Monday, August 23, 2010

An Independent Streak of Lunacy?

By Ross Lancaster

After Nebraska went to the Big Ten, Utah and Colorado went to the Pac-10, Boise State went to the Mountain West, and the Big 12 stabilized with 10, the Summer of Realignment in college sports was thought to be done and dusted.

However, this past week provided one of the strangest rumors of the entire process, and that includes whatever murmurs there were of a possible 22 team Pac-whatever enveloping the Big 12.

The "BYU to become independent and rejoin the WAC in everything else" chatter that dropped last Tuesday seemed like an implausibility at best. After all, the only schools that move to become independents nowadays are teams transitioning from another division or Army after realizing a mistake in joining Conference USA.

Yet, that rumor involving BYU seemed to accelerate by the hour in validity, with various outlets and papers reporting it to be done. As of writing time, BYU has not finalized any deal to become an independent in football and rejoin the WAC for everything else.

In response to the possibility of BYU leaving the MWC, the conference has invited Nevada and Fresno State from the WAC, who have each already accepted. Whether or not this is an 11th-hour coup aimed at getting BYU to stay remains to be seen. The move is also likely to shore up any possibility that Boise State could run away from a MWC sans BYU and Utah without having to pay a buyout to the conference, which it could do if it really wanted to.

At first glance, it doesn't make that much sense for BYU to want to leave the Mountain West to become unaffiliated. Even without Utah in the MWC in a year's time, BYU would still have two other football powers in Boise State and TCU to help move the conference even further towards automatic qualification to the BCS. Now, assuming BYU completes the move to football independence, the MWC has a lesser chance of becoming the seventh automatic qualifier.

This past spring, the BCS released a formula that will determine if a conference outside the top six is to become an automatic qualifier. The results of the formula will be determined using the 2008-2011 seasons, and a conference would then automatically qualify for the BCS after the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Team Speed Kills blog ran the numbers and found that the MWC, due to the bottom part of the conference weighing the league's average team computer ranking down, would still be outside of automatic qualification territory. And then there this, "The computations will be made according to the conference's membership on Dec. 4, 2011."

In layman's terms, this means that whatever Utah did or does from 2008-10 will not count towards the Mountain West receiving or not receiving an automatic bid into the BCS. Yet, whatever Boise State did or does from 2008-10 (so far a lot, and possibly a whole lot depending on this season) in the WAC will count. Nevada and Fresno State also have the potential to strengthen the MWC for that metric, and from that standpoint, BYU might be tossing away a chance at a BCS bid down the road should it leave.

The BCS rules are as clear as can be when it comes to one certain independent team (I'll give you a hint: it's not Navy).

But what about any other potential independent teams besides Notre Dame? The BCS is fairly ambiguous when it comes to those teams. The rule about a team automatically qualifying if it is in the top 12, as per BCS guidelines, clearly refers to teams that are outside the Big Six conferences. As it stands now, should BYU go independent, the Cougars would have to rely on getting selected to the BCS as an at-large team. BYU, even without the MWC having an automatic bid, knows it can automatically qualify, but that it has to be in the top 12, and ahead of any other non-major conference schools in the BCS. One would think that a program as successful as BYU would have made some sort of agreement with the BCS before rashly deciding to throw away any opportunity to qualify automatically for the BCS.

From a business standpoint, however, it makes more sense for BYU to become independent. On multiple occasions on this site, I've been very critical about how the Mountain West has gone about its TV contract. All of what was said in those articles still applies, so there's no use in repeating it. The one good thing I can say about the Mountain West when it comes to the TV deal is that they've seemed to put more games on more widely-available Versus. Yet, it still seems like more people could be watching a late Thursday or Friday night game on ESPN or ESPN2 than watch on CBS College Sports or Versus opposite a big SEC game on ESPN.

Some news stories estimated that BYU gets $2 million from the MWC TV deals a year, a number that could be greater if they were independent and able to get some sort of ESPN or other network's deal.

The other area BYU stands to gain is in bowl money, wherein it could make all of a bowl's payout as revenue, instead of having to split it with other conference members. If BYU somehow hatches out an agreement with the BCS where finishing in say, the top six would automatically qualify the Cougars for a BCS game, the result would be $18 million directly into the school's coffers. For other bowl games, BYU would undoubtedly create tie-ins for itself much like Notre Dame has. The program is too well-known and has too big of a fan base to be an outcast as an independent, as some are predicting.

BYU will also have a great amount of scheduling freedom should it become independent. Will the Cougars opt to schedule some of their regional rivals? Of course they will, as well as the "Holy War" game against Utah. But the ability to possibly schedule marquee games will come as a benefit to the program as well.

During the previous round of conference realignment, our Corrie Trouw argued for Texas, the gorilla in the room in those negotiations, to become an independent in football. Any number of big-time programs could do the same today, as certain schools' brands transcend any conference affiliation. Is BYU in that club? In some ways, I think they certainly are. It's a program with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy to its name in the last 30 years. It has a degree of a widespread fan base thanks being so intertwined with a national church.

It wasn't so long ago that there were many independents in college football. As recently as 1988, there were 24 schools not belonging to any conference. Back then, Miami, Florida State, Penn State were all without a conference, and seemed to do all right. Eventually, all of those powerhouses chose the stability that a conference provided.

BYU's program is stable enough that it doesn't need a conference. After all, Notre Dame has gone 26-24 in the past four years and had to fire its coach, while BYU has gone 43-9 in the same time period with a coach who will probably be at the school as long as he likes. Neither decision BYU makes is completely the wrong one, as each could lead the school to the promised land of the BCS.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017