(Caveat: Everything I know about independence I learned from George Costanza.)
BYU entered its first year of independence with some of the highest expectations ever, and that is saying something. Before BYU had played even one game, Jake Heaps, Brandon Doman, and fans were talking about national championships: "Not one, not two, not three . . ." (That wasn't Jake Heaps? I thought that was Jake Heaps). Bronco Mendenhall, the last failsafe against unreasonable expectations, only fueled them. BYU would have a new platform from which to show the world what it could do, and Jake Heaps, one of the nation’s top QB recruits, would finally get the reps and trust he needed. Yes, those days of independence before BYU had played any games were exciting times.
Independence gave BYU new reasons to hope, but that unknown world also came with new fears: what if conference affiliation were better than independence and BYU couldn’t have known that until it was too late? What if independent BYU couldn’t win recruits, schedule respectable opponents, or get on ESPN more than a few times a year? The BCS has already made college football an all-or-nothing proposition; independence exacerbated that for BYU – a school that does not have the built-in bowl ties that Notre Dame enjoys. If BYU misses the BCS, gone is the secondary goal of competing for a conference championship. Gone is the safety net of a conference TV contract, money, schedule, and bowl affiliations. Thus, while BYU fans, coaches, and players entered 2011 with optimism, there was also a sense that BYU's new position was a potentially precarious one. BYU chose ambition in hopes of gaining big rewards, but to do so, they took risks.
That combination of optimism and fear of failure produced one of BYU’s most pressure-filled seasons to date, and that pressure took a toll – most notably in the transfer of Jake Heaps, one of the biggest recruits in BYU history. As Heaps fumbled the ball into the endzone early in BYU’s blowout loss to Utah, Twitter exploded with hostility towards the 19-year-old. The legend of Heaps’ failure grew large enough that even some who normally pay little attention to college sports confidently declared, "Jake Heaps [isn't very good]." Two weeks after the Utah blowout loss, the camera showed J.J. DiLuigi on the sidelines smashing his helmet into his forehead and shouting an expletive after a play in which he had fumbled the ball against Utah State. Upon viewing that, my wife said, "They are under so much pressure."
Once BYU had lost several games (for which Jake Heaps took most of the blame) and relieved that pressure, Riley Nelson came in for Heaps and played like there was nothing to lose because at that point, it felt that way. Thankfully, Nelson played like his well-conditioned hair was on fire and brought BYU several exciting wins -- including a more respectable showing against TCU than BYU had made in years, and a remarkably gutsy victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Now that we have seen a year of independence, where does the program stand? Does independence appear either as celestial or as precarious as hopes and fears led us to believe?
It seems clear to me that independence alone will neither lead BYU to the promised land nor send BYU the way of Ricks College. BYU experienced some painful losses in 2011, but they won at the same high rate they have through most of Mendenhall’s tenure and ended the season ranked in a major poll.
In fact, the 2011 season indicates that independence can indeed be a path to an improved football program for BYU. The most significant revelation of BYU’s first year as an independent is that BYU can indeed get on TV. A lot. Excluding the bowl game, which fell under a separate contract, BYU appeared on national TV eleven times in 2011: eight appearances on ESPN/ESPN2, two on ESPNU, and only one on BYUtv. In late October, Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel tweeted "This independence thing is working nicely for BYU. I feel like I've seen them on TV more than any team outside of LSU."
That was, of course, before the string of late night games against weaker competition in late October and November, but BYU’s home schedule will improve over the next several years. BYU’s contract with ESPN allows for variability from year to year, but this unprecedented level of exposure appears to be sustainable. BYU enjoyed this visibility during a year in which they played weaker competition than they typically will and followed a season in which BYU went 7-6. Expect BYU to be even more marketable in the future as they play better opponents and as they (hopefully) continue winning at a higher level than they did in 2010. (And remember at BYU's media day before the 2011 season kicked off, with some questions still unanswered about the 2012 schedule, Dave Brown of ESPN said 8 games in 2012 were already slated for ESPN/2/U.)
All of this bodes well for BYU football. People often cite LDS missionary efforts as the motive for increased exposure, but what gets overlooked often is that exposure is also a critical element to building a successful athletic program. Gary Andersen, head coach at USU, has said that even occasional appearances on ESPN networks against schools like Boise State have produced results in their recruiting efforts. Meanwhile, schools like Boise State have used the ESPN platform to gain nationwide recognition and have parlayed that into major recruiting advantages. BYU still has much work to do if they want to become as successful as Boise State, but 2011 suggests they have the TV platform to do it.
Since going independent, BYU has gained several notable transfers and recruits like Taysom Hill, Troy Hinds, and Tanner Mangum. Time will tell whether independent BYU can continue attracting strong players and whether those players will meet expectations, but after one year of independence, there is reason to be excited about BYU’s future. In the meantime, independence year two should enjoy a more reasoned approach from BYU coaches, players, and fans. That will be good for everyone.