PROVO — More conference realignment shock waves rocked the college football world Wednesday, with reports that BYU is on the brink of leaving the Mountain West Conference and declaring independence in football by 2011, with its other sports competing in the Western Athletic Conference.
BYU officials acknowledged the myriad reports of going independent, but did not confirm or deny them.
"We are aware of the many media reports and questions circulating about BYU's conference alignment," associate athletic director Duff Tittle said in a statement. "As Director of Athletics Tom Holmoe explained recently, BYU has been reviewing, and will continue to explore, every option to advance its athletic program. At this point, BYU has no further comment."
By Wednesday night, the MWC announced that Fresno State and Nevada are joining the MWC. During a teleconference with reporters, commissioner Craig Thompson said the timing of the announcement was driven by television negotiations with Comcast and CBS, not the mounting speculation about BYU leaving.
He added that the Cougars, for now, are still part of the conference.
"BYU is a member of the Mountain West," Thompson said, adding that the nine-team MWC "is soon to be an 11-team league."
Asked about BYU's future with the conference, Thompson replied, "I don't know BYU's intentions. Those are questions that need to be directed at BYU. They've participated in board meetings all week. BYU's been a full participant the last 36 hours in all of these conversations."
Two sources at Utah State who asked to remain anonymous told the Deseret News that BYU going independent is a very real possibility and Utah State would welcome it. If BYU were to make the move, the WAC would form a football scheduling collaboration with the Cougars that would help both the WAC and BYU fill out important late-season games.
But that was before Fresno State and Nevada agreed to join the MWC. The WAC is now left with only six football-playing schools.
So where does this leave BYU?
In July, Holmoe told reporters that, in an effort to enhance its position for the future, BYU has been examining every option.
The concept of BYU going independent has been brewing for months, particularly during and after the previous round of conference shake-ups. In June, Boise State left the WAC for the MWC and Utah bolted the MWC for the Pac-12.
When Holmoe met with reporters in July to discuss conference realignment issues, Holmoe said, "Independence is an option. We will look at everything. There are pros and cons to the Pac-10 the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Mountain West Conference and independence. What you have to do is weigh those and measure them against what's right for BYU. And not only what's right for BYU in 2010, but what's right for BYU into the future. That is quite a bit more complex than most people understand."
Currently, there are only three independent teams in football — Notre Dame, Army and Navy.
By going independent, BYU would have more control over the exposure its teams have on television.
Holmoe expressed frustration in July about the lack of exposure offered by the The Mtn. television network. He also extolled the value of the school owning its own television network, BYU-TV, which reaches a potential audience of 150 million around the world. He added that BYU boasts a new state-of-the-art broadcasting facility.
"There's nothing better than that west of the Mississippi," Holmoe said. "The thing we can do with that, nobody in the country has that ability."
Legendary coach LaVell Edwards told the Deseret News he wasn't sure what to make of the reports of BYU going independent.
"It all comes as a surprise. I knew they were exploring possibilities, but I didn't think a whole lot about it. I don't know what's going on yet," said Edwards, who guided the Cougars from 1972-2000. "One thing I do know — they're not a bunch of dummies up there (at BYU). I'm sure they've done their due diligence in whatever they decide. I like things status quo. I don't know. But times are different now."
Trevor Matich, who was the center on BYU's 1984 national championship team and is now an ESPN commentator, said he would be thrilled at the prospect of the Cougars going independent.
"If it happens, I'd leap for joy because BYU's built itself to the point that it's a national program that's consistently winning," he said.
Of course, there are pros and cons to going independent.
"The upside is so high and the downside is really risky," Matich said. "The upside is, BYU's a national program. This would allow them to market games to bigger networks, and use BYU-TV, which is huge. Texas is looking at starting its own network. BYU's already got it. BYU would increase its footprint dramatically and potentially increase its cash flow as well, if they can monetize it the right way. BYU's won at least 10 games the past four years, but you can't see them on TV. There's more potential upside, especially with Utah leaving the Pac-10 … you can't afford to be second-fiddle in your own state."
On the downside, BYU, as an independent, would no longer have a conference championship to play for.
"And what if there were four 16-team superconferences created?" Matich said. "That would affect scheduling and make it tough for BYU. It's really complex. There could be some unforeseen complications. And we don't know what the BCS is going to do."
BCS executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN he has spoken to Holmoe about whether the BCS presidents and chancellors would allow BYU automatic qualifying access similar to the deal the BCS has with Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish become an automatic selection if it wins nine games and is ranked in the top eight in the final standings. Army and Navy do not have that kind of deal.
Hancock said the BCS schools would "thoughtfully consider any request that comes in. Every school is eligible to be considered by a bowl for at-large selection if it is ranked in the top 14."
According to sources, ESPN could partner with BYU to help facilitate this move to independence, particularly with scheduling and broadcasting games.
ESPN spokesman Michael Humes told the Deseret News that "as part of the process described in (BYU's) statement, BYU initiated a discussion with ESPN. The conversation will remain private."
Contributing: Jared Eborn