PROVO — For BYU, being an independent football program means standing alone. The Cougars aren’t part of the so-called Power 5, nor are they part of the so-called Group of 5.
For BYU, independence means blazing trails, and, sometimes, that’s in the form of airplane contrails.
The Cougars will travel about 22,000 miles this season, beginning with the season-opener at Connecticut Friday (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN). Only two teams, Hawaii and Idaho, will travel more miles this season than BYU.
It’s the path the Cougars are taking.
“As an independent, what I want is to play the best teams with the most exposure, on the biggest stages and as many as we can play. We’re willing to travel to do it,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “Still struggling to get (opponents) to come (to LaVell Edwards Stadium). They like neutral sites, but coming to Provo isn’t so appealing for them. Under our current circumstances, to play our way into national prominence and consideration, under the new alignments, I think it’s a necessity.”
In addition to trips to East Hartford, Connecticut; Austin, Texas; Orlando, Florida; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Boise, Idaho; and Berkeley, California, this fall, the Cougars have agreed to play in the Miami (Florida) Beach Bowl in December.
That’s a lot of frequent flier mileage.
“It’s the challenge that we have. For us to be seen and respected, we need to go out on the road and win games,” said running back Adam Hine. “I think that’s what coach Mendenhall has been doing and we’re adapting to it. … Of course, it’s nice to play at home, but when we have a chance to go on the road and do something big, we embrace the challenge.”
While traversing the country is part of life as an independent, traveling to different regions of the country has long been part of BYU’s far-and-away scheduling philosophy.
Former BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett, who served as AD from 1976-1994, believed the Cougars could increase exposure for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by playing in various areas of the country, as well as provide church members with chances to see BYU in action.
"We always wanted to get the team where the Saints could see us," Tuckett said.
In legendary coach LaVell Edwards’ final season in 2000, the Cougars played in Jacksonville, Florida; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Syracuse, New York, and ended up journeying a total of 10,874 miles. The travel took its toll, as the road-weary Cougars finished the season with a 6-6 record.
Mendenhall said at first, he wanted to open the 2014 season at Syracuse, which is near Palmyra, New York, a site that those of the LDS faith hold sacred.
“In our attempt to have games in every region of the country, that made sense to us,” Mendenhall said. “Originally, I was after Syracuse and would love to have had that as an opener with some of the church history things built in. It started with Syracuse, then we started looking for another (team) around there.”
BYU hasn't played in the New England area since visiting Boston College in 2006.
This fall, the Cougars will play in every time zone in the continental United States. In future seasons, BYU is scheduled to visit Nebraska, UCLA, Michigan, Arizona, Arizona State, Wisconsin, Washington, Washington State, Cincinnati, Southern Miss, USC and Stanford. When BYU faces West Virginia in 2016, it will be played in Landover, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.
That’s one reason BYU players like independence.
“It’s given us a good opportunity to play in a lot of different venues,” said quarterback Taysom Hill. “We got to travel to Virginia last year, Notre Dame, Wisconsin. We have Central Florida and Texas this year. It’s an opportunity to travel all over the country and showcase what we can do.”
The Cougars say they’re not concerned about possible adverse effects that traveling long distances could have on them this season.
“The myth is the farther you travel, the harder it is to win. We want to break that this year,” said Mathews. “We have accepted the fact that we are independent. We love it and we love traveling different places. I get to go back to my mission in Orlando (when the Cougars play Central Florida in October). I love it. We need to make sure we play our best football.”
Like many of his teammates, linebacker Alani Fua, a California native, has never been to Connecticut.
“It will be new, but I like traveling,” Fua said. “So I don’t mind.”