Does BYU independence mean Irish in the future?

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Some of the seismic shifts in college football that were mentioned during the offseason finally came to fruition in the past 24 hours. While it wasn’t the Richter scale shaking major conference realignment that many suspected, the Mountain West conference created quite a stir when both Fresno State and Nevada accepted invitations to leave the WAC and join the Mountain West in 2011 or 2012. These invitations were spurred on by the Salt Lake Tribune‘s report that BYU is leaving the Mountain West and going independent in football. The rest of BYU’s athletic programs would rejoin the WAC conference.

BYU would join Notre Dame, Army, and Navy as the only independent teams left in college football, giving credence to some prophetic words from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick early this week.

“You’ve got to solve the non-football side of the equation,” Swarbrick said, “but it can work. I don’t know if there will be others but it wouldn’t shock me because the landscape is so fluid.”

With BYU’s other sports apparently realigning with the WAC conference, the Cougars seem to have solved the non-football side of the equation. Now comes the daunting task of going it alone, a proposition that BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe talked about earlier this summer.

“Independence is an option that obviously has been out there. We will look at everything. We have looked at everything. There are pros and cons to the Pac-10, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Mountain West Conference and independence. With all these things there are pros and cons.

“So what you have to do is you have to weigh those and measure them against what? What is right for BYU. And not for what is right for BYU in the year 2010, but what is right for BYU into the future.

“That is quite a bit more complex than most people understand. You have got a constituency to deal with. You have got a school to deal with.”

While there is no match-up currently slated, I’d expect Notre Dame to be open to scheduling BYU in future games, especially with their recent history on the gridiron. The Irish won two of three in their last action against the Cougars, losing the season opener in 2004, sandwiched between wins in 2003 and 2005. If you’re looking for a game to potentially plug in, the Irish have one game that needs to be schedule for the 2011 schedule, as well as potential openings on the 2012 and 2013 slates.

BYU may state that there are pros and cons to every decision, but it’s pretty clear that if the Cougars were willing to walk away from a football conference on the verge of qualifying for an automatic BCS bid, there had to have been a large financial reason to go it alone. Notre Dame’s agreement with the BCS draws the ire of many in down years, but the Cougars likely expect to compete for an at-large bid, pocketing the hefty appearance fee all by themselves. With a prominent national following based largely around the school’s Mormon faith, BYU also likely finds itself appealing to a broadcast network, figuring that any deal struck will recoup more than the $1.3 million in TV money they pocketed from the Mountain West last year.

What remains to be seen, and what could be the multi-million dollar question is how well with the Cougars play as free agents. If the school is able to schedule competitively and return to being one of the elite programs in college football, could BYU become a natural rival of the Irish, will the religious affiliations of both schools adding a unique twist to a potential rivalry?

Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson was sure to skirt most questions regarding BYU’s precarious future with the conference, saying only that as of 9:45 MST Wednesday night, the Cougars are “a member of the Mountain West Conference.” Still, it’s easy to think that if the Cougars truly do go it alone, they’ll likely find their way onto the Irish schedule sometime in the very near future.