Well, it’s still the summer. And BYU is approaching the 2018 season with modest, at best, expectations, after a disastrous 2017 season. And you know what that means? Time to argue about whether BYU should go back to the Mountain West.
The takes have been an offseason staple for about as long as BYU has been an independent. Sometimes they come from BYU fans. Sometimes the concern comes from trolling Utah fans. Sometimes it comes from other national analysts. No matter where it’s coming from though, the arguments typically aren’t new.
Jay Drew of the Salt Lake Tribune recently published a good roundup of where everybody stands, from national writers to locals to BYU fans. He was polite enough to not throw his phone out the window when I answered “it depends”, while launching into a thousand word explanation when he asked me if I thought BYU’s independence was working. I still think that’s a really complicated question that owes so much to BYU’s unique standing and mission. It makes the football program really interesting to me as a writer, but also makes for lousy newspaper and radio quips.
But one thing that isn’t so complicated to me? Whether BYU should go back to the Mountain West. I’ve read all the arguments a million times, and I still don’t think it makes sense. I’m kinda surprised so many national writers that are otherwise really well informed keep suggesting it.
We haven’t had any particularly new arguments in favor of going back to the MWC recently, and I think most of them fall apart once we really look at them more carefully.
Myth: BYU needs to go back to the MWC to secure better bowl access
Fact: Dude, have you looked at the MWC’s bowl tie-ins?
Even the most blue-goggled BYU fan would probably admit that one of the big drawbacks to being an independent is that they only have one bowl contract. Once they’re eliminated from a NY6 opportunity (more on this in a minute), we all pretty much know where BYU is spending their offseason, sometimes before the calendar switches to October. These bowl arrangements are hardly mega-prestigious events either. At best, they give BYU a shot at a decent Pac-12 team. At worst, they’re matchups with MWC or AAC squads. These games are typically objectively blah.
You know what’s worse than blah? The bowl tie-ins with the MWC. Right now, the Mountain West just has one contracted agreement with a P5 league, and that’s with the Pac-12 and the Las Vegas Bowl, an agreement they’re almost certainly going to lose after 2020. After that, you have one against a MAC squad (Famous Idaho Potato), two against Conference USA teams (Hawaii and New Mexico Bowl), and one against the Sun Belt (Arizona). Maybe if you’re lucky, other leagues can’t fill their spots and you send a team to the Cactus Bowl or whatever, but that slate isn’t any good either. Nobody is ditching independence for the shot at getting a choice between Marshall and Arkansas State in a bowl game.
Myth: BYU needs to go back to the MWC to make a New Year’s Six bowl game
Fact: BYU probably isn’t making a New Year’s Six bowl game anyway, so who cares?
This is the biggest, most commonly shouted argument. Right now, BYU essentially has no shot at a prestigious bowl game, unless it goes undefeated. Without G5 league membership, it can’t get the G5 autobid. If they went back to the Mountain West, or some other league, and they won, and finished with a better ranking than the champions of the other leagues, they’d get a shot at a big time opponent and a big time paycheck.
Here’s the dirty little secret though, and I’m sorry if this hurts. It doesn’t matter if BYU is in the Mountain West, American Athletic, Sun Belt, or anywhere else. Odds are, they’re not earning that autobid.
For one, winning that many games would be a departure from BYU’s historical norm. There are 93 seasons of BYU football records in Sports-Reference.com, and the Cougars recorded two losses or less in just 15 of them. Take away the years they were coached by LaVell Edwards, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, and you’re down to eight. Eliminate the years before anything resembling a modern era (sorry, Otis Romney and your 8-1 campaign in the 1932 Rocky Mountain Conference), and you’re left with just four seasons. 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2001.
It’s really hard to get that bid, and I think it’ll be even harder for schools outside of the American, a league substantially better than the MWC (or any other G5) at the moment. BYU would need to win the league going away, beat somebody good out of conference, and then hope they still had a better record than the American champ. That might happen...what, once a decade? Less often?
Major bowl games are fun. They bring big exposure, big paychecks, and big trophies. BYU has never played in one, despite winning a title, and getting to a Fiesta or Peach Bowl would be a great program accomplishment. But it’d be a very rare one, and one with no guarantee of stability or future success. It’s not like major bowl bids were program changing for Houston or Western Michigan, after all.
Myth: Without a conference title or national title aspirations, BYU has nothing to play for, rendering the season meaningless
Fact: I mean, maybe? But that’s true of like, 100 of the 130 programs in FBS
It’s true, BYU football doesn’t have any real chances to hang up any banners right now. They’re not winning another national title in a four team playoff era, and they probably won’t ever even make the playoff. Sorry. Those are just the facts when you don’t recruit elite talent.
If you only think fandom is worth it for programs that have real chances of winning big trophies some day, that’s your business. I’m not here to tell you how to fan. But if is how you think, you have to be honest with yourself...that’s also true for most teams in this sport.
College football doesn’t have real parity. Every year, only about a dozen or programs recruit well enough to win a national title. Maybe two dozen more recruit well enough to have credible dreams of a conference title every decade or so. But for most schools, and this includes Utah and all but like, maaaaaybe six teams in the West, that’s just not going to happen very often. You hope to crack the Top 25, upset a team every once in a while, and create exciting, memorable moments.
Going to the MWC, or the AAC, or any other league, isn’t going to appreciably change BYU’s title chances. If you only define fanhood by banners, well, I’d like to welcome you to the Ohio State bandwagon. Because you’re probably going to be pretty lonely wherever you are.
Myth: Some other malarky that doesn’t point out BYU makes way more money as an independent
Fact: BYU makes more money as an independent
Like, I don’t understand why folks just try to gloss over this point? Especially since the financial projections for the MWC have arguably gotten worse over the last few years. BYU is estimated to make a million bucks a home game from their ESPN TV deal. MWC members currently make $1.1 million...total. And the league’s bargaining position is so bad they’re contemplating just ditching TV entirely.
Money isn’t everything in college football, but it sure means a lot, especially for a program like BYU, that isn’t going to dip into student fees or state government subsidies like other FBS programs do. Even if BYU continues to stink for the next few seasons, their TV inventory as an independent still holds financial value, given that big names like USC and Tennessee will head to Provo over the next few years. Why would BYU want to give that up?
Does this mean that BYU’s foray into independence has been a success? Not necessarily. That depends on how you define success. Has the program peaked, or already in decline? Well, we have six years of data that shows BYU can produce a top ~40ish level program as an indie, and one that shows they reeeally can’t. Which data set is more accurate?
But that doesn’t make the arguments to go back to the MWC, many of which I suspect are twinged with a tint of Utah fans wanting to humble BYU a bit, any stronger. The only way those really become more convincing is with more reporting. If a columnist could show that BYU was either unlikely to get a new deal from ESPN, or would be forced to take a big haircut, that would change things a bit. If BYU’s marquee future games were going to be canceled, or if the MWC’s leadership or financial projections were slated to dramatically improve, or any number of other variables, that might change things.
But right now, absent that information, I think it’s pretty clear. 2018 is a different world, for college football, BYU, and the Mountain West. And no matter how many times we shout about bowl access or meaningful games, it doesn’t really change the reality.
Going back just isn’t a good option.