PROVO — Perhaps no college football program in the country has a more intriguing position right now than BYU.
That can be viewed as both a good thing, and, potentially, a bad thing.
The Cougars are heading into their fourth year as an independent, and while their goals for increased exposure are being met, the landscape continues to shift as the Power 5 conferences are putting distance between themselves and the rest of college football.
In the spring, it was reported that the ACC and SEC have decided they will not regard BYU as a Power 5-caliber opponent when it comes to nonconference scheduling.
Then, in early June, Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall drew national attention when he lobbied for BYU’s inclusion into the Big 12.
"We would love to be in the Big 12," Mendenhall told the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. "I would love to be a member of that conference. I think that would make a lot of sense."
During BYU’s media day on June 23, Mendenhall said he stood behind those comments while adding, “I like independence as a great place to launch from. It’s moving us closer to inclusion.”
Can the Cougars remain viable as an independent? Does BYU have a shot at being part of the Big 12?
ESPN college football analyst Trevor Matich — a member of BYU’s 1984 national championship team — has an opinion or two on the Cougars’ current status.
“The most important thing for BYU as an independent is their access to the top tier of postseason play,” Matich told reporters at BYU’s media day. “There are a couple of issues. One is the four-team playoff for the national championship. BYU needs to be able to schedule teams in the Power 5 conferences in order to get the strength of schedule for the selection committee to give them consideration for the top four.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban has suggested that Power 5 teams should only play nonconference games against other Power 5 opponents, Matich added.
“If they did that, that would be very bad for BYU because they wouldn’t be able to get that strength of schedule. I doubt that would happen. I think from a national championship standpoint, BYU is fine as an independent."
But as far as securing access to top-tier bowls, Matich said, “Right now BYU is in limbo. They would need to have a seat at the table for selection to that. Right now, it’s up in the air whether or not they will. If BYU can continue to schedule teams from Power 5 conferences, being independent will be viable moving forward. Being in a conference would also be good. But if BYU loses a seat at the table as an independent, then being in a conference would be the only option.
"Right now, it remains to be seen which direction it would go. I tend to believe it will be fine because BYU is a national brand. BYU brings eyeballs to television sets. That makes money for everybody. And when BYU makes you money, you find a place for BYU.”
If the Cougars are going to join the Power 5, the conference that makes most sense is the Big 12, Matich said. All time, BYU owns a 17-21 record against current Big 12 teams.
“The Big 12 could stay at 10 (members) and divide their TV money 10 ways instead of 12 or 14 ways,” Matich said. “But they might lose the benefit of the doubt with the selection committee over another conference that plays a conference championship game. Right now, the Big 12 doesn’t have a championship game because it only has 10 teams. For that reason, it might be good for it to expand. Then again, BYU’s not the only team they could expand to. People are talking about Cincinnati. They’re talking about Central Florida. BYU’s not the only option.
"But the difference between BYU and those other schools is, BYU gets recruits’ eyeballs on you from a national standpoint, not just a regional standpoint. There are lots of reasons why BYU is good that go well beyond the TV market that BYU is in physically.”
The Cougars would fit in well with the Big 12, Matich said.
“I think BYU in the Big 12 makes a lot of sense. It makes sense geographically but it also makes sense from a football standpoint,” Matich said. “Those are exciting teams and BYU has an exciting reputation. Nationally, when BYU comes up on a game, people who are not BYU fans necessarily but college football fans, their first thing that comes into their minds is, ‘Steve Young, Holiday Bowl, Ty Detmer, exciting football.’ They want to watch BYU, regardless of who they play.
"They are also playing against Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma — teams that also have a reputation for being exciting to watch. Now there’s synergy there. That’s one of the reasons why BYU would be a good fit for the Big 12. Not just because it’s good for BYU, but because the Big 12 would be enhanced by it.”
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