SALT LAKE CITY — BYU is always looking for good opponents, and forever aching to get in a Power Five conference. But things such as its honor code and no-Sunday policy have kept it suspended in independence.
Former Cougar football coach Bronco Mendenhall once said he could see BYU sustaining independence just a few more years. But Liberty University, of Lynchburg, Virginia, doesn’t want to hear that. It’s going independent, starting in 2018.
Liberty, which bills itself as the largest non-profit Christian university in the country, is a lot like BYU. It has a strict honor code and a religious emphasis. What it doesn’t have is an Outland or Heisman winner. There are no national championships for Liberty in football, even at the FCS level. So it has a long way to go in that respect.
Still, it’s no mystery why the two schools signed a home-and-home football agreement last week. They need one another.
But shouldn’t BYU have warned Liberty?
A lot of Cougar fans are upset BYU would schedule a home-and-home series with a little-known private school that doesn’t raise an eyebrow on a national level. On the other hand, maybe BYU felt it was, well, the Christian thing to do.
Founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, and now presided by his son, Liberty has long had big aspirations. Remember Bronco Mendenhall’s “best teams on the biggest stages” mantra? It’s Liberty’s goal, too.
BYU has done a respectable job in that department. But inevitably the late season rolls around and top competition is hard to find.
News that Liberty was leaving the Big South Conference for independence was announced in February. The NCAA confirmed the school’s petition to switch from FCS (I-AA) to FBS (I-A) was accepted. Because no conference invitation has arrived, Liberty plans to compete as an independent.
How well that will work is questionable. In 2018, it has Virginia and Auburn on its calendar, but also Idaho State, Norfolk State, Troy and New Mexico State. There are still seven blank dates on the 2019 schedule.
BYU knows all about this. It attracts a nice selection of Power Five opponents. But it also fills gaps with items from the bargain bin (Wagner, Savannah State). Meanwhile, there’s no realistic path to the playoffs and little opportunity in bowl selection.
Liberty was comfortable in its own small world, having won eight Big South Conference championships in the last 10 years. But the Flames wanted more.
There’s nothing wrong with religious universities that hold high standards and provide good educations. Heaven knows there are enough colleges that churn out entitled, troubled or even poorly educated NFL talent. But why would Liberty go where BYU is, when it has been such a trial for the Cougars? Scheduling will be much harder, but so will recruiting as it fights to add upper-division talent. The pool is smaller for schools with strict standards.
Meanwhile, the counter-recruiting will be ruthless. Liberty will be opposed by some of the same voices that helped keep BYU out of the Big 12.
The Cougars are coming off the toughest schedule in their history. They finished 9-4, including wins over Arizona, Michigan State and Mississippi State. But Southern Utah and UMass were also on the calendar.
At one time, BYU had six games scheduled with Notre Dame. Cougar athletic director Tom Holmoe now admits the remaining four might not happen.
Liberty football coach Turner Gill said in the February press conference that the move to FBS status “gives our university great national exposure to build champions for Christ!"
That sounded like Bronco Mendenhall talking.
President Jerry Falwell Jr. continued, “This university aspired to compete at the highest levels of NCAA competition We are deeply grateful to NCAA leadership and staff for considering this request, and for acknowledging Liberty’s readiness, and the appropriateness of Liberty now moving to FBS football status as an independent."
To borrow a phrase, the Flames are “fully invested.”
So another religious university wants to compete at the highest level, as an independent, and meanwhile spread the good word. BYU has not missed a bowl game in 12 years. But the Cougars are under no pretense about where they’d like to be.
If BYU really wants to do the Christian thing for Liberty, it probably should tell the Flames: “Run! Run! Save yourselves!”
Instead, there will be one more team wandering in the wilderness.