June 27, 2011

Transition Outlook: BYU Cougars

Continuing our series of examining the western schools who are changing conference affiliation, today we focus on Brigham Young University. The Cougars are striking out on their own in the first such move by a major program in this era. What is ahead of BYU as they declare independence?

There was a time in college football when many teams were independent, programs like Penn State and Miami, for example. Today, only Notre Dame remains, along with Army (who tried conference affiliation for a time) and Navy. In recent history, no team has stepped into independence by leaving a secure conference home and not being compelled by outside forces to leave. There have been occasional instances where a team is somewhat forced to be independent, such as when the Big West abandoned football, and teams like Utah State played football as an independent. But nothing of this magnitude.

Some feel that college football is destined for super conferences, but others feel that big programs will be watching BYU with interest, wondering if they, too, should go independent. Not only for those programs, but very much so for BYU, is this first season critical to how successful independence will be for them. Winning will keep ESPN interested in the program, and will get other programs interested in scheduling with BYU. What are the possibilities this season?


PREVIOUS CONFERENCE: Mountain West Conference (1999-2010)
Record: 96-54 (64-26 in MWC)
Conference Championships: 4 (3 outright, 1 shared)
All-Time Bowl Record: 11-17-1
Best All-Time Finish: 1984 -- 13-0, National Champions

There is a lot going on off the field for the Cougars. First, BYU secured an 8-year TV deal with ESPN. This TV deal guarantees them a minimum of 4 games a year on ESPN (3 on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2, and 1 on ESPNU), and is said to pay about $1 million per game. However, the deal is open-ended, and in its first independent season, BYU is already slated to play 8 games on ESPN with some games still undetermined.

The second major off-the-field factor is scheduling. BYU has to schedule 12 games itself for every season. For the first two years of independence, BYU has teamed up with the WAC in a scheduling agreement that gets them 5 games vs. WAC teams this season, and 4 next season. The Cougars have future series scheduled with Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Boise State, and Hawaii, as well as games still remaining in current series with Texas and Oregon State. After 2012, they will also try to continue a series with Utah. It seems that BYU will be able to fill its schedule each year with a mix of compelling games and schedule fillers, but it will definitely take a lot of work to get 12 games each year.

Sophomore QB Jake Heaps will try to
institute Doman's new offense
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall cleaned house in his coaching staff. Mendenhall resumed his former duties as defensive coordinator after an embarrassing defensive effort in a week-5 loss to Utah State. After the season, offensive coordinator Robert Anae left to coach the offensive line at Arizona, and receivers coach Patrick Higgins left to Purdue for the same position. Brandon Doman, formerly a BYU QB and current QB coach, added offensive coordinator to his duties. Former BYU WR Ben Cahoon, just retired as the CFL's all-time receptions leader, was named receivers coach. Doman has said he will move away from the mixed air-raid-slash-pro-style offense Anae used, and move towards a more traditional pro-style set.

After an impressive opening-week victory, BYU falls on the road to Texas. The offense clicks surprisingly well from the get-go, however, and the new athletic blood on BYU's defense allows the Cougars to win every other game. After impressively surviving the first four weeks with only one loss, BYU cruises through WAC fodder. Jake Heaps fully comes into his own and the offense becomes a buzz saw that mows over both Oregon State and TCU. BYU is in serious consideration for a BCS bowl berth.

In the likely scenario, BYU still loses to Texas for sure, and wins two of the other three opening games against Ole Miss, Utah, and UCF, starting the season 2-2. The Cougars manage a split between Oregon State and TCU, and still plow through the lesser WAC opponents on the schedule. The defense plays well enough to keep them in every game. They fulfill their spot in the Armed Forces Bowl.

BYU barely survives the opening four games, managing only one win as the offense begins the season out-of-sync again. They lose at Reser Stadium and again in Cowboy Stadium against TCU against teams who can exploit their inexperienced secondary. After climbing out of the hole to a 6-5 record, they fall again in the season finale at Hawaii, where BYU brings a poor effort and Hawaii's offense has come together. They barely manage to be bowl eligible, but thanks to the lineup of Idaho State, Idaho, New Mexico State, San Jose State, and Utah State, the Cougars are still able to play in the Armed Forces Bowl.


As noted, BYU's first season as an independent will be key in its independent future. They definitely have the talent in place to succeed this season, but can they make it all come together? If so, they will be a mainstay on your TV for years and they will come in to recruiting success never before seen. If they fall on their face, ESPN will grant the Cougars only the 4-game minimum each year, and without a conference title to vie for, they may struggle to draw some recruits. A lot is riding on this season for BYU.

How do you see BYU's first independent season unfolding?

(See the other pieces in the series here: Transition Outlook)


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