We follow up with PART TWO of our special investigative report. If you missed part one, where we covered the ACC, B1G, SEC and Pac-12, click here. We'll look into the Mountain West, the Big 12, and staying independent below.
The Mountain West
I'll go ahead and skip the demographic information here since it's very similar to the Pac-12, and also not especially important for BYU's chances to join the MWC
Why this is a great idea: A basketball league with New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State, an improving Colorado State squad, AND BYU would be an outstanding basketball league, one that may actually have better computer numbers than the Pac-12 for some seasons. Would at least give BYU the flexibility to change bowl games depending on results. BYU also has a long athletic relationship with many member schools (Hawaii, San Diego State, Utah State, Wyoming, etc).
Why this is a terrible idea: It would be a *significant* decrease in football schedule strength, and would effectively handcuff their ability to ever become a national program (one that contends for BCS bowls, playoff bids, etc), unless they went 34-2 over a three year span or something. Many BYU fans are sick of playing against Wyoming or New Mexico in front of mostly empty crowds. Also, BYU already has games with Utah State, Boise State, Fresno State and San Jose State on future schedules. If the school wants to add another, they can, without needing to commit to the league.
Interview with a conference blogger, Mountain West Connection's Jeremy Mauss:
Well being the former home of the Mountain West this would be a good fit for BYU to return home. Commissioner Craig Thompson is not pursuing adding any teams at the moment, but if BYU were to be available he would do what he could to bring them back. For football the Mountain West would need two teams since they have 12 teams and so another team would need to be brought it, and I doubt kicking out Hawaii to keep the league at 12 teams would go over well. The Mountain West would likely stretch more into the Southwest and nab UTEP to go along with BYU, and they would be a great fit. UTEP was with the WAC years ago which now includes most of what makes up the current Mountain West.
Would you want your conference to target BYU as a possible expansion candidate? Could BYU be a fit in your conference?
Of course, they were a founding member of the Mountain West and the league would make room for BYU, despite what some fans may say about the Cougars. BYU would reclaim their spot as one of the top teams in the league along side Boise State and be back to being nearly every other teams main rival. The only issue is adding another team in addition to BYU to give the Mountain West 14 teams.
If you were BYU's AD, what would you try to do? Seek admission in X conference, stay independent...or, I dunno, drop sports entirely and become a cosmetics academy?
This is the question. Tom Holmoe loves the independent schedule they are building and the relationship with ESPN which provides exposure and money. However, access is still an issue because right now BYU has the same as any independent not named Notre Dame, and that means zero access.
It's somewhat of an academic exercise, but on SOME level, you could probably argue that BYU's big bowl access is greater in the MWC than outside of it.
Verdict: I can't really think of a good reason why BYU would want to do this, unless they started regularly going 4-8 during independence and needed to secure a home, ANY kind of home. It would be a lot of fun for basketball, but wouldn't make much sense anywhere else.
The Big 12
# of Mormons in Big 12 footprint:
439,591, with almost all of them living in Texas. It would probably be fair to say that there are plenty of Big 12 fans in places like Nebraska or the the Dakotas...but it's not like those places are crawling with Mormons either.
Conference academic profile: The Big 12 is a mix of research oriented public schools (Texas, Kansas and Iowa State are all in the AAU), larger, less research focused public schools, and Baylor, one of the few religious schools in FBS football. Depending on the metric, BYU would probably be the 2nd or 3rd best school in the league, behind Texas, and potentially Kansas or Baylor.
# of BYU alumni in major conference metros:
Oklahoma City: Less than 600
...wow, there really aren't a lot of other CITIES in the Big 12, huh? Feel pretty confident that there aren't a ton of BYU grads hanging out in Ames right now.
Potential Athletic Fit: Many fans think this is the best major FBS fit, and it's easy to see why. BYU's football program would get routine opportunities against strong programs (this was probably the 2nd best football league LAST season), but historically, the divide probably isn't so vast that BYU couldn't be at least competitive, especially with a defensively focused squad in a league full of passing powerhouses. Basketball would lag behind Kansas, but with a slew of so-so programs, BYU could probably also be competitive enough to make the NCAAs and get slightly better seeding than they might in the WCC.
Why this is a great idea: BYU isn't nearly as much of a geographical stretch to the Big 12 as it would be for other conferences, and academically, and lets face it, politically, it's the best possible major conference fit fit. If the Big 12 actually needs more teams to get to a championship game, it gives them a credible squad for football and basketball. Also, there is a decent amount of Mormons in Texas, who could help the school build more inroads into the state.
Why this is a terrible idea: BYU would probably need to give up some TV flexibility, and autonomy in general if they're going to get into bed with Texas. Program has the potential to be very bad if talent or coaching level falls of even a little bit, if it coincides with a "good" B12 year. Not playing on Sundays could potentially be an issue for nonrevenue sports. There are almost no Mormons or BYU grads in the non-Texas B12 states. The Big 12 could potentially bring in other schools with a higher upside as well.
Passage from a Conference Realignment Expert, Frank The Tank:
Blogger Frank the Tank has been up on the ins and outs of realignment better than almost anybody, including some national beat writer type. He recently broke down the Big 12's options for expansion and spoke favorably about BYU's chances, although I personally think he oversold things a teensy bit. The full passage can be found here, but here is an excerpt:
Football Brand Value – 30/30
National TV Value – 15/15
Local TV Value – 7/10
Demographics/Recruiting Value – 5/20
Academics – 3/5
Basketball Value – 5/5
Geographic Fit/Need – 0/5
Tremendous Upside Potential/Monopoly Power – 10/10
Overview: BYU has strong enough of a national brand to garner an independent TV contrac with ESPN, a massive worldwide fan base, its own TV network and a solid football tradition. My criteria for demographics and academics likely undercount the true value of BYU, as its relevant demographics are really related to the world’s Mormon population and it has top tier undergraduate academics. Boise State might have the best record of recent on-the-field achievements out of any non-power conference school, but BYU is the one institution at this level that legitimately looks, feels and acts like a power conference program
Final Verdict: It's not a sure thing that the Big 12 decides to expand at all in the near future, and there are probably political issues that have nothing to do with sports, or even academics, that would need to be resolved, not to mention issues surrounding the dilution of TV money. Of all the major leagues though, the Big 12 clearly is the best cultural and competitive fit, and could provide legitimate benefits to the Big 12 as well. Long term, a football relationship with the Big 12 is probably preferential to independence.
Why this is a great idea: Scheduling flexibility can be a beautiful thing. BYU has been able to secure games with opponents from every elite league, and gives fans a chance to travel the entire country. The football strength of schedule has increased tremendously, as has exposure, relative to the Mountain West. BYU has future dates with Michigan, Nebraska, USC, Stanford, Cal, Notre Dame, Boise State and more...not bad at all. I get the impression that BYU would like to emulate Notre Dame, a fellow religiously backed private school, and this would be a way to do it.
Why this is a terrible idea: First, bowl access is indisputably a problem. BYU is 6-2 right now, and they could win or lose the rest of their games and still go to the exact same bowl game, to face a fairly middling Pac-12 team. If BYU goes 9-3 or 10-2 (they aren't making the BCS, stop it), it would be a little frustrating to see perhaps their most successful team in a decade not really get properly rewarded. We know that winning a conference title is one of the metrics associated with a playoff berth, and while BYU is a *long* way from being considered for a playoff bid, those access questions may give pause.
While this may be alleviated in future years, independence can also contribute to unbalanced home and away schedules. Joining a reputable conference guarantees a few major teams will come to Provo each season. The best team to come to Provo next season is either Houston or Virginia (Texas, UCF, Boise and Cal are all on the road). In 2015, it's Boise or Cincinnati (Nebraska and Michigan on the road). That stinks a little not just for local fans, but for a competitive balance standpoint. It's hard enough to beat ranked teams. It's even harder to always do it on the road. As other major conferences eventually switch to 9 game league slates, it will become very hard for BYU to convince a BCS caliber school to visit Provo, outside of a Pac-12 school. That is not sustainable. As of right now, the only non Pac-12, auto-qualifying league schools that are scheduled to make trips to Provo are UVA (2014, 2020) and Wisconsin (2019, a game I *still* think might get bought out).
Finally, BYU is not Notre Dame. Not even close. Outside of the religious affiliation, the two institutions actually don't have that much in common. This is a major pet peeve of mine.
What are the differences?
1) There are WAY more Catholics than Mormons.
There are 75 MILLION Catholics in the United States. There are less than 7 million Mormons. Those Catholics are distributed all across the US, and given ND's historical relationship with American Catholicism, gives the school a broad and deep potential pool for fans. The US LDS population doesn't even scratch the surface of this potential.
2) Notre Dame has been good for a REALLY LONG TIME
Notre Dame is one of the most successful CFB programs, and has been since the sport's infancy. That provides a lot of national exposure, and helps create fans who aren't Catholic, or have any other association with the school, other than the fact that they're awesome, and who doesn't love rooting for awesome teams? That's why there are lots of Dallas Cowboys fans in the mid 20s who have never lived in Texas, and why there are going to be a lot of Alabama fans in their teens right now.
For most of their history, BYU was a forgettable afterthought, trudging away in third-tier conferences with the likes of Montana and Wyoming, while Notre Dame was winning titles. BYU was nationally relevant from 1978 until about 1991, with a few sporadic blips in 1996, 2001, and from 2006-2009. That isn't nearly a long enough run of success to inspire sidewalk fans outside of Utah.
FINAL VERDICT: If inclusion into a major conference is not feasible, (for political or financial reasons) this probably is the best option, although there are some significant structural disadvantages to remaining an independent, many of which will probably get worse over time.
* We probably realized this already, but BYU doesn't really have a lot of practical options as far as finding a football fit. Short of an act of epic diplomacy (dare I say, a miracle?), only the Mountain West and the Big-12 are feasible options, and one doesn't have an incentive to move at the moment, and the other is a real downgrade in football. The American would probably accept BYU if they asked, but the MWC would be a better fit for their total athletic program.
* We've occasionally seen some claim that BYU is a "national brand". I don't really see any evidence that this is true. The LDS church may be a global entity, but their US membership, and BYU's alumni base, is overwhelmingly concentrated in a few states or metros. BYU hasn't enjoyed the recent national football success that would force the south, midwest and east to notice the program either. Since 1997, BYU has finished the season in AP top 16 only three times, and only five times in the top 25 at all. That may (hopefully) change as BYU wins games in an ambitious national schedule, but it's not the case for now.
* If BYU wants to give themselves more flexibility, whether that's in bowls, conference affiliation, securing home games or anything else, they need to win, and continue to win. A regularly successful program will boost their reputation and allow them more leverage in any kind of further negotiation. That winning must happen not just against former MWC foes or overmatched BCS cellar-dwellers, but against credible, nationally recognized teams as well. Beating Texas, Georgia Tech and Boise State this season were great starts, and the team still has a shot to make noise against Notre Dame and Wisconsin. These events must be not be the exceptions if BYU wants to improve their stature and grow as a nationally recognized program.
*I believe being independent right now is perfectly fine, given BYU's goals and current program status. I think it will probably be fine for the next five years. I think it will probably *not* be fine in the medium-long term, but there is plenty of time to work something out in the meantime.