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For BYU, independence has brought its challenges, but never more so than now

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake walks off the sideline during a timeout in the second half of an NCAA football game at The Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. The Cougars fell 28-21 to the Rockets.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake walks off the sideline during a timeout in the second half of an NCAA football game at The Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. The Cougars fell 28-21 to the Rockets.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As BYU tries to prepare for another football season, the team has everything it could want: players, coaches, a large fan base, a nice stadium, a TV contract, luxurious offices and training facilities — everything a Division I program covets.

Well, except for one thing: opponents.

You know, someone to use the other locker room.

As you probably know, the Big Ten announced last week that it will play only conference games this season because of the pandemic. You could see this coming months ago, but the announcement still took everyone aback. A day later — and you could see this coming, too — the Pac-12 followed the Big Ten’s lead and adopted the same conference-games-only approach.

This instantly set off a domino effect through the nation’s collegiate football programs, which suddenly have big holes in their schedules (and eventually their wallets) — especially for programs like BYU. As an independent, the Cougars have no conference games to fall back on.

Independence: The gift that keeps on giving (which is where this column is headed).

The Cougars have lost five of the 12 games they scheduled years ago, thanks to last week’s announcements — games against Minnesota, Michigan State, Arizona State, Stanford and Utah, the latter of course being the highlight of each season for the team and its fans.

It could get worse. If the Mountain West makes the same decision — and, let’s face it, the league probably still has not forgiven BYU for leaving its ranks a decade ago — then BYU would lose games against Utah State, San Diego State and Boise State.

That’s eight of 12 opponents that would drop off the schedule. It would leave BYU with four games, against Missouri, North Alabama, Northern Illinois and Houston, and there’s a chance some of those schools will drop out, too.

This situation doesn’t leave the Cougars many options. They might be able to cobble together a season with the other independents, a small, lackluster group with one obvious exception — Army, Liberty, Massachusetts, New Mexico State, UConn and Notre Dame. In January, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe stated that Notre Dame owes BYU a football game contractually, but that game still has not been arranged. Notre Dame lost games from its 2020 schedule, against Wisconsin, Stanford and USC.

The Cougars might be able to fill the holes in their schedule with other schools that have lost games to the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Schools from the SEC, Big 12 and ACC have holes to fill, but it wouldn’t be surprising if those leagues also cancel their nonconference games. Another (remote) possibility: Maybe one of the smaller conferences could adopt BYU for a season to augment their conference games.

It might be irrelevant anyway. There’s a chance there will be no college football season in any form this fall. There is much dithering about the 2020 season and time is running out.

The cancellation of nonconference games will cost almost every program financially, but it will be especially hard on the smaller programs, which count on TV and gate receipts from games against the Power Five schools to finance their programs.

Big Ten football teams were scheduled to play 33 nonconference games at home. USA Today reported, after obtaining contracts for 26 of those games, that the total payouts to the visiting teams was about $22.2 million — most of which would have been paid to non-Power Five schools.

Utah State is one of the many mid-tier schools that depends heavily on “money games.” In recent years the Aggies have played Auburn, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Michigan State and LSU (they will play Alabama for $1.9 million in 2022). They were scheduled to play two Pac-12 schools this season — Washington and Washington State — during the first three weeks of the season. Those games are gone.

But even the Aggies haven’t been as impacted by recent developments as BYU, whose already-tenuous situation as an independent just got worse. Scheduling is seldom easy for an independent, but never this extreme. The school has stuck with independence despite the challenges. In 2011, the Cougars divorced the Mountain West Conference — where they were a big fish in a small pond — to go to independence — where there is no pond (it’s more of a puddle).

It was no coincidence that their decision to leave the MWC came immediately after their archrival up the road, Utah, was invited to join the Pac-12. They hoped that independence and a lucrative TV contract would bring them money and some national exposure that eventually would win them an invitation to a Power Five conference. It has not happened. Meanwhile, their performance as an independent has made them less and less attractive each year to conferences that might consider an expansion.

Now BYU, even more than the nation’s other teams, faces an uncertain future for a season that was supposed to begin in seven weeks.

The last time the Cougars scrapped a football season occurred during the last three years of World War II, 1943-45. Otherwise, they’ve never played fewer than six games since they began playing the game in 1922, and never fewer than 10 since 1962.

That could change in 2020.