Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU went 10-3 in its inaugural season as a football independent and finished 25th in the final coaches' poll.

As the BYU football team prepares for its third season as an independent, the Cougars find themselves staring down one of the toughest schedules in school history. In fact, in terms of national name recognition, this may be the best schedule in school history, period.

Unsurprisingly, the improved scheduling that has accompanied independence has brought its own set of challenges and corollary opportunities. Gone are the days when BYU was measured by winning WAC or Mountain West Conference championships. Success at BYU is now gauged strictly by wins, losses and the national polls. But in a larger sense, BYU has been held to a higher standard long before the inaugural season of independence in 2011.

Take 1993, for example. BYU won a share of the WAC championship but finished a pedestrian 6-6. Sandwiched between the conclusion of the Ty Detmer era in the early 1990s and a couple of Top 10 finishes in 1994 and 1996, that wasn’t exactly something to get Cougar Nation excited about. Sure, that was 20 years ago, but that pounds home the point — it’s been a long time since simply winning a conference championship was “good enough” for BYU.

Aiming for a WAC or Mountain West championship ceased to be the benchmark for fans when it became expected. It became more of a knock against a solid BYU season if they didn’t win the conference title. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems likely that the Top 25 became the measuring stick for a successful BYU season somewhere around the time that LaVell Edwards rattled off seven ranked finishes between 1977 and 1985, including the 1984 national championship.

The national brand of the program, the fan-base, the size of the stadium, the cumulative and continued success … frankly, BYU has been ready for the accoutrements of independence for a few decades, three losing seasons (the only three losing seasons for BYU since 1973) from 2002-04 notwithstanding.

For years, BYU found itself in the unusual position of being regarded by many as a major program in terms of prestige and reputation but connected at the hip to a mid-major conference. A best-in-the-country 22 conference championships from 1974-2010 confirms this. Of course, there were down years, most notably the end of the Gary Crowton era, but by and large, BYU was the pace horse of the old WAC and later the Mountain West Conference for decades.

The numbers don’t lie; BYU dominated its conference competition over nearly 40 years more than any other team of the era. The Cougars went a remarkable 238-64 against conference foes from the day Edwards took the head coaching job at BYU back in 1972 until BYU’s final season as a member of the Mountain West Conference in 2010. That includes a worthy record of 35-24 against four former conference-mates who are now in one of the five major conferences (Arizona, Arizona State, TCU and Utah).

To be sure, as an independent, BYU has to earn everything it gets the hard way. But if social media sites are any indication, the vast majority of BYU fans recognize that independence was a confident step up the college football ladder.

In the last 36 seasons, BYU has finished ranked 18 times — exactly 50 percent of the time. In the same span, BYU has racked up 16 national college football awards (including a Heisman Trophy), a slew of All-Americans, 16 seasons with at least 10 wins, and a reputation as one of the most prolific NFL quarterback factories in the country — a tradition continued most recently by John Beck and Max Hall.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Cougar Nation is known for showing up in large numbers to any venue in the country. In all of college football, you won’t find a program with similar accolades that’s not either in a major conference or independent. Not to make this a comparison between BYU and the University of Utah, but since Edwards retired in 2000, BYU has finished ranked in the Top 25 six times. That’s only one less ranked finish than Utah has in its entire history.

Despite several unexpected setbacks during the past couple of fall campaigns, the Brigham Young football program seems to be heading into the fall with momentum. Under coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cougars have played in eight straight bowl games, including a program record four consecutive bowl wins. Add in five Top 25 finishes and a trio of 11-win seasons since 2006, and it’s easy to see why the Cougar faithful are feeling optimistic about the direction of the program.

Now, with a quantity and quality of coverage by ESPN and BYUtv that is the envy of many schools in the "Big Five" conferences, along with an increasing number of name-brand opponents, BYU is in position to do exactly what Paul Myerberg of USA Today recently posited the Cougars were starving to do — "return to the nation's elite."

Because of independence, the BYU football team has the TV coverage and the schedule. Now all it has to do is win.

Rocky Steele is the author of "Forgotten Champions: The Story of the 1951 BYU Basketball Team." With a background in business and law, he works as the director of acquisitions for a Utah company. He can be found on Twitter at @RockySteele.