July 15, 2011
Part of Mid-Major Week.
When the Pac-12 and Big Ten started the expansion craze last year, BYU could feel the tectonic plates of college football begin to shift. There were "personality" clashes in the Pac-10, which meant a place in that league wasn't guaranteed. The Big 12 had several teams rumored to be moving elsewhere and at one point, the entire conference almost ceased to exist, so that wasn't an option either.
But BYU had different plans and wanted to embrace expansion on its own terms. As other schools started shift, it was the perfect time for BYU to make its move.
The pieces for independence have been in place for some time for BYU. It had a TV station that was implementing high definition. It had a good relationship with ESPN. It had a brand that was marketable all over the world. And it had a proven track record of winning even though the program hadn't played in a BCS bowl like a couple of its Mountain West counterparts.
It just needed the right time and the right motivation to make the move.
The Mountain West wasn't getting any closer to an automatic BCS bid and with Utah, the Cougars most hated rival, moving on to a better conference, BYU had to do something to appease its constituents.
Fight or flight; it chose both.
When BYU formally declared its football independence on Sept. 1, it was a monumental day for the program. BYU had played in a conference since its football program began in 1922. Striking out on its own was a risky venture, but one that gained traction and support as soon as it was announced.
As the Cougars started adding stellar opponents to its slate -- opponents they would have never added while in the Mountain West -- the excitement and support grew, especially with ESPN television backing their every move. BYU's first independent schedule features Ole Miss, Texas, Utah and Conference USA champion UCF. Future schedule include games against Notre Dame, Texas, West Virginia, Oregon State, Boise State and Utah.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said the key to BYU going independent was scheduling attractive teams and then going out and beating those teams on a regular basis.
The ultimate goal is becoming the Notre Dame of the West.
"We could get our bell rung a few times -- big time," Holmoe said. "And maybe even this year. But it's either take the chance or not. This was too good of a chance. We're optimistic, but it's a long road.
"Independence could be an incredible shot in the arm. Does it help and push us forward? Yes. Now if we are good -- only one thing that means good and that means winning games -- that could be a great push and momentum and who knows where we go."
While there are risks, the rewards are too great to ignore. The television exposure, the recruiting advantage, and of course, an opportunity to play for a BCS bowl. The Cougars had that opportunity as a member of a conference, but now they can dictate it on their own terms. No longer will they be held back because of a perceived weak schedule or looked down upon for not playing tougher teams during the nonconference. No longer is BYU's season defined by games against Utah and TCU. With it's schedule, which will only get better as the years go on, BYU will be treated more like a "Big Six" conference school than a non-AQ that must go undefeated to have a sniff at a BCS bowl.
Initially, BYU will be treated like fellow independents Army and Navy in terms of consideration for BCS bowl status. The Cougars must win nine games and rank in the top 14 of the BCS standings to be considered for an at-large selection. The ultimate goal is to achieve Notre Dame's BCS status, which stipulates the Irish can earn an automatic BCS berth if it finishes in the top eight.
But BYU knows it has to prove itself on a consistent basis to earn that right.
In the past five seasons, BYU has won 10 or more games four times, but it has never done enough to play in a BCS bowl like Utah, Hawaii, TCU and Boise State.
"You have to start winning games," Holmoe said. "TCU, Boise State and Utah -- as hard as it is for me to say that -- they've earned respect of the nation by going to BCS [bowl] games and winning.
"I think if we play well -- we're going to have a better schedule now than in the Mountain West -- if we can be undefeated with our schedule, we'll be in a BCS bowl game."
Last year's 7-6 finish was BYU's worst season since going 6-6 in 2005. But what's impressive about 2010 campaign is that the Cougars started 2-5 and dug themselves out to finish the year on a 5-1 run. It's that kind of will and determination that gives BYU the confidence that it could be successful as an independent.
"I'm anxious for this to be a defining moment in the institution's history to move forward," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "Whether I'm capable of helping this program do it or not, [I know] somebody will. I hope I'm able to. To not take the risk would not be right."