BYU football: Cougars, UConn kindred spirits in new landscape
College football • Both left behind by major conference expansion and realignment.
Published: August 26, 2014 10:22PM
Updated: August 28, 2014 10:02AM
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Cincinnati wide receiver Mekale McKay (2) catches a 56-yard pass against Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

Provo • At first glance, Brigham Young University and its opponent in Friday’s college football season opener, the University of Connecticut, don’t have much in common. The ESPN-televised encounter is the first meeting between the schools; BYU is an independent, while UConn belongs to the American Athletic Conference.

Known primarily in the college sports world as a basketball school, UConn is a public research institution, owned by the state of Connecticut, while BYU is a private school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Football is where BYU made its mark nationally. Its basketball programs aren’t in the same stratosphere as UConn’s, but then again, few others are.

And the schools are roughly 2,000 miles apart.

But when it comes to the ever-changing college football landscape, the Cougars and Huskies are sort of kindred spirits, each having felt the deep sting of having been left behind, as it were, by major conference expansion and realignment. Both are mostly on the outside looking in when it comes to the new College Football Playoff that begins this year, although UConn’s access is better than BYU’s.

Both believe they are worthy of more, given their football pedigrees. For instance, UConn played in a BCS bowl in 2010, losing 48-20 to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl; BYU won a national championship in 1984 and boasts a Heisman Trophy winner, Ty Detmer.

The Los Angeles Times has noticed, noting that “in college football’s game of musical chairs, the big loser is probably Connecticut. Or, in the expanded game, toss in Boise State, Cincinnati, Central Florida and maybe Brigham Young.”

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe downplayed the severity of BYU’s situation last week, and on Tuesday UConn AD Warde Manuel also refused to acknowledge the sky is falling on the program that once enjoyed membership in the Big East Conference and its automatic bid into a BCS bowl game, saying he read the Times article and “really didn’t give it much credence.”

Manuel, hired in February of 2012 and responsible for setting up the series with BYU in March of 2013 — the Huskies will visit LaVell Edwards Stadium on Oct. 31, 2015 — said UConn’s overall athletic program takes a backseat to nobody. The Huskies won three national championships last school year: men’s and women’s basketball and women’s field hockey.

“I never look at UConn and what our teams do as losers at anything, so in that sense, I disagree [with the L.A. Times story],” Manuel said. “Our focus is to continue to have success with our programs and not look at ourselves in any other way just because we are not in a certain conference or not.”

Manuel said the only way to fight perceptions that BYU and so-called Group of Five schools from the AAC aren’t worthy of Power Five inclusion is to win football games. Recent proclamations by the ACC and SEC that games against BYU (or any Group of Five school) don’t count in their mandates that member schools play at least one nonconference game a year against a Power Five conference school hasn’t disheartened the UConn AD as much as it has angered folks in Provo.

“From my standpoint, they can say what they want. I mean, we are still actively scheduling teams from those conferences,” Manuel said. “It is rare that I get upset about what people say about one conference or another. You play the games. We need to win the games we play here at UConn, and our conference needs to win those games.”

Asked Monday about BYU and UConn sharing a unique bond due to their histories and current places in college football, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said the only way to change perceptions is to succeed. The problem is, BYU’s schedule includes just three P5 schools this season — Texas, Virginia and California. UConn’s has none.

“We are trying to play as many as we can — more than we have ever played before in the history of the school, and almost double that of what my predecessors have played at BYU. I think that is our only way in [to the College Football Playoff],” Mendenhall said, after having launched into one of his favorite topics — that many of the P5 schools who are in favor of NCAA autonomy are “not fiscally responsible” and are not operating in the black.

“So, if the budget is not going to change, and the revenue is not going to change, maybe wins on the scoreboard will change something,” Mendenhall said.

Coincidentally, Mendenhall said BYU originally targeted Syracuse — a longtime UConn rival that bolted the Big East for the ACC — for its 2014 opener so its players could visit some historical LDS Church sites in upstate New York. But that couldn’t be worked out, so it looked around and ended up scheduling UConn, thanks in part to a relationship Holmoe has had with Manuel since the current BYU AD was California’s head coach.

But while Mendenhall unabashedly told the Austin American-Statesman in June that BYU “would love” to join the Big 12 — Holmoe defended but didn’t rubber-stamp the statements last week — Manuel is far more diplomatic in discussing UConn’s current situation, unfair as it may seem.

“I am happy with where we are, because it is where we are. Obviously, I will continue to monitor the landscape and figure out what is in the best interest of UConn,” Manuel said. “Our focus is to be the best that we can be, and to win the games that are in front of us against teams that are in our conference and some great teams we schedule that are not in our conference. … That has been my attitude since we have been in the situation we found ourselves in, and we will continue to focus on making ourselves strong and better in doing what we do.”

drew@sltrib.com

Twitter: @drewjay

UConn’s recent history

All Conf. H A Neu.

2013 3-9 3-5 2-5 1-4 0-0

2012 5-7 2-5 3-3 2-4 0-0

2011 5-7 3-4 4-3 1-4 0-0

2010 8-5 5-2 6-0 2-4 0-1*

2009 8-5 3-3 4-2 3-3 1-0**

2008 8-5 3-3 4-2 3-3 1-0***

*Lost to Oklahoma 48-20 in the Fiesta Bowl

** Beat S. Carolina 20-7 in the Papajohns.com Bowl

*** Beat Buffalo 38-20 in the International Bowl

Season opener BYU at UConn

O Friday, 5 p.m.

TV • ESPN