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Did BYU’s decade of independence advance, maintain or hinder football?

One of the key elements of BYU’s venture into independence was exposure. In that regard, appearances on the national stage ranked among the nation’s top programs.

BYU’s Jamaal Williams battles to get away from Mykkele Thompson Saturday in Austin, Texas.
BYU’s Jamaal Williams battles to get away from Mykkele Thompson Saturday in Austin, Texas.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Did a decade of independence help BYU football progress, remain the same, or hold it back?

The answer is as debatable as the personalities who tackle the question.

In terms of wins and losses, 2017 was the only loser, but there have been many chances to have 10-win seasons. With national rankings, the program failed to appear, stay or finish as often as it did in the polls before independence.

If you look at exposure, a prime reason for leaving the Mountain West, the past decade is a home run. Peek at revenue, and estimates reveal it has been a treasure chest beyond what any MWC or other non-Power Five program could attain. Recruiting has stagnated or taken a step back if you buy into the star ratings.

If you look at the number of BYU fans gathering by the thousands in Tennessee, Washington D.C., Michigan, Texas, Washington, Arizona, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Massachusetts and Florida, independence has been a huge success.

“The scheduling component the past decade of independence has been a huge challenge,” BYUtv analyst Blaine Fowler said. “When it began, it was very difficult. The schedules were front-loaded and then went lacking at the end of the year. It has taken time to make it work because football schedules are made so far in advance.

“But what you saw in 2019 is what independence was designed for, to spread out the games fans are interested in. ESPN has been huge in this process. Next year, if you look at BYU’s schedule, it is almost too aggressive with games with Stanford, Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Boise State and Houston in addition to Utah State.

“It’s a schedule that six or seven wins would be considered successful. That’s the reality of playing and traveling to places like BYU is doing right now,” Fowler continued. “It’s tough for fans who expect 10 or 11 wins a season, but the reality is those are the best years. A more normal year would be seven or eight as a successful season with these schedules.”

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall calls out to a referee as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Austin, Texas.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The past decade can be chopped in half in terms of two different coaches. Change administration in mid-stream and there will be impacts. And there were. Bronco Mendenhall, hired in 2005, was at the end of his first career head-coaching job when he left BYU for Virginia with 99 wins in 10 years (99-43).

Kalani Sitake was hired in December 2015, and it was his first job as a head coach — making decisions in recruiting, strength and conditioning and establishing a winning culture. A change like that can be and was a factor in momentum and learning curve. He is 27-25 in four seasons and under criticism for losing to Toledo, South Florida and ending 2019 with losses at San Diego State and Hawaii after wins over ranked USC and Boise State teams earlier in the season.

The continued trend by Mendenhall and Sitake teams of losing to rival Utah is a trend that was not reversed during the decade.

One thing that did change was a bump in coaching salaries in the latest round of assistant hires in 2018. That is progress.

Recruiting, the lifeblood of college football, took its own turn in the decade. Mendenhall saw changes in admissions. In Sitake’s five seasons he has seen even more stringent admission changes. BYU has shifted to a developmental approach the past three years, a strategy that relies on recruits playing at an optimum level as juniors and seniors but at times, like 2018 and 2019, has fielded a lot of freshmen. This is from a program that is using a six- to seven-year sign-and-graduate cycle due to missionary service.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) talks with Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake as they celebrate the 49-23 win over Hawaii at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In Sitake’s first year, he shifted the strength program to lift daily and put on weight and strength to meet the rigors of playing P5 teams. The payoff would come with upperclassmen and a target of 2021 as optimum. That was somewhat derailed this year when three freshmen and a sophomore were forced to play on the line, and after the loss of Ty’Son Williams, he was replaced by three freshmen and a sophomore at the RB position. That scenario would be repeated at the linebacker and corner positions.

“Look at quarterback Zach Wilson. He played half a season last year as a freshman at one of the most important positions on the team. He then had surgery and missed the off-season and this year missed six weeks due to a broken thumb. In reality, he just finished his freshman season of playing time,” Fowler said.

One could break down every aspect of the decade, from recruiting, scheduling, and the increase in coaching salaries, to the coming around of most of the Mountain West in scheduling BYU again, after shunning the Cougars for leaving the league in 2010. You would have reams of good copy to pour-over.

But the numbers that really stick out are those that fill the prime objective of independence, putting BYU on TV sets and taking the program around the country to its fans.

According to the BYU sports information department, during the past nine seasons, the Cougars played 86 games on ABC/ESPN networks, an average of 9.6 per year. Since 2011, 74 percent of BYU games have been seen nationally, ranking the Cougars 17th in the country and No. 3 in the West behind USC and Stanford.

Through the first eight seasons of the original ESPN-BYU contract (2011-18), the average television audience of ABC/ESPN games featuring P5-versus-P5 teams was 1.6 million, while the average audience for BYU games versus P5 opponents was 1.9 million.

In 2019, BYU’s regular-season average audience on ABC/ESPN was 2.2 million when playing P5 teams, while the school’s overall average in all games was an impressive 1.4 million.

BYU has more wins (18) versus Power Five schools than any other non-P5 school in the last decade with seven over the Pac-12, three over the SEC and Big Ten and ACC and two against the Big 12, both of them iconic Texas.

The past decade BYU’s teams have become a traveling show from coast to coast. Nobody I can think of does more traveling through this many times zones in one season, unless it’s an NFL team.

In the decade, BYU:

  • Faced teams from 32 states.
  • Played in nine NFL stadiums and two MLB ballparks.
  • Played or scheduled 53 different FBS teams from 12 conferences, including 19 teams east of the Mississippi River.
  • Scheduled 11 of the 12 teams in the Pac-12 since going independent.
  • Went to nine bowl games in 10 years (only decade better was 1980s with all 10).
  • The five bowl victories ties the 1980s for the most BYU bowl wins in a decade.
  • The 5-4 bowl record marks the first time BYU has finished a decade with a winning bowl record.
  • Only Notre Dame and BYU are considered by the ACC, SEC and Big Ten as a P5 level opponent for football scheduling purposes.
USC Trojans running back Vavae Malepeai (29) is gang-tackled by BYU in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In this decade BYU defeated six ranked teams, two in the 2019 season. Those wins were over Texas (15), Texas (25), Boise State (20), Wisconsin (6), Boise State (14) and USC (24).

BYU’s home attendance the past decade was 58,557, which ranks 29th nationally. While that is under capacity, ticket prices are higher than in 2010 and the trend nationally has attendance figures taking a hit.

BYU’s average attendance ranks No. 4 in the West behind USC, Washington and UCLA. That is a tribute to BYU fans, who have been patient and loyal through independence schedules that have been, at times, ugly.

Bottom line?

The decade of independence has been a mixed bag. It does have its silver linings, but there is definitely room for improvement in terms of wins, recruiting, rankings and sustained momentum by eliminating inconsistency.