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It May be Big 5 or Bust for BYU Athletics

1 May 2014 Brett Richins
BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe. (BYU photo)

BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe. (BYU photo)

BYU’s announcement on Tuesday that the Cougars have entered into an agreement to play in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl is a reminder of just how tough life can be as a football independent.

While the location that the Cougars are likely to end up at in December is awfully nice, they could potentially end up playing the fifth or sixth-place team from the AAC in a bowl that has no history and zero prestige.

In the three seasons since BYU embarked on its path of independence the Cougars have played in the Armed Forced Bowl, the Poinsettia Bowl and the Fight Hunger Bowl.

In a addition to the Miami Beach Bowl, athletic director Tom Holmoe has also reached an agreement for the Cougars to return to the Poinsettia Bowl in 2016 and again in 2018 where they will face an opponent from their old stomping grounds, the Mountain West Conference.

Even with the help of broadcast partner ESPN/ABC, which televised 33 of the 35 college bowl games last year, BYU has been unable to crack the stranglehold that the so-called “Big 5″ conferences enjoy on the more prestigious bowl games.

Although the failure to find a more suitable bowl solution is concerning, it’s certainly not the most threatening issue that faces BYU when it comes to the future of its athletic programs.

Recent decisions by major conferences like the PAC-12 and Big 12 to play a nine-game conference schedule in football, and the SEC’s decision this week to require its schools to play at least one game per year against teams from one of the other major conferences, makes it difficult for a school like BYU.

Moving forward, it looks like it’s going to be very difficult for Holmoe to put together schedules that have enough strength built into them for the Cougars to ever be considered for the playoffs.

By expanding the number of conference games to nine and/or requiring their members to play games against other schools from within the other Big 5 conferences, the Big 5 can effectually slam the door on the have-nots in college football, including BYU.

The only way that teams outside the Big 5 conferences have any real opportunity of raising their strength of schedule high enough to be considered for a playoff berth is to play and defeat programs from the Big 5. That becomes a real problem when there are fewer opportunities to play those games.

With strength of schedule being a major factor in the selection of playoffs teams, the eventual effect of the have-nots having less access to playing the haves will be the choking off of the little guy and the creation of a brand new level of college athletics.

For that reason it’s looking more and more important for BYU to find its way into one of the major conferences. Even a program like Notre Dame may be forced to fully join a conference before all said and done. The Fighting Irish begin an alliance with the ACC this year, playing five games against ACC opponents each season.

The problem for the Cougars is that none of the power conferences currently have any interest in expanding. The PAC-12 appears set for the future with its membership and a marriage between a conservative, faith-based institution and a conference consisting of some of the most highly-secular schools in the country seems very unlikely in this day and age.

If BYU is going to find a way to the table with the haves, it would likely have to be with the Big 12, a conference that currently has just 10 teams. The two parties courted each other a couple of years ago but an offer for the Cougars to join the conference never materialized. Right now the Big 12 is happy as a clam, sharing its money with fewer member schools than any of the other Big 5 conferences.

That contentment could be short lived however if the Big 12 finds that its champion is being left out of the playoffs or that its seeding is being hurt because of the fact that the conference does not play a championship game at the end of the season.

The NCAA currently requires conferences to have at least 12 members divided into at least two divisions in order to stage a championship game. The other four major conferences each have 12 or 14 schools, with the ability to stage a football championship game being a key factor in the recent expansion by PAC-12, Big Ten and ACC.

The Big 12 sees the writing on the wall, which is why the conference, along with the ACC, is currently petitioning the NCAA to waive the 12-team, two-division rule for holding a football championship game. Such a change could potentially improve the post-season positioning for the champions of the Big 12 and ACC.

While the NCAA appears willing to discuss the matter, it remains to be seen if the SEC, PAC-12 and Big Ten would be on board with a proposal that could potentially diminish standing of their own champions. Today, the power of the NCAA is eroding almost on a daily basis while the power of the major conferences expands. And make no mistake about it, the most powerful of the major conferences are the ones steering this ship.

However all this shakes out, BYU hopes that it does not allow the Big 12 to stand pat with just 10 teams while the Big 5 expands its power and leaves the other football-playing schools across the country in its dust. If that were to happen the Cougars could be permanently relegated to second-class status in the world of college football, struggling to find exposure, money and recruits.

If the stream of money that the football program brings to BYU is reduced in any great degree, the athletic department would quickly find itself struggling to stay in the black.

Such a development could jeopardize the future of athletics at the LDS Church’s flagship university. The Church eliminated athletics at Ricks College when it became BYU-Idaho in 2001 and sited financial concerns as the reason that it is phasing out athletics at BYU-Hawaii over the next three years.

For those who think that dropping athletics in Provo couldn’t happen–think again. Church leaders and the Board of Trustees view BYU athletics as a positive public relations tool that pays its own way. If that were to change, those programs could easily find themselves on the chopping block, just like the programs in Rexburg and Laie.

For that reason, it could well be Big 5 or bust for BYU athletics.

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