored two touchdowns to go ahead 14-3. At halftime, it was 24-3.
"All of a sudden, we always seem to be down 21 points at halftime," Brown said. "It's tough."
When the worst fears of the players are realized, they seem to undergo a form of paralysis and confusion.
"We do the same things against them that we do against other teams," Eaton said, "but they don't seem to work."
They don't work for the offense or defense.
"They take us out of our game plan early and we have to start using alternatives," said fifth-year senior wide receiver Vince Warren.
Alternative offensive game plans often result in Cougar interceptions and a wide-open game that favors BYU.
"Games against BYU are like boat races," said assistant equipment manager Chris Adams. "We have a rowboat and they have Miss Budweiser."
Despite being 17-point underdogs entering Saturday's game, the Aztecs believe they may have a motor in their boat this year.
SDSU is 3-1. For the first time in recent memory, the Aztecs enter the game with a higher per-game scoring average than BYU, 35 points to 30.2 points.
"I think BYU has to be viewing us differently this year," Brown said. "We're coming off a big game and they've got to be concerned."
Waves of fear are probably not rippling through Provo. The Cougars are 4-1 (including wins against Boston College and Washington) and Bosco has completed 69% of his passes for 1,865 yards and 12 touchdowns.
However, Aztec quarterback Todd Santos has the top spot in the NCAA pass rating system. He has completed 70% of his passes for 936 yards and 10 touchdowns.
But he hasn't faced BYU and this game can have a profound effect on the Aztec season.
In 1981, the Aztecs were 4-0 when BYU came to town. SDSU was coming off a 52-31 win over an Iowa State team that had tied Oklahoma the previous week.
The Aztecs lost to the Cougars, 27-7, and finished the season with a 6-5 mark.
"We probably went into the BYU game thinking 'We're the Greatest.' That was the wrong attitude.
"This year, we have to watch out for individuals thinking the rest of the team will do it. Everyone has to work just as hard as they've been working."
That includes overcoming their first-quarter paralysis.