NCF Nation: independent

BYU enters world full of unknowns

September, 1, 2010
What seemed to be a dying way of doing business has gotten a jolt from BYU.

But it is unclear how successful BYU can be as an independent.

The Cougars became the fourth major college football program to go that route Wednesday, breaking away from the Mountain West for the 2011 season. With an eight-year ESPN contract to broadcast its home games, along with scheduling help from its broadcast partner, the move seems to be a good one on the surface.

BYU gets the national exposure it believes it deserves. It gets to keep all the proceeds of its TV deal. It gets to place its sports inventory on its own BYUtv network. It essentially gets complete control over everything BYU-related.

“BYU is doing this for the reasons of exposure and access and for what we feel is best for BYU,” athletic director Tom Holmoe said. “We feel there’s so much to accomplish.”

The Cougars already have a six-game series worked out with Notre Dame through 2020. They have WAC games on its schedule for 2011 and 2012. They have Boise State and Texas upcoming on their schedule in previously announced deals. Holmoe said the rivalry game with Utah would continue.

But there are risks, and plenty of unknowns.

First, BYU has no idea whether it will be granted the special access Notre Dame has into the BCS. The Cougars are going to be held to the same qualifying procedures as all others looking for an at-large berth -- if they finish in the Top 14 of the BCS standings they would qualify to get consideration. Also unclear is how much of the BCS financial pie they would get as an independent.

Those future opponents look good for now, but how is BYU going to balance its schedule? The Cougars cannot kill themselves with games against six of the top teams in the country. They would eliminate themselves from contention off the bat. They need a good mix of winnable games, and games against teams like Texas and Notre Dame.

It was already hard enough for non-AQ teams to make it into the BCS. It is safe to say BYU would face a more daunting road as an independent. The Cougars have never made it into a BCS game.

Filling out a 12-game schedule once this two-year partnership with the WAC ends is going to present challenges, too.

“Scheduling is one of the drawbacks people will fear,” Holmoe said. “That’s a little bit frightening. That’s one of the risks. We’ve calculated that risk and are willing to take it.”

Holmoe declined to talk about how this benefits BYU financially, saying the deal was not about the money. But it is a valid to ask how much more this deal benefits BYU than being a member of a conference.

As for the WAC, commissioner Karl Benson believes the scheduling partnership with BYU benefits his schools. Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State and San Jose State will play BYU in 2011; everyone but Idaho is on the schedule for 2012. He would love nothing more than to extend the scheduling partnership because it increases exposure for his programs.

BYU, of course, initially wanted to partner up with the WAC as a home for its other sports, but that deal fell apart when Fresno State and Nevada decided to join the Mountain West. Benson reiterated Wednesday that both those schools face a $5 million penalty for breaking a solidarity pact and insisted they must remain members of his league through 2011-12.

He also announced the formation of a membership committee that will begin looking at adding other schools to the conference. The athletic directors of all six remaining schools are on the committee. The goal is to add two to three more football playing schools. Benson didn’t rule out adding non-football members in addition to the football schools.

With speculation swirling that Hawaii or Utah State could leave the WAC, Benson said he anticipated all members to remain in the conference. “It’s my job to create a business model that will accommodate our six schools in the future,” he said. “There are teams out there that I’m sure will bring value to the WAC, and I’m also confident the six remaining schools will continue to get better under the WAC umbrella and there will be a team from the six that will stand out in the near future.”

It is safe to say big questions remain for BYU and the WAC going forward. They are essentially entering a world full of the unknown.

BYU goes independent in football

August, 31, 2010
The worst kept secret in college football is out -- BYU is going independent in football for the 2011-12 season. After a deal to join the WAC for its other sports fell apart, BYU has decided to join up with the West Coast Conference.

Quick thoughts on the move, ahead of the official press conference scheduled for Wednesday:

  • BYU clearly wanted to establish itself as an independent power in the West, hoping to control its football television rights and keep the money for itself. BYU already has its own TV network, BYUtv, but all its football games were a part of the Mountain West television contract. That was a huge sticking point when it came down to deciding whether to go independent or stay with the Mountain West.
  • Part of the beauty of the WAC affiliation was getting four to six games against conference opponents in football. Now as a member of the WCC, it is going to be harder to fill out a 12-game schedule. Yes, BYU will have help in doing that, but it is going to need major, major help in order to position itself as a player for a BCS berth.
  • Speaking of the BCS, BYU knows it is not guaranteed to get the special status Notre Dame gets when it comes to those bowl berths. The BCS Board of Directors is set to meet next month to discuss what to do about BYU. This move does not seem to be one that will position the Cougars to make a consistent run as a football power. Non-AQ teams have a hard enough time as it is getting into the BCS. Wonder how hard it will be as an independent. Notre Dame can go out and schedule anybody it wants. It remains to be seen whether BYU can do the same, even with help.
  • A big question looming -- how much more money does BYU stand to get as an independent than as a member of the Mountain West? As part of the conference, BYU received a chunk of the money the league got when TCU and Utah made it into those BCS games. It will lose out on all of that. But whatever TV deal it secures could amount to much more.
  • The WAC has been in serious scramble mode since the deal to potentially get BYU in its grasp imploded when Fresno State and Nevada decided to bolt for the Mountain West. The survival of the league remains shaky, though commissioner Karl Benson is set on trying to bring other programs into the fold -- perhaps FCS schools ready to make the jump into FBS.
  • With BYU leaving, the Mountain West will become a 10-team league. Is that satisfactory, or does the league try to expand to 12 and get a conference championship game? The league has already been in talks with Conference USA about perhaps having a joint conference championship game with the winner getting a BCS berth. But the BCS has not weighed in on whether they would go for that plan.
  • There are now four independent teams in college football. Depending on the money BYU is going to get and keep for itself, is independence the wave of the future?
The big news out of the home-and-home series between BYU and Texas is not so much the game itself but what it means: The Cougars proved once again they have the ability to schedule big nonconference games and get a home game in return. Now is this an omen for its future as an independent?

Between 2011 and 2014, Texas and BYU will play three times, which is excellent exposure for a program that has its sights set on becoming an independent in football. If BYU goes ahead with the plan it had earlier this week, it would play four to six WAC games and then need to fill out the rest of its schedule.

According to Andy Katz, a mock WAC schedule had been drawn up for BYU for the 2011 season before Fresno State and Nevada bolted for the Mountain West. That schedule called for the Cougars to play Fresno State, Hawaii, Utah State, Nevada, San Jose State and New Mexico State.

In order to have any shot at a BCS game, let alone a national championship, at least a handful of those games are going to have to come against Top 25 opponents. BYU will not be able to survive with a creampuff schedule. It seems obvious the Cougars would want to try to avoid that. BYU believes it is a national program and would look to schedule national games. Big games would also help with its TV network and potential negotiations with other networks should it go on its own.

Finding willing marquee opponents that want to schedule home-and-home series has been difficult, but not impossible. Over the past five seasons, BYU has gotten home-and-home series with Boston College, Arizona, UCLA, Notre Dame, Washington and Florida State.

Of course, it is much easier to schedule these games in September before conference play begins. All minus the game at Notre Dame were played in the first three weeks of the season (Notre Dame, of course, is an independent and has no set schedule). It will be more difficult to find willing partners during conference play for everyone else. And it is going to need more than a few of these to stay in the national conversation, especially if the WAC schedule includes Utah State, New Mexico State, San Jose State and Idaho, for example.

For those who wonder why Notre Dame would need a tougher schedule, and point to Boise State as benefiting from the weakness of the WAC, remember the Broncos generally play at least two top nonconference schools a season. Four WAC teams were bowl eligible last season. Three of those teams are exiting the league. Notre Dame has seven bowl teams on the schedule this year.

Getting games with Texas is a great first step for BYU. If the Cougars go independent, they are going to need more just like that.
Colleague Andy Katz has delivered some truly breaking news -- BYU is moving closer to football independence.

Let us take a look at potential ramifications:

What happens to the Mountain West?

If BYU leaves the Mountain West, the conference’s ability to reach automatic qualifying status in the BCS would appear to be in jeopardy. The MWC would take a big hit without one of its best programs over the last two years. The BCS is currently in Year 2 of a four-year evaluation cycle, so nothing right now is guaranteed. If the MWC does fall short at the end of the evaluation period, the next step would be to ask for a waiver to be granted AQ status. Without BYU, the chance of the waiver being granted probably decreases.

The Mountain West is a nine-team league, and commissioner Craig Thompson said this past summer the league had no plans to expand. Losing BYU could force its hand. Indeed, Katz reports that MWC representatives approached WAC members Fresno State and Nevada about joining the league, but both declined. Why? The WAC instituted a $5 million buyout for schools who want to leave in an effort to stop others from defecting with Boise State, which joins the MWC in 2011.

So if WAC schools are out, where does the MWC turn? Remember, a league must have at least eight members to be an FBS conference. The most logical place would be Conference USA, but even there, no team has the same credentials as BYU when it comes to AQ membership.

Why go independent?

The Cougars are breaking the mold here. There are only three independent teams left in the country — Notre Dame, Army and Navy. The moves this summer indicated college football was moving more toward a superconference era. Does going independent make that easier? It is hard to tell. First, the Pac-10 snubbed BYU and went with Colorado and Utah instead. So what are the chances the Pac-10 looks at an independent a second time around? The Big 12 is on shaky ground. Would that conference add BYU? Those two conferences seem to be the only logical landing spots.

Scheduling is going to be much tougher. Though BYU would play several WAC teams, it would have to go after others to fill out the rest of its season. Boise State has had a difficult time getting its handful of marquee nonconference games. BYU could encounter similar obstacles.

But going independent means keeping TV dollars and potential BCS money all for itself. BYU already has its own network, and there is a possibility an independent BYU could negotiate its own national TV deal like Notre Dame. But the chances of BYU being given the same status as Notre Dame when it comes to gaining entry into a BCS game do not appear to be great.