Kragthorpe: BYU’s quest for football relevance more challenging
By Kurt Kragthorpe
Tribune ColumnistFirst published May 03 2014 04:08PM
Next month, BYU will stage the football program’s annual Media Day. The biggest component is a nicely scripted series of live shows that provide content for BYUtv.
The weekday event is a good depiction of where BYU football is going. The Cougars’ program is largely a made-for-TV production, helping to fill ESPN’s schedule on Thursdays, Fridays and late Saturday nights. BYU is succeeding in gaining exposure, but achieving relevance remains another issue entirely. A changing college football landscape is making that quest even more challenging. The Cougars have taken advantage of some new opportunities through independence, but a ceiling sure seems to be coming into play.
Recent developments evoke more questions than answers about BYU’s future impact in the sport. The 65 members of the five power conferences — including Notre Dame, with its Atlantic Coast Conference ties — are moving toward their own governance, potentially creating a gulf between themselves and the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
BYU’s aligning with the new Miami Beach Bowl for 2014 shows how conference tie-ins dominate the bowl picture. And the Southeastern Conference’s forcing its members to schedule another Power 5 opponent every year could further marginalize the Cougars, unless athletic director Tom Holmoe can persuade league administrators to create a BYU exemption.
College football relevance comes in varying degrees. Utah, for instance, is fighting to establish itself in the Pac-12, having won one-third of its conference games in three seasons. Some longtime members of power conferences — Iowa State, Indiana and Kentucky, to name a few — would love to have BYU’s level of brand recognition.
Regardless, they’re all on the proper side of the divide, going forward. Not even the SEC’s inclusion via a scheduling opportunity would solve that part of BYU’s problem.
Independence has worked wonderfully for BYU, in many ways. The school’s ESPN contract, some November bookings with the Pac-12 and other scheduling breakthroughs are impressive developments, and Holmoe deserves credit for them. The school’s built-in following allows BYU to benefit from playing in Connecticut, Tennessee and Florida in 2014.
BYU’s ownership dictates that the football program will always have certain advantages and disadvantages in recruiting, regardless of its status. But what’s occurring around them lately drives home the point that if the Cougars want to be truly relevant nationally, they have two choices: Win every football game, or talk their way into a power conference.
The first solution might be the easiest. The Big 12 is now the most logical destination for BYU. Having added West Virginia, however, the conference’s outlook appears to be toward the East.
Independence remains a better option for BYU than returning to the Mountain West, even though that would give the Cougars guaranteed access to one of the bowls affiliated with the College Football Playoff, which they lack. Holmoe made the right call in securing a slot in Miami (as long as BYU is bowl-eligible, and not picked for a CFP game), rather than hope another vacancy materializes.
But how many Utahns will travel to Florida in December, paying holiday airfares? That’s among the side effects of independence, along with an unattractive 2014 home schedule.
The irony is that BYU’s unspectacular lineup creates a great opportunity this season. BYU is justifiably proud of a top-five ranking in total victories in the past 40 seasons. With the CFP becoming established, though, BYU must re-establish its brand in 2014 by winning a bunch of games. That will matter more than ever as the Cougars position themselves for the Big 12’s invitation, the SEC’s validation or anything else that will increase their relevance. But would even 10 or 11 wins in 2014 be enough to sustain a genuinely high-level program, with everything else that’s happening? BYU can only hope so.
The alternative is comfortably occupying 66th place in the college football structure and filling whatever TV programming niche is available — much like the Media Day presentation, on a Monday morning. And is that really worth all this effort?