BYU sees opportunity in independence, brutal scheduling
Sep. 10, 2015
PROVO, Utah (AP) — Bronco Mendenhall isn't exactly a fan of BYU living life as an independent football program.
The coach, however, is making the most of it.
Mendenhall is approaching the Cougars' grueling opening schedule — at Nebraska, hosting No. 20 Boise State, at No. 13 UCLA, at Michigan — as an opportunity for BYU to increase its national profile while attempting to break into the College Football Playoff.
"I don't think (independence) is indefinite," Mendenhall said. "But one of the primary focuses and benefits of independence is the exposure."
Independence, though, has left BYU in no-man's land.
Teams in the Power 5 conferences rake in millions each year. BYU is left out of that revenue stream, though it has a unique deal with ESPN that gives the program regular television exposure that wouldn't come in its old league, the Mountain West Conference.
Power 5 teams also have a chance to make the playoffs with one or even two losses. Without the ability to win a league title, BYU, basically, must go undefeated to be included.
Mendenhall knows independence isn't forever. And Cougars fans got their hopes up, again, when Oklahoma President David Boren said during the summer that the Big 12 needs to expand to 12 teams.
Until something changes, Mendenhall is plugging along.
"We're interested in growth," Mendenhall said. "We're interested in progress and we're interested in a challenge. It's not a time to be complacent. We're going after anyone that will play us wherever they'll play us on the biggest stages."
The strategy is quite simple. BYU wants to the chance to play for a national championship. The odds of that happening in the Mountain West, especially after the Power 5 conferences reorganized and the College Football Playoff was created, was slim. BYU was limited in what it could do schedule-wise and the national exposure wasn't what athletic director Tom Holmoe wanted.
The choice to go independent was made with the goal of being a player in the national conversation. The Cougars won a national title in 1984, but the landscape has drastically changed since then.
"A couple years ago we made this leap into independence and with it we were really in uncharted waters," Holmoe said. "Five years later, we have a better feel for where we are.
"If you look at what we do in this first month, I don't think a team in the country has that opportunity. Now it's still out there for us to take advantage of that. If we can hit the ground running and do what we think we can do with the talent that we have and the coaching staff we have, it could be exactly what we're looking for."
And that's what happened at Nebraska last week. The Cougars became one of the biggest stories of opening weekend with a last-second Hail Mary pass from Tanner Mangum to Mitch Mathews for a 33-28 victory. Nebraska hadn't lost a season opener since 1985. Now BYU could potentially slip into the Top 25 with a win over No. 20 Boise State on Saturday.
There's no telling where the Cougars could go if they could beat two Big Ten teams, UCLA and Boise State.
That's the opportunity Holmoe and Mendenhall see.
The 2016 season will have all the "opportunity" the two can handle with road games against Arizona, Utah, West Virginia, Michigan State and Boise State. The Cougars will host UCLA and Mississippi State.
"The idea isn't just to play them. We're scheduling games we expect to go win," Mendenhall said. "That's what you do at BYU. You play great teams and play them wherever they'll play. I'd love them to come to LaVell Edwards Stadium, but until then we'll go there.
"It's not an accident that teams don't want to come to Provo. ... They're going to keep leverage on us as long as possible. The only way I can take that away is to go wherever they want to play and beat them and then they'll have to come at some point because of national pressure and increased credibility. That's what we're after."
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org