Football independence could have a faster expiration date than BYU anticipated. Changes in the college football landscape have left the Cougars scrambling for inclusion before they are shut out permanently from the power structure.
Bronco Mendenhall shone the spotlight on the precarious situation facing BYU down the road when he publicly lobbied for an invitation to the Big 12 Conference in an interview with the Austin American Statesman in June. Mendenhall still sees many positives in independence, but he is also realistic enough to know it isn’t a long-term solution with the Power Five conferences exerting greater control over the sport.
Being trapped outside college football’s power structure is not a new experience for BYU. The Cougars have struggled for inclusion ever since former head coach LaVell Edwards built the football program into a regional powerhouse virtually from scratch in the 1970s and 80s. BYU’s wins, conference championships and national rankings since that time always carried an asterisk because the success mostly came against a slate of weaker WAC or Mountain West opponents.
Going independent before the 2011 season offered a chance to change that perception. BYU secured a TV contract with ESPN that promised much better exposure than the team received with a weak TV deal in the Mountain West. The Cougars also had potential to schedule a much stronger slate of teams in place of former conference foes.
BYU decided independence offered the best route for building a better national brand and securing a coveted power conference bid like arch-rival Utah did when it joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
Conference realignment dashed those aims quickly. The Cougars were passed over when the Big 12 brought in TCU and West Virginia in 2012 to fill holes left by departing members Missouri and Texas A&M. BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said BYU never received an invitation to the league while other sources claimed the Cougars lost out because of their no Sunday play policy and desire to retain rights to broadcast certain games on BYUtv.
Now BYU enters the 2014 season at a crossroads. The ACC and SEC publicly declared the Cougars did not fit their criteria for power conference scheduling. With the new college football playoff, BYU has no decent guarantee of being selected to a bowl in the playoff rotation even with an undefeated record.
A potential invitation to the Big 12 seems like a long-shot at best these days even if the league decides to expand beyond 10 members. For BYU to add value in that league’s eyes, only one solution remains.
Win big games.
BYU must prove it can compete against tougher teams from week to week. Do the Cougars need to win them all? No. But BYU must be competitive enough and win consistently enough to prove it will add enough value to not be overlooked if the Big 12 is forced to expand down the road.
Salt Lake City is a growing TV market and BYU already offers some national appeal as the flagship school for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The next step now for the Cougars is show they can bring favorable results against tough competition.
2015 offers a good measuring stick for how BYU compares to the power conferences. The first month of that season features road games against UCLA, Nebraska and Michigan. If BYU can steal a road win or two in such a situation, it will help the Cougars make a case for inclusion better than anything else they could say or do.
It can be argued that BYU is better than several lower echelon teams in all five power conferences. But that argument is irrelevant to BYU’s current position. These teams are not going to suddenly get kicked out of their spots to make room for the Cougars. It is up to BYU to make a case where it can – on the football field.
Staying in the Mountain West would not have bettered BYU’s long term position. Leaving that league, however, will do little to help the Cougars if their fight for inclusion fails.
Independence in football is nothing more than a dead end if BYU ends up being a permanent outsider to the power conferences.
John Coon covers BYU football and other college sports in Utah for the Associated Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @johncoonsports