- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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As conferences seem to keep swelling and changing, Brigham Young is going the opposite route. The Cougars will compete this year as an independent in football, joining just three other schools in the FBS to do so.
The other three are Army, Navy and the most successful and fiercely independent school of them all, Notre Dame. So it was natural for BYU officials to call Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick to try and set up a series between the schools after the decision to go independent was made. The two agreed to a six-game series beginning in 2012. Swarbrick also offered the Cougars a bit of advice and talked about life as an independent, and he shared some of that wisdom with ESPN.com.
Asked what it took to go that direction, Swarbrick said it's "an all or nothing deal."
"The biggest thing is you really have to embrace it," he said. "Schedule nationally and distribute your media broadly. Take full advantage of it."
It's no wonder, Swarbrick said, that the four independents in the FBS include two military academies and two religious-based schools.
"You need something that distinguishes you," he said. "You also need that core element of holding fan interest and having a really cohesive fan base, and that thing has to span geography. Religion does that, and so does military affiliation."
Swarbrick said the toughest part of being an independent is scheduling, a task that's gotten even harder in the land of big conferences. For example, Notre Dame traditionally plays at least three Big Ten teams per season, but that league will go to nine conference games in 2017, leaving fewer holes on its schools' schedules.
"As conferences become invested in their own networks and other things, they're being very careful how they schedule," Swarbrick said. "It's not easy. We spend a lot of time on scheduling. You've got to be prepared to go to a lot of different places and play a lot of tough opponents."
Independents can't load up on games against lower-level teams or those from weaker conferences and still be a national player, Swarbrick said.
"The overriding trend in the last decade of college athletics has been the emerging power of conference as business entities," he said. "And I think the de facto presumption arrives that the champion of the SEC or Big Ten or Pac-12 or Big 12 will automatically be in the championship game. You've got to be able to buck that presumption by being able to say, 'Hey, we played the toughest schedule in the country.' We're certainly engaged in doing that."
Swarbrick said he thinks BYU has everything in place, especially with its own TV network and an ESPN deal. But even though there has been speculation that Texas might try the independent route, Swarbrick doesn't expect much more company on Notre Dame's island.
"We could see another team or two," he said. "But I don't think we'll see a lot of it because of the emerging power of conferences."
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