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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall

PROVO — While rumors and speculation are running rampant about the future of BYU's football program in regard to a possible move to the Big 12 Conference, the Cougars say they are happy where they are as an independent.

When asked about those rumors during his weekly teleconference Tuesday morning, coach Bronco Mendenhall said he isn't aware of any contact by the Big 12 and that he's leaving those issues in the hands of athletic director Tom Holmoe.

Then, Mendenhall extolled the virtues of being an independent program.

"This move to independence was well thought out. I believe we're aligned and positioned where we belong," Mendenhall said. "With a school that has such a unique purpose, (aligned) with other (independent) schools that have unique purposes outside of just schooling and football with the (Army and Navy) and Notre Dame. I like that uniqueness. I like the exposure we now have."

Mendenhall also acknowledged the issue of not having automatic access to the Bowl Championship Series.

"The one thing that's lacking (is) that we're going to have to continue to earn our way into the BCS affiliation," he said. "Right now, bluntly, we have to go undefeated, probably twice in a very short amount of time, to have a shot at the national title. So there's kind of a catch-22.

"But for now, and maybe for the relative long-term, I'm really, really comfortable with this independent role. If I can help our team play at the highest level, then maybe that inclusion will come just through the number of games we win in terms of access to the national championship."

The Cougars kick off their inaugural independent season Saturday at Ole Miss (2:45 p.m. MT, ESPN).

"It's huge. This new era of independence is a huge deal," said quarterback Jake Heaps. "This game and the way we're starting out is a huge way of saying that we're not afraid of going after the big-name schools. We're not afraid to put them on our schedule because we believe we have the talent and ability and we have the coaching to win those games. They're not going to be easy. They're going to be hard-fought games. But, man, we do believe we can go in there and we can win."

BYU will be looking to make a statement Saturday on national television.

"Just because of the independence thing, it's going to be a test of what we've got," said running back JJ Di Luigi. "For us, we're looking at this as our first game and we've got to go in there and do what we've got to do to continue on with our quest for an undefeated season."

Mendenhall reiterated that he is looking forward to blazing a new trail.

"I am thrilled to be the coach at BYU and to be leading our program into a new era of independence," he said. "We realize that we have a formidable challenge ahead of us, not only conceptually in terms of our season and the future of the program, but also a very difficult opponent on the road as our opener.

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"When we went independent, we didn't believe anything would be easy, but we believe we've earned the right to carve out our future. We're anxious to have our partner, ESPN, show our football games."

Now, it's up to Mendenhall, and his team, to win games.

"My job now is to help our team play in a manner that's worthy of that partnership," he said. "We're looking forward to a solid start against a very good team. We're doing our best to prepare."

Cougars' season-opener

BYU (0-0) at Ole Miss (0-0)

Saturday, 2:45 MT

Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.


Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

email: jeffc@desnews.com