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Why now might be a good time for BYU to return to the MWC

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Austin Kafentzis goes over the pile for a first down to seal the game against the Boise State Broncos during NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Is now a good time for the Cougars to consider a return to the Mountain West Conference, if the league would have them back?
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Among the ideas being considered for the next college football season — whenever that occurs in the post-pandemic world — is playing a truncated season that consists entirely of conference games.

Two veteran college football reporters told Deseret News reporter Jay Drew that it is among the options being discussed by the game’s administrators, especially among Power Five schools.

On the face of it, it’s not a bad idea.

Wait, yes, it is.

What if your team doesn’t, you know, have a conference?

What if your team is … B-Y-U?

Never mind losing the Utah game — now the Cougars face the possibility of losing every game that matters or that has any interest at all to fans. It could be like watching last year’s BYU-Idaho State game every week. This could mean playing only other independent schools. This could mean watching BYU tee it up with the usual suspects — Massachusetts, Connecticut and Liberty, which have become regulars on the schedule since the Cougars joined the Independent Club. They could play them twice each next season. Wouldn’t that be fun?

BYU’s already tenuous situation could get worse. It ought to be enough to make the school rethink independence altogether.

BYU hasn’t belonged to a conference since bolting the Mountain West Conference in 2011 and turning to independence — no conference at all. The Cougars like to sell this as a good, if temporary, solution until they land a spot in a Power Five conference. If that’s what they are waiting for, it could be a very long wait. Meanwhile, BYU’s credentials are slipping, making the Cougars an even less desirable option for the big-boy conferences.

Independence was a bad idea and always was. The Cougars needed only to ask their neighbor, Utah State, about life as an independent before they went down this path. At the outset of the ’60s, USU was a viable, nationally recognized program, playing in the Skyline Conference with Utah and BYU. Then in 1962 the Western Athletic Conference was formed, and BYU and Utah were invited to join; USU was shut out. The Aggies chose independence rather than remain in the Skyline. They spent five decades trying to climb out of it.

That worked out so well that BYU decided to do the same thing. BYU was a viable, nationally recognized program in the Mountain West Conference in 2011, when the Pac-10 went shopping for two more teams. When the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 by inviting Utah and Colorado, BYU was left out. Rather than remain with the Mountain West after Utah’s exit, the Cougars chose independence and a national TV contract.

Financially, it has paid off. By most every other measure, it is a complete failure. You can decide if the tradeoff is worth it.

During their nine years of independence, the Cougars have averaged a national ranking of 52 in the Sagarin Ratings. In the nine years before that, as members of the Mountain West, their average ranking was 41.7.

As members of the Mountain West for 12 years, the Cougars were 96-54 and finished in the top 25 of the rankings five times, including four of the last five years they were in the conference. As an independent, the Cougars are 70-47 and haven’t finished in the top 25 since their first year of independence in 2011, when they were ranked 25th.

The Cougars’ fall has also been reflected in NFL draft picks — from a high of 39 in the ’80s, to 19 in the ’90s, to 21 in the ’00s, to eight in the ’10s. Not a single player was invited to this year’s NFL combine.

The counter to this is that as independents the Cougars secured a national TV contract that brought them more TV coverage around the country and a handful of name-brand opponents each season. It’s true they play a lot of prestigious opponents for big paydays, but they also have to play a lot of small-time teams as well — Liberty, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Idaho State, McNeese State, Portland State, San Jose State, Southern Utah, Wagner, Savannah State. That’s because they are forced to take independents or whatever teams happen to have a break in their conference schedule. The Cougars have to accept table scraps to fill out their schedule because P5 teams are booked up with conference games, especially during the second half of the season.

Where is this leading? Why not return to the Mountain West Conference, if the league will still have the Cougars? Being in a conference, any conference, is better than independence. The Cougars can still schedule Utah and maybe one or two name schools, but meanwhile they can play for something besides a low-tier bowl game — a conference championship. What else does BYU think it can accomplish as an independent — a spot in the playoffs? Not likely.

LaVell Edwards, the legendary former BYU head coach, always said the conference championship was his team’s priority each season; everything else was a bonus.

The Mountain West has retained some of BYU’s old friends from the WAC — Air Force, San Diego State, Colorado State, New Mexico — and has added Utah State and Boise State, a top-25 regular. They offer natural (geographical) rivalries, which certainly has more appeal than McNeese, Portland and the rest of them. While they’re at it, the Cougars can throw life lines to their other sports and move them into the Mountain West, as well. The BYU basketball team plays in the Gonzaga Conference, or whatever it’s called. Other sports belong to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (bonus points if you can name two other teams in that league).

Given the state of affairs in college sports and BYU’s performance as an independent, this seems like a good time for the Cougars to ask the Mountain West to take them back. Please.