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Being independent — and playing by its own rules — paying off for BYU this time

BYU coach Kalani Sitake talks to his players during the Cougars’ scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.
Jaren Wilkey/BYU

SALT LAKE CITY — It took only a decade, but finally independence has paid off for BYU, as well as other members of their weird, conference-free world.

The Cougars are free to play football this fall. No conference boss is ordering them to stand down.

There are 54 FBS schools, including their neighbor up the road, that won’t be playing this fall.

BYU will be the only school west of Texas that will play college football this season, and that includes FBS, FCS, Division II, Division III, NAIA and junior college. Hundreds of schools are sitting this one out due to the pandemic.

And then there was one ...

Only a few weeks ago, it appeared the Cougars’ season would be wiped out precisely because of their independent status. Concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, Power Five conferences, including the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference, decided that their teams would play only conference opponents and canceled all other games — less than two months before the start of the season. There went half of BYU’s schedule and, as an independent, the Cougars had no conference games to fall back on. Then things got worse. BYU’s schedule took another hit when the Mid-American and Mountain West, along with the Big Ten and Pac-12, postponed their fall seasons altogether.

But where BYU was free to choose how it would cope with the pandemic, many schools were not.

The Big Ten halted its season even though every Big Ten athletic director wanted to play, according to Omaha World-Herald reporter Sam McKewon. They were left out of the decision. So were the coaches. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren wrote, “The vote by the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors was overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited.”

Nebraska and Iowa reportedly pushed to play the season, and Ohio State and Michigan players and coaches made it clear they want to play, as well. It doesn’t matter. They have their marching orders from the conference office.

Other conferences handed down their stand-down edicts, as well.

For better or worse (mostly worse), the Cougars have no such conference ties. They answer to no one — hence, the term “independent” — and to their credit they not only braved the potential political fallout and declared their intention to play, but they managed to rebuild their schedule and resurrect their season at the 11th hour.

They lost 10 of their 12 originally scheduled games to cancellation — Utah (Sept. 3,) Michigan State (Sept. 12), Arizona State (Sept. 19), Minnesota (Sept. 26), Utah State (Oct. 2), Missouri (Oct. 10), Northern Illinois (Oct. 24), Boise State (Nov. 6), San Diego State (Nov. 14), and Stanford (Nov. 28). Athletic director Tom Holmoe managed to create an eight-game schedule almost from scratch — so much for the theory that schedules take years to make. The Cougars reached out to the military academies and schools in the South to arrange games with Navy, Army, Troy, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and Western Kentucky to go along with originally scheduled games against Houston and North Alabama.

A week ago, Deseret News veteran BYU reporter Dick Harmon wrote there is still a chance BYU will play against another team from the American Athletic Conference, in addition to Houston, and possibly an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent, although he considers the latter to be a long shot.

It’s a lame schedule under normal circumstances and pales in comparison to the original powerhouse schedule — the combined record of current opponents is 45-53 and only two of those schools had winning records last season — but at least they and their fans won’t be sitting at home on weekend nights this fall.

Which is exactly what Utah will be doing. The Pac-12, in a move that was entirely predictable, ordered member schools to sit out the fall season in all sports, one day after the Big Ten did so. Finally, the Utes will envy the Cougars.

The Cougars are holding daily practices; the Utes took last week off. The Cougars are preparing to start the season on Monday, Sept. 7; the Utes will be resuming practice — weight room Monday-Wednesday, on the field Thursday-Friday — in preparation for … well, who knows when they will play their next game — in the spring? Next fall? BYU will be playing on national TV; the Utes will be watching TV.

It’s not the Utes’ fault, of course. But when you sign on with a conference, you agree to live by its rules.

So BYU, the lone representative from the West, will play Navy in one of the first televised games of the season. It’s not surprising both the BYU-Navy and BYU-Army games are getting national TV coverage — on ESPN and CBS, respectively — and the national exposure that comes with it. Suddenly, life is good as an independent.