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The BYU Spirit Squad waves their team flags after running out before the rivalry game between BYU and Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

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Successful, or just so-so? Sizing up BYU’s decade of football independence

Program seemed to sag from previous standards after rival Utah got Pac-12 invite in 2010, putting Cougars at a disadvantage they tried to overcome by blazing an independent trail — with mixed results

PROVO — To truly understand why the past decade of BYU football could be considered too mediocre for their liking by a majority of its fans, even though the Cougars compiled a 77-53 record, including 5-4 in bowl games, one must consider where it was just before the decade dawned.

BYU football was riding high.

Master rebuilder Bronco Mendenhall, having taken over a program in 2005 that had posted three-straight losing seasons, won Mountain West Conference championships in 2006 and 2007 and guided the Cougars to a 10-3 record in 2008 and an 11-2 mark in 2009. They cracked the national rankings all four of those years, rising as high as No. 7 in the Associated Press Top 25 in 2008 and 2009.

In February 2010, just months after knocking off rival Utah 26-23 in overtime at sold-out LaVell Edwards Stadium — its third win over Utah in four seasons — and routing the Pac-10’s Oregon State 44-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl, BYU signed its highest-ranked recruiting class ever. The star-studded lineup that included four-star prospects Jake Heaps (the No. 1-rated pro-style quarterback in the country), receiver Ross Apo, multi-sport star Bronson Kaufusi and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (a 2009 signee who delayed his enrollment) was ranked 22nd by Scout.com and 24th by ESPN.com.

“It’s hard to say before they play, but based on athleticism, size, speed, academics and character — when you put all of our criteria together — it is the best class we’ve ever signed,” Mendenhall said, having gone a combined 43-9 the previous four seasons.

Rosy outlook turns cloudy

The program was flourishing on the field, in the polls, and at the turnstiles. But winds of change were blowing through the college football landscape, and a case could be made that few programs in the country would suffer more from their aftereffects than BYU. And no program would benefit from conference realignment more than 100-year rival Utah.

In June 2010, the Pac-10 officially invited Colorado and Utah to become its 11th and 12th members of the conference. That was gut-punch No. 1 for BYU in the new decade.

The second devastating body blow came in the fall of 2011, further crippling BYU’s hopes of keeping up with the Utes.

Looking to replace schools it lost to the Big Ten and SEC, the Big 12 invited TCU, bypassing BYU when the Cougars were at first considered the favorites to join that Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conference.

Utah’s rise to what is now called a Power Five conference, and the resulting edge it gave the Utes in revenue from Pac-12 television deals, instate recruiting battles, and even duels for many of the top players from around the country who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the faith that owns and operates BYU), is arguably the biggest reason why the Cougars’ football fortunes were so uneven the past decade.

Although Utah’s program, seen by many as a slumbering giant throughout the 1980s and 1990s, had been gaining ground in the 2000s, the past decade clearly saw the Utes overtake the Cougars as the state’s most popular college football team, most polls have shown.

Sure, there are plenty of other factors that could be blamed for BYU’s perceived slippage, most notably the school’s move to football independence in 2011 (a move made to keep up with Utah, among other reasons). Mendenhall often noted how the school tightening its admission standards and lifting its academic profile in the early 2010s, in addition to its famously strict Honor Code, seriously limited his already shallow recruiting pool.

That BYU has lost nine straight games to the Utes just adds to the fans’ angst, and even diehard Cougars have been forced to acknowledge that the gap between the programs has never been larger as a new decade dawns.

BYU answers realignment with independence, teams with ESPN

School officials didn’t stand down when the Utes bolted from the Mountain West. Discouraged for years by the MWC’s poor and unwieldy television agreements, and surely spurred by Utah’s improved fortune, BYU announced on Aug. 31, 2010, that it, too, was leaving the league.

The school that was perennially at the top of the WAC and then the Mountain West standings in almost every sport became a college football independent in 2011 and put most of its other sports in the West Coast Conference, where they remain.

A major catalyst for the move was an exclusive eight-year deal BYU signed with ESPN to televise its home games, with a one-year option, since renewed, for the 2019 season. The deal has recently been extended to 2026, according to national college football expert Brett McMurphy, but neither party has officially confirmed it.

BYU A.D. Tom Holmoe smiles as he answers questions after announcing BYU going independent in football and joining the WCC for other sports, as well as, their contract with ESPN. Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

School officials have always maintained that the move to independence wasn’t done in haste, or with the intent of making BYU the Notre Dame of the West, as some pundits have surmised. Athletic director Tom Holmoe said at the big 2010 announcement that it came “after years of careful consideration.”

Answering a series of questions from the Deseret News via email on Friday, Holmoe touted BYU’s “partnership with ESPN” and said it “provided us with the exposure we were looking for” at the beginning of last decade.

Figures provided by BYU’s sports information department show BYU played 86 football games on ABC/ESPN networks the past nine seasons, an average of 9.6 games per year. Since 2011, 74 percent of BYU’s football games have been televised nationally, ranking it 17th in the country and third in the West behind only USC and Stanford for coast-to-coast broadcasts.

Viewed from that lens, Holmoe said, football’s decade was a success.

Chasing past success, and the Utes

The Cougars defeated the SEC’s Ole Miss 14-13 in the 2011 opener, their first game as an independent, with the aforementioned Heaps and Van Noy playing key roles, then almost upset Texas, losing 17-16 in Austin the following week. But few predicted what would happen next. Utah crushed BYU 54-10 in Provo on Sept. 17, 2011, in the first non-conference matchup of longtime foes, flexing its Power Five muscle and exposing the Cougars’ shocking lack of talent and depth.

Utah Utes linebacker Trevor Reilly (49) sacks Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jake Heaps (9) as BYU and Utah play Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

That was a harbinger of things to come in the football rivalry; although BYU has held its own, even thrived against the Utes in other sports not named women’s gymnastics, it hasn’t defeated Utah in football since 2009. Hence, much gnashing of teeth in Provo and throughout the school’s passionate national fanbase.

Whether independence caused BYU’s slide, or was a masterful stroke that saved the program from losing even more relevance when Utah got the golden ticket to the big leagues, has been and will be debated from here to eternity. What’s clear is that Utah’s invitation didn’t help BYU where it matters most — on the field.

Throw out that futility against their most bitter rival, and the Cougars could probably call the 2010s a rousing success, what with no conference championship for which to play.

They had more wins, 18, against Power Five schools than any other non-P5 school in the last decade. They boasted six wins over nationally ranked teams, beating No. 15/25 Texas twice, No. 14/20 Boise State twice, No. 6 Wisconsin at Camp Randall and No. 14 USC.

A decade of big wins, soul-crushing losses, and … lots of injuries

Along with the decline in recruiting — most of BYU’s signing classes have been ranked in the 60s and 70s nationally — another factor that has led to the so-so decade is inconsistent quarterback play. Not able to rely on superior athleticism, BYU has built its football brand on outstanding quarterbacking, crafty coaching, extraordinary execution and attention to detail.

From 2010-19, the quarterbacking often fell short, partly because much-hyped recruits didn’t live up to their billing, but mostly due to injuries. Not since Max Hall won a school-record 32 games as the starter from 2006-09 has BYU’s season-opening quarterback completed a full season unscathed by injury.

Look no further than what befell Taysom Hill, a transcendent player who saw four of his five seasons end in injuries — a major ACL tear, a fractured fibula, a Lisfranc foot injury and an elbow strain. Had the dynamic, dual-threat Hill stayed healthy, many believe BYU would have posted up to a dozen more wins in the decade, particularly in 2014. He was a generational talent, as was his sidekick, running back Jamaal Williams.

BYU’s quarterback Taysom Hill breaks away on a run that was called back as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Austin Texas.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Cougars started 4-0 in 2014, with wins over Power Five schools Texas and Virginia, before Hill’s leg was fractured in the second quarter of an eventual 35-20 loss to Utah State. It was arguably the most devastating loss of the decade for the Cougars. They finished that season 8-5, with Christian Stewart filling in admirably, but many wonder what might have been if Hill had stayed healthy.

They were 9-4 in 2015 when Tanner Magnum replaced Hill after his season-ending foot injury came in the opener at Nebraska and played well enough that Mendenhall, who would later say independence was “unsustainable,” could land the Virginia job a few weeks before the Cougars lost 35-28 to Utah in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl.

Their best season of the decade was quite likely 2016, Kalani Sitake’s first season, when Hill returned, combined with all-time leading rusher Williams, and almost made it through the season before sustaining an elbow injury in the regular-season finale against USU. A 24-21 win over Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl was their ninth victory.

In 2017, a perfect storm of injuries, suspect coaching and a demanding schedule left BYU with a 4-9 record, its worst since 2003.

Sitake dismissed offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, revamped most of his offensive staff, and parlayed upsets of No. 6 Wisconsin in 2018 and Tennessee, USC and Boise State in 2019 into a three-year contract extension midway through the 2019 season. But the decade ended on a down note due to losses to San Diego State and Hawaii, the first time BYU lost two-straight games to end a season since 2008, Mendenhall’s fourth year.

Independence — unsustainable or working?

Financially, the football program has flourished, by most accounts. Although difficult to nail down because BYU is a private institution not subject to open records requests, football-produced revenue climbed most of the decade, according to the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis published annually by the United States Department of Education.

Brigham Young fans clap during the break between quarters during the second half of a NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

The evidence is that BYU officials have poured millions of dollars into LaVell Edwards Stadium the past three to four years in an effort to improve the fan experience; Holmoe said two years ago that the current football staff is the highest-paid staff in school history.

Throughout the decade, BYU administrators have expressed no desire publicly to return to the Mountain West, or join any other non-Power Five conference. They have made several big pushes to join the Big 12, most recently in 2016, but the league chose not to expand.

The extension with ESPN is just another signal that independence is working, Holmoe has said, at least on the balance sheet and on television sets and computer screens throughout the country.

But add it all up — Utah’s football ascendance, independence, self-imposed recruiting restrictions, scheduling strain and those infuriating losses to lesser-funded teams such as UMass, East Carolina, Toledo and Northern Illinois — and the Cougars’ on-field performance has not been up to the standard established by Edwards, or even Mendenhall in his early years.

At best, it has been slightly above average; at worst, simply mediocre, if wins and losses are the ultimate arbiter.

An A+ for Access

One of the chief drivers for independence was exposure, and in that regard BYU has accomplished its goal. The day before BYU lost 38-34 to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, Sitake described how independence has worked for BYU outside the win-loss column.

“This is my fourth year, so I can’t comment on the decade of it,” he said. “But I can say that we have had opportunities to play games that we normally wouldn’t have. We are in a situation where we are able to see our fans from all over the place, in every region of the country, whether it is East Coast or North or South or West or the Pacific seas. We have had the opportunity to connect with our fans, and that is what the independent schedule has given us.”

BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki, left, gets fired up with the rest of the BYU defense after making a tackle during victory over Wisconsin on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

BYU faced teams from 32 states, played in nine NFL stadiums, two MLB ballparks and played or scheduled 53 different FBS teams from 12 conferences, including 19 teams east of the Mississippi River.

Its average home crowd was 58,557, ranking it 29th nationally in attendance and fourth in the West behind only USC, Washington and UCLA.

That’s a nice consolation prize. More wins, including a few against You Know Who up North, would please those fans even more.

Lacking that, the frustration will continue for a once-proud program still trying to gain traction 10 years after the decade opened with unbridled optimism.

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