Figuring out the complicated schedule math as an independent is never easy, especially when you're somewhat geographically isolated, but BYU has mostly made it work so far. The tricky part hasn't been finding quality teams to play BYU. After all, next season BYU will face multiple blue blood programs like Nebraska, Michigan, UCLA and Missouri. Texas, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Ole Miss have been played during the independent era, and multiple strong, major conference teams appear on future schedules.
The tricky part has been finding quality teams to come to Provo. And sometimes, in order to make sure the Cougars get enough home games, they have to be creative in scheduling an FCS program. They've played one every single season since they went independent, and they were originally scheduled to play Idaho State in 2015. That game was moved in order to figure out the logistics of their trip to face Missouri, but the hot rumor right now is that another FCS team, Wagner, will replace them.
That makes some fans upset, but it shouldn't. Playing an FCS team isn't anything to be concerned about, and it's generally the cost of doing business for a team like BYU. I'd expect an FCS game to be a fixture of future schedules.
The whys are pretty obvious: BYU needs at least six home games in order to be both financially viable, and competitive on the field. The bluest of the blue blood programs aren't keen to sign home-and-home agreements with BYU, with the exception of many Pac-12 schools and a few others. A major program that plays nine conference games can only play a single out of conference road game every other season, and it makes little sense for most to use that playing in a region like Provo, which doesn't provide recruiting advantages.
So that makes it tough to bring the big boys to town. The 2015 schedule won't have a single Power 5 team on the home slate, and they won't start appearing in spades for a few more years. That leaves BYU to find schools in the Group of Five, schools in The American, the Mountain West, Sun Belt, and others. Typically, these schools also ask for home-and-homes, and BYU has given it to them. That gives the Cougars two games, and a chance to travel the country. BYU has either played, or will play, most of The American and several MWC teams in the future, along with the occasional MAC squad.
The problem is, the later in the season you go, the fewer teams have schedule flexibility to play an out of conference game, since they're all in conference play. That creates a huge musical chairs act, since there may be a tiny handful of teams that may be open on a specific date, and the school would be careful to not want to tie themselves into a home-and-home with a program that offers no strategic value (any BYU fans want to fly to see Kent State? Didn't think so).
So why doesn't BYU do what some of the power programs do, and buy an FBS paycheck game? Probably because those games are *really* expensive. When Ohio State schedules say, Western Michigan to a one game series in Columbus, they're paying over a million dollars. Ohio State can do that because they know they'll sell well over 100,000 tickets, and the combined gate, plus the local economic impact, still makes the math check out.
BYU can't do that. Their average attendance last year was only 57,141 (down 7% from last season), and even if LES was completely sold out, it probably wouldn't be enough. Boise State can't do it. No non-Power 5 team can do it, and not even every Power 5 team can either. Utah, for example, doesn't have any FBS one-off games currently scheduled. Fresno State, Northern Illinois and San Jose State are part of home and homes.
So if you can't afford the huge fees for a one off game, and you still need to get home games late in the year, the only practical option is to schedule an FCS team. The very best FCS programs are not only better than a lot of C-USA, MAC or Sun Belt teams, they could even potentially beat BYU. The very worst FCS programs, like this year's Savannah State, could lose to many Division II squads and are essentially glorified scrimmages. BYU would probably do well to avoid both groups.
But everybody else? There isn't really a functional difference. Wagner went 7-4 last season, but it's not like there is a big difference, in terms of perception, from a nine-win FCS team and a three-win one. BYU should be a heavy favorite either way. In terms of national perception, I'm not sure that playing say, Tulane, Georgia State, or some terrible FBS program is much of an upgrade either.
Regularly playing an FCS program ensures BYU gets an extra home game at a rate that is financially feasible for the program. It potentially gives a chance to rest starters a little later in the season. It gives them an extra likely win towards bowl eligibility. And the opportunity cost is low, because BYU is almost certainly not missing out on an opportunity to play a truly superior opponent.
In a perfect world, maybe BYU plays regional FCS teams in order to keep the money a little closer to home. Weber State, Southern Utah, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, and if they want a stiff challenge, maybe Eastern Washington, could all be options. But really, it doesn't matter. Whoever makes the most sense financially and schedule wise would be the best fit.
Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but that's not the world we live in. The occasional late-season FCS home game hasn't sent the SEC to the college football's scrap heap. It won't do that to BYU either.