Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Independence Day

The sky is falling.

If you haven't heard by now, my alma mater, Brigham Young University is on the verge of forsaking its brain-child, the Mountain West Conference and striking out as a Football Bowl Subdivision independent school, joining Notre Dame, Army and Navy in a conference-less quest for a national championship.

The news was broken late Tuesday night by's Andy Katz, and continued with regular updates from the Salt Lake Tribune and other media outlets, spanning all the way into my local Las Vegas Review-Journal. According to the reports, BYU would be completely independent of any football conference, while playing its other sports in the Western Athletic Conference, or the conference it abandoned to form the MWC more than a decade ago.

The only problem? Commissioner Craig Thompson seems to want to force BYU's hand, and has effectively relegated the WAC to FCS status with an invitation for Nevada and Fresno State to join Boise State in a new intermountain-west home. Both schools quickly responded that they would accept the invitation, and (assuming BYU brings the rumors to fruition), the MWC would be at a ten-team league, with Fresno, San Diego State, UNLV, Nevada, Boise, Wyoming, Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico and TCU. Further, Katz also reported Houston and UTEP have received invitations to join the new-look conference in the Rockies.

So what does this do for BYU? It gives them the opportunity to create its own 12-team football schedule, with a caveat that they would play 4-6 WAC schools every year (which, if they were to use one of those games for Hawaii, would give them a 13th game as mandated by the NCAA). The rest? That would be entirely up to BYU. It's assumed that they could very easily schedule Army and Navy, and Boise State has constantly requested meaningful schools to fill out its schedule, so that should happen. And of course, the annual Holy War against Utah (which will be a Pac-12 school beginning next year) should be an easy fit. That's at least eight games on the schedule, with BYU still contracted to play teams such as Texas and Florida State in upcoming seasons.

The move would also give BYU control over its broadcasting, either with a private company with ESPN or some other major broadcaster, or on its own network, BYUtv. This is where sides tend to disagree with BYU's effectiveness as an independent. Proponents believe this is a no-brainer, with BYUtv already operating and available to first-tier DirecTV subscribers. However, that subscription also delivers BYUtv as a non-profit, public information channel, similar to the PBS model of broadcasting available nation-wide. It's unclear how adding BYU sports, such as football and basketball, along with the added revenue in additional advertising and contracts, would change the network's business model.

Also, BYUtv operates as a bare-budget enterprise, with many of the network's jobs in reporting, producing and other personnel going to broadcast journalism and media arts students at the Provo campus. An upgrade in programming, such as BYU's future bout with Texas or a possible matchup against Notre Dame, would require a significant upgrade in on-air and behind-the-scenes talent, all of which would require a significant increase in funding. And while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU, would have no problem financing such a network, it's unclear if church leaders would be willing to back such an overhaul.

BYU's other sports, including its successful men's basketball program, would play a typical WAC schedule, although with only six current WAC members, they would need to add multiple schools to replenish the MWC's recent acquisition. It's also assumed that these sports would operate under the WAC's current tv contract with ESPN — a decent proposition, and one that leaves open some broadcasts on BYUtv, as well.

But as far as competition goes, there's not a whole lot of reason for BYU to assume any NCAA Tournament pick aside from its win in the WAC tourney. Aside from in-state rival Utah State, the Cougars would compete against such "powerhouses" as San Jose State, Idaho and New Mexico State for in-conference games. 

Here, however, there is another option. The commissioner of the West Coast Conference has openly invited BYU to join its non-football geographic make-up. The conference includes growing basketball powers such as Gonzaga, St. Mary's and Loyola Marymount. Further, BYU fans have often complained about the Cougars' no-Sunday-play policy, which severely restricts them in conference alignment; the Pac-10, for example, regularly hosts games and activities on the LDS sabbath. 

In the WCC, as every school has a religious affiliation (Catholic, Jesuit and Church of Christ), there would be no Sunday-play restrictions for BYU. Culturally, they'd be a good fit. And with no football in the conference, the Cougars could do whatever they wish with their football team — play in the WAC, accept a future invitation to the Big 12, or even play as an independent. Plus, the WCC is currently in a  contract with ESPN that includes the feature of the weekly "Big Monday" matchup, so the Cougars wouldn't be wanting for lack of national exposure.

Still, BYU's best option is to remain in the MWC. With the addition of Nevada and Fresno State, and a possible addition of Houston or UTEP, paired with the "BCS points" of BYU, TCU, Boise State, the conference would make a very serious case for automatic-qualifier status in the BCS when the currently cycle ends in two years. If that happens, BYU would be in the same position as Utah in the Pac-10, only without having to deal with USC, Stanford, Oregon, et al every year.

TCU coach Gary Patterson also added a few words of caution, hinting at bigger things to come for BYU:
"If you're BYU, you better be careful what you wish for," Patterson said. "It's not my job to worry about what Utah does, what BYU does, but I can tell you this: If you think being an independent is an easier way to get to a national championship, you're kidding yourself."

One thing remains certain, though: the wild summer of college football realignment hasn't died down yet. And this time, instead of waiting to be acted on by Texas and its Cohorts, BYU is making its own waves.

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