BYU football made a bold gamble amid the uncertainty of conference realignment, going all-in on independence. But as the top tier of college football begins cashing in its chips, it’s becoming clearer that BYU may have gone bust.
As the five power conferences with preferred access—actually, let’s not mince words—as the power conferences with exclusive access to the College Football Playoff dictate the new system’s landscape, BYU is considered an outsider.
No conference commissioner or Playoff committee member has outright called BYU mid-major. But as the ACC and SEC set parameters for scheduling “power” opponents, BYU is receiving treatment much more akin to the Other Five than Notre Dame.
Mike Slive on BYU: "They do have a nice program."
— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) May 1, 2014
In other words, SEC commissioner Mike Slive thinks BYU football has a great personality, but doesn’t see it as his conference’s type.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe is pleading BYU’s case to Slive, as outlined by Jay Drew of The Salt Lake Tribune. His stance has plenty of supporters, but unfortunately for the Cougars, there are likely few with influence in the Group of Five.
This meeting between Holmoe and Slive feels like one desperate, final plea; a late-night swipe of every credit card through the ATM until one dispenses another couple of 20s.
The time has come for BYU to cut its losses and cash out. The Group of Five conferences may not see it as an equal, but surely the American Athletic Conference would welcome BYU with open arms. The Cougars are contracted to face an American program in next season’s inaugural Miami Bowl, and three American opponents appear on the regular season schedule in the next two seasons.
Alas, membership in a conference outside of the main sphere of influence is precisely what this program sought to escape when it went all-in on independence.
To understand how BYU football reached this point, rewind to 2010.
The Mountain West Conference spent much of the previous decade leading the charge against the inequities of the BCS, both on the field and off it. But a few months removed from sending TCU, its second member in as many years, to a BCS game, the Mountain West appeared ready to join the rank of the elite.
Boise State, which beat TCU in the previous season’s Fiesta Bowl and arguably the face of the BCS busters, accepted
The Mountain West had a true Four-of-a-Kind, all aces of the non-BCS scene:
- Boise State won at least 11 games in four of six seasons prior to conference realignment, with wins in the 2007 and 2010 Fiesta Bowl.
- TCU reached the 2010 Fiesta Bowl and was a consistently ranked program throughout the 2000s.
- Utah won two BCS bowls, one of which included arguably the single most important game for non-BCS programs in the system’s history: a 31-17 rout of Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
- BYU hadn’t busted the BCS, but the Cougars knocked on the door. Moreover, the program boasted the most impressive historical credentials with a 1990 Heisman Trophy and 1984 national championship.
Had the Mountain West maintained all its members, it’s not unreasonable to think the conference would have been granted preferred access, and the Group of Five would instead be the Group of Six.
That dream lasted just five days, which is as long as it took for the Pac-10 to add Utah to make 12 along with former Big 12 member Colorado.
BYU brass saw the writing on the wall and recognized that bold action was required. Holmoe cannot be faulted for trying to force the football program’s way into the top tier via independence.
Independence was the only shot BYU football had to gain power conference recognition. But the odds were always stacked against the Cougars.
To wit, consider the series BYU brokered with Group of Five opponents. Year 3 as an independent was BYU’s first playing what could be considered a power schedule. The Cougars hosted teams from the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12.
The crown jewel was arguably Texas’ Week 3 visit to Provo, and BYU represented well. Quarterback Taysom Hill had a night for the ages and likely earned himself a place on former Longhorns’ defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s dartboard.
However, in order to bring Texas to LaVell Edwards Stadium, BYU agreed to two trips to Darrell K. Royal Stadium.
Since brokering its four-game-per-season affiliation with the ACC, Notre Dame balked at playing the final four games of its contracted six-game series with BYU. Two of the four remaining were the only two dates slated for play in Provo.
The three-game Wisconsin deal is similarly structured, with the sole game in Provo falling on the back-end after two trips to Madison.
BYU agreed to other marquee matchups with opponents from the SEC (Ole Miss) and Big Ten (Michigan and Nebraska), visiting all three but getting no home dates in return.
Even while sitting at the power conference table, BYU often had to buy in like a lower tier program. From its first season of independence through 2025, BYU negotiated 12 home games against Group of Five opponents (not counting the still-in-limbo Notre Dame series or in-state rivalry vs. Utah), 21 on the road and two at neutral sites.
Because of the disparity, the distribution of home games is uneven.
At present, Virginia’s Sept. 20 visit to LaVell Edwards Stadium is the last time a Group of Five will play there until Sept. 6, 2017. In between, the Cougars travel to three Group of Five sites with two neutral games. Each neutral-site contest is ostensibly a road game (they face Arizona in Glendale, Arizona and West Virginia in Landover, Maryland).
Now, the give-and-take hasn’t been completely one-sided. Pac-12 programs in particular have been more receptive, with Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona State, Cal and Stanford all agreeing to even home-and-home trades. Utah also will briefly rekindle the rivalry in 2016 with games in both Salt Lake City and Provo.
USC is the only Pac-12 opponent with which BYU agreed to a 2-for-1.
Games against the Pac-12 might be what BYU needs to bankroll its College Football Playoff future. The relationship certainly benefits the Cougars, as Pac-12 programs are the only from a Group of Five conference that have proven willing to schedule BYU as an equal.
BYU gaining power-opponent recognition from the ACC or SEC would also benefit the Pac-12, giving additional strength-of-schedule credence to those teams that have dates lined up with the Cougars.
Otherwise, BYU football may have to consider being dealt into the American, or returning to the Mountain West. On the current course, independence is looking like a bust.