Provo • When Tom Holmoe met with reporters last January, 42 minutes went by before BYU’s athletic director was asked if the school was ready to put its independent football program into a conference.
Suffice it to say that if Holmoe conducted another of his roundtable discussions this week, the question would come a lot sooner.
Conference realignment and BYU’s place in the college football landscape is a hot topic again, because the University of Connecticut is preparing to leave the American Athletic Conference and accept an invitation to join the Big East for basketball and other sports.
That likely leaves UConn football as an independent, because the Big East does not have football and the AAC is not expected to allow the Huskies to keep their football team in that league. It also means that the AAC will be down to 11 football programs in 2020, and might want to get back to 12.
That’s where BYU comes in — possibly. Of course, any analysis of such a jump has to include the caveat that the Cougars would first have to be invited. That’s not a sure thing, although AAC commissioner Mike Aresco has always spoken favorably of taking BYU’s football program, if the Cougars were interested.
For BYU, the big question is this: Would it make any sense for the Cougars to join a conference in football only where the Cougars’ nearest geographic rivals — Tulsa and Southern Methodist — would be around 1,200 miles away from Provo? Other American schools, such as Navy, East Carolina and Central Florida, are more than 2,200 miles away.
BYU athletic department officials have not responded to interview requests since news broke that the AAC might have an opening.
It also should be said that BYU moving all of its sports programs into the AAC makes no sense at all; aside from men’s basketball (a debatable topic for another day), BYU’s other teams are mostly flourishing in the West Coast Conference, and the travel costs to send its non-revenue sports across the country would be substantial.
The pros of a move to the AAC
• The chance to play for a conference championship. Not since their final year in the Mountain West, 2010, have the Cougars been able to play for something other than a minor bowl trophy. Winning league titles was a priority when LaVell Edwards roamed the sidelines in Provo, and November games were much more meaningful than they are now.
• The chance to get into a New Year’s Six bowl game. The Cougars simply don’t have that opportunity now. The highest ranked Group of 5 program gets an invitation into a NY6 game; Locally, Boise State has taken this route several times.
• The chance to push the AAC, arguably the best of the G5 conferences, closer to its goal of being considered a “Power 6” conference. Perhaps that would lessen some of the envy many BYU fans have of instate rival Utah’s Pac-12 membership. By most accounts, BYU football would enhance the AAC, despite the geography.
• The chance to play a more manageable schedule in September so the season isn’t derailed before it gets started. The AAC’s bowl tie-ins are potentially more appealing than what BYU could get through its bowl agreements with ESPN.
• The chance to establish a better recruiting footprint in hotbed states such as Texas and Florida. Having Houston, SMU, Central Florida and South Florida on the schedule annually or almost annually could give coach Kalani Sitake’s program a much wider recruiting net than it has now.
Now, the cons ...
• BYU quite likely would have to scrap its deal with ESPN — an extension of the contract that expires after the 2019 season is supposedly imminent — and could make less money in the AAC than it would as an independent. College football analyst Brett McMurphy of Stadium.com argues that BYU would make more in the conference, reporting that the American’s new media rights deal will pay its members almost $7 million per year, starting in the 2020-21 academic year. BYU sources have maintained since 2011, when the deal began, that the Cougars get close to that annually from ESPN, if not more.
• BYU wouldn’t have to pay a conference exit fee — UConn’s is reportedly $10 million to leave the AAC — but would probably have to agree to one, which could make it less desirable to a Power 5 conference in the future. And make no mistake about it, BYU’s ultimate goal is to get into a P5 league.
• BYU would have less control over its scheduling than it is accustomed to having and would have to buy its way out of a lot of future games with Power 5 and upper-tier Group of 5 opponents. In 2020, for instance, the Cougars are scheduled to host Michigan State, San Diego State and Missouri and play at Utah, Arizona State, Minnesota, Boise State and Stanford. American teams play eight conference games a year, so something would have to give.
• BYU’s brass has said many times that the move to independence was more about exposure — getting to play on ESPN all around the country — than money, so even if the AAC revenue is greater, that point is probably moot. They would likely get more favorable kickoff times than what has become the norm, but fewer people would see them play.
• ESPN has allowed BYU’s school-owned BYUtv television station to broadcast at least one home football game per year. It’s not certain whether that would be allowed under the AAC’s media rights deal. BYU has invested too much money into BYUtv to not use it as much as possible.