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BYU can put stamp on Big 12 invite in — of all places — the Independence Bowl

As BYU inches away from life as an independent, they do so this week in the most ironic of places

BYU coach Kalani Sitake looks on as his team prepares for Independence Bowl showdown vs. UAB in Shreveport, Louisiana.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake looks on as his team prepares for Independence Bowl showdown vs. UAB in Shreveport, Louisiana.
BYU Photo

Patrick Henry declared years ago “Give me liberty, or give me death!” as the young nation prepared to fight for its independence. BYU football had to consider the same — but on a much different scale and on a less dramatic playing field. “Give me liberty and some hope, or the program will shrivel and die outside the Power Five conferences.”

The Cougars grabbed their liberty and they have fought to stay alive and remain relevant for 11 years as an independent. It seems only fitting that in the same season BYU was finally invited to join a P5 conference, the Cougars are bound to play in the Independence Bowl.

The same freedoms the program enjoyed while charting its own course were curtailed by a contracted bowl game, one that is eager to host the highest-ranked team in its storied history.

Despite rumblings of possible, last-minute movement to the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, there was no way the Independence Bowl was going to let ESPN move the No. 13 Cougars (10-2) away from Shreveport, Louisiana, where they will face UAB (8-4) Saturday at 1:30 p.m. on ABC.

Instead of a prime-time television slot all to itself, BYU will share Saturday’s sports spectrum with five other bowl games, an NFL doubleheader, Tiger Woods return to the PGA Tour and whatever Christmas movie is on the Hallmark Channel.

It’s a twist full of irony. As an independent, the Cougars were dependent on the Independence Bowl securing them a 2021 invitation, so long as they were not invited to a New Year’s Six bowl and had the mandatory six wins.

That agreement was announced on Jan. 30, 2020. The Cougars finished the 2019 season with a less-than-optimistic 7-6 record.

In the present, it is easy to discredit BYU for such a premature bowl agreement, but no one could possibly see what was coming and hindsight wasn’t available.

The Cougars went 11-1 in 2020 and followed it up with a 10-2 season this year. Their combined 21-3 record is the best at the school since the 2006-07 teams went 22-4 and the 1984-85 teams went 24-3 and won a national championship.

Not only is BYU playing in the Independence Bowl, but the Cougars aren’t even getting the Conference USA champion — UTSA. The Roadrunners opted instead to play No. 24 San Diego State in the Frisco Bowl, in prime time on ESPN, Dec. 21.

For BYU, it is what it is.

Dependence and independence go hand in hand for the Cougars.

After watching Utah announce its departure from the Mountain West Conference June 17, 2010, BYU had a choice to make — stay in the MWC and make the best of it or wander out into the challenging world of football independence until something better came along.

The Cougars chose the latter. Two months after Utah’s announcement, BYU revealed its own plans on Aug. 31, including an eight-year television partnership with ESPN.

The road to better opponents has included dates with the likes of USC, Notre Dame and Texas, but the lack of any conference bowl affiliations has left BYU out in the cold during December and January’s postseason.

Those annual trips to the Holiday Bowl in the “glory years” have been replaced by visits to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, New Mexico Bowl, Armed Forces Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, Liberty Bowl, Fight Hunger Bowl, Hawaii Bowl, Boca Raton Bowl, Miami Beach Bowl and the now-defunct Poinsettia Bowl.

As for the opponents, only two of the last 10 were mid-level P5 programs and none of them were ranked among the top 20.

The time between BYU’s declaration of independence on Aug. 31, 2010, and its Sept. 10, 2021, declaration of acceptance into the Big 12 has been a challenging, but necessary time, and it’s not over yet.

BYU’s final year of independence in 2022 will be played without a guaranteed bowl game. ESPN is contracted to place the Cougars in one of their 16 bowls so long as they are out of the New Year’s Six and eligible.

Joining the Big 12 not only brings a conference affiliation back to Provo, but also the guarantee of better and bigger bowl games beginning in 2023.

If 2023 was already here, the Big 12 bowl affiliations, supposing the Cougars were left out of the New Year’s Six, would have BYU facing all P5 opponents — No. 14 Oregon in the Alamo Bowl; No. 19 Clemson in the Cheez-It Bowl; LSU in the Texas Bowl; or Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl.

Truly, better days are ahead. But as for Saturday, the Independence Bowl will welcome BYU for the first time in its 45 years of operation. The bowl game began in 1976 during the nation’s bicentennial celebration.

It’s an appropriate place to celebrate the year of BYU’s invitation to the Big 12 where the Cougars dependence on independence will finally end.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.