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Nick Wagner, Deseret News
BYU running back Squally Canada heads up field against Utah State in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2016. The Cougars defeated the Aggies, 28-10.

SALT LAKE CITY — As a football independent, BYU considers itself a notch above Group of 5 (mid-major) programs. School administrators or coaches have described it as a Power 5 team without a conference. Other times they claim to be somewhere between a P5 and a G5 program.

In any case, the Cougars have a chance to improve their image, starting Friday at Utah State. Rivalry games always say something. But is this just another game as an independent, or an audition for a return to the Mountain West?

Not that the MWC knows of.

Commissioner Craig Thompson said in an e-mail Tuesday that "BYU has not recently been discussed as a potential member."

He went on to say, "With 12 football-playing schools divided into two six-team divisions, it is a model that works quite well."

At the same time, BYU hasn't asked, either.

It’s not hard to see what joining its former conference would do for the Cougars. They would be in the mix for a New Year's Six bowl invitation, as a G5 member. Don’t scoff. Boise State has been to three Fiesta Bowls using that formula.

The 2014 Broncos made the Fiesta Bowl after losing two games.

If BYU loses two games, it’s hello, Whatever Bowl.

Dominating a conference — even a smaller one — can lead to significant strides. BYU knows that. It won a national championship that way. That’s why playing in the Mountain West makes sense for the Cougars. But they aren’t feeling it. For BYU’s administration and fans, it would constitute an official designation as a “mid-major” program.

This year, the Cougars almost have a Mountain West schedule. They play six MWC teams, but also East Carolina of the American Athletic Conference and independent UMass. That makes eight of their 13 games against G5 teams. One opponent — Portland State in the season opener — is an FCS school.

For those who love BYU playing power schools, rejoining the MWC is a non-starter. Why play eight or nine G5 conference games in a season when they’re playing four to six P5 schools a year? But for anyone looking toward major bowls, a conference arrangement is the realistic option.

Meanwhile, there’s pressure for the Cougars on Friday in Logan simply because they play an instate opponent they nearly always beat. A loss would take BYU’s season from discouraging to soul-crushing. Winning out against a string of G5 teams won’t mean much when bowl selection day arrives. After Utah State (2-2), the Cougars play a surprisingly tame Boise State (2-2), followed by the SEC’s Mississippi State (3-1). But East Carolina (1-3), San Jose State (1-4), Fresno State (1-2), UNLV (1-2), UMass (0-5) and Hawaii (2-2) are road kill.

Not an eye-catcher in the bunch.

BYU could go 8-0 the rest of the way and not feel good about the season.

Whether BYU is too good for a G5 conference is debatable. Lately it doesn’t look that way. BYU is 13-20 against P5 schools since going independent, but its 23 wins since 2003 are tied for first among non-P5s.

Meanwhile, the Cougars are 15-6 against Mountain West teams since going independent. The Cougars have had no problem making their case when it comes to playing USU; they have won 15 of the last 17 and 25 of the last 28.

As for producing NFL players, BYU has more (13) than every MWC team except Boise State (17). After that comes Utah State (11), Fresno State (10), San Jose State, (9) San Diego State (8) and Colorado State (8), according to ESPN’s numbers. By comparison, Cal — picked next-to-last in the Pac-12 this year — has 30 NFL players. Other bottom-feeders such as Oregon State and Arizona have 22 and nine, respectively.

Considering its following and facilities, BYU can still make a strong case for a power conference. But nobody is asking. Whatever the case, there’s no doubt adding the Cougars to the MWC would be a boost for the USU-BYU rivalry. From the Aggies' side, it’s already huge.

“It is a big rivalry to us,” USU coach Matt Wells said. “It gets our guys excited. The stadium will be electric Friday night.”

Imagine how much more electric if the game had conference ramifications.