Want to know the best thing about BYU’s independence in football? Basketball games vs. Gonzaga.
That’s why if Gonzaga moves from the West Coast Conference to the Mountain West, the Cougars have to follow — except in football.
On the subject of football independence, I’m as stubborn as BYU administrators, believing that after they’ve gone down that road for seven years, they owe their fans the chance to see Utah, USC and Washington at LaVell Edwards Stadium in 2019. The Cougars would have to drop one or more of those games to accommodate a conference schedule, and their fans have endured the visits of too many lower-tier opponents in Provo in this decade.
The biggest problem with BYU’s independence is not that UMass came to Provo last November, but that the Minutemen beat BYU. That’s another discussion, however.
Considering the powerful status of football in college sports these days, the WCC has been an adequate landing spot for BYU’s basketball program and selected other sports. Without Gonzaga, though? That would not work.
Even when the Bulldogs blasted BYU last Saturday, the Marriott Center was sold out and the atmosphere was terrific. That’s hardly the case for the visits of most WCC opponents. Saint Mary’s would remain in the conference and BYU would have better access to the NCAA Tournament, but losing Gonzaga would drop the WCC far behind the MW in prestige and take a lot of the fun out of BYU’s affiliation.
So if the MW’s talks with Gonzaga that commissioner Craig Thompson has framed as “exploratory” turn into anything substantive, BYU has to get involved. Where it would get interesting is if the MW’s invitation to BYU becomes an all-or-nothing offer, forcing the Cougars football program to come along. But I don’t see that happening, and I also don’t picture BYU administrators ending their independent effort in football this soon.
They can’t stop just when it is getting good in terms of the home schedule, not necessarily the product on the field.
The first half of BYU’s 2019 football schedule includes games vs. Utah, at Tennessee, vs. USC, vs. Washington, at Toledo and at South Florida. There’s an argument that the Cougars are way overbooked with those first six opponents, and the season could turn into a disaster as 2017 did.
Yet that schedule is worth tackling just to see where the program stands at that point and to reward fans who have waited for some attractive home games.
The same is true of basketball. The tradeoff is that in a larger league with 13 or more basketball schools, Gonzaga wouldn’t come to Provo every season. That would reduce some of the value of BYU being in the same conference as the Bulldogs, but that’s a better alternative than being in a league without them.