BYU fashions itself the Notre Dame of the West, a church-affiliated institution with a national following. In search of greater exposure for its global television network, BYUtv, it's reportedly prepared to ditch the Mountain West to become a football independent. A national brand wants to play a national schedule.
But really, it sounds like the bigger concern here is a different sort of branding -- that of the dreaded "non-BCS" tag. Despite playing in a bigger stadium than all but one Big East school, despite winning one more national championship than Wisconsin, despite producing one more Heisman winner than Oregon, BYU's program carries a stigma of inferiority. And most insultingly of all, the Pac-10 recently welcomed the Cougars' hated rival, Utah, into the sport's most privileged tier -- even though the Utes' football "tradition" dates to about 2004.
Faced with this unwanted reality and stuck in a conference with a low-rent TV deal and no guarantee of automatic-qualifier status in the future, BYU may have decided it's better off as a non-anything program than a non-BCS program.
As of this writing, Mountain West officials were working feverishly to retain the Cougars (and Boise State, its planned 2011 addition). On Wednesday, the MWC hurriedly added WAC schools Fresno State and Nevada, blitzing the league that BYU was planning to join for its other sports. It's June all over again, with BYU playing the role of Texas, and MWC commissioner Craig Thompson and WAC counterpart Karl Benson recreating the Larry Scott-Dan Beebe Pac-10/Big 12 standoff.
Only in this case, the school at the center of it, BYU, may opt for Door No. 3. It sees as its model Notre Dame, which has maintained its national prestige (if not its win totals) without having to share its loot with others.
During a general discussion about realignment last month, AD Tom Holmoe told reporters: "We have an incredible school here, and we want people to know that. And one of the ways they know that is by watching us play. We have a national base. We can go all over the country, and people can see that."
That sounds a lot like something his Notre Dame counterpart, Jack Swarbrick, might say.
While BYU will never be coveted by BCS bowls to the same degree as the Irish, it might be able to accomplish many of the same goals (more TV money, better exposure) by freeing itself from the shackles of an eight-game conference schedule and The Mtn.
The key word in that sentence, of course, is "might."
The success of BYU's ambitious vision would depend in large part on the cooperation of other parties. It will need far more than just the WAC providing some scheduling buddies to make this indy football idea work.
First of all, it will need a willing television partner -- presumably ESPN -- to shell out money to show all or most of its home games. "BYU initiated a discussion with ESPN, but the conversation will remain private," network spokesman Mike Humes said Wednesday. The Cougars regularly field a Top 25 team, and their fans are dispersed throughout the country, but their games aren't likely to fetch millions of casual viewers like a USC or Texas. BYU doesn't need Notre Dame/NBC money (reportedly $15 million per year), but it's certainly hoping for more than the paltry $1.5-$2 million it gets from the Mountain West.
To get that TV money, the Courgars will need to play meaningful games against notable opponents. UCLA, Florida State and Washington have all played home-and-homes with BYU the past few years, but that represented one game on the BYU schedule, not the six or seven it will now need to fill.
In addition to annual opponents like Purdue and Michigan State (not to mention West Coast rival USC), Notre Dame has the cachet to lure national powers like Texas and Miami to South Bend. BYU doesn't necessarily need those guys, but it will need at least two or three respectable BCS-conference foes to visit each year if it hopes to distinguish its schedule from those of its former Mountain West and WAC brethren.
But what will ultimately matter most for the Cougars -- and the area that will be hardest to predict -- is BCS access.
Technically, nothing will change. Barring an unlikely "Notre Dame rule" of its own (the Irish are guaranteed a BCS berth if they finish in the Top 8), BYU will be eligible if it finishes in the Top 14, just as it has been all along. While it will no longer be in contention for the automatic berth that recent MWC champs Utah and TCU garnered for finishing in the Top 12, an 11-1 or 12-0 BYU team and its 40,000 traveling followers will be plenty attractive to the Fiesta or Orange bowls.
BYU met that threshold last year, finishing the regular season 10-2 and 14th in the BCS standings, but was never seriously considered for a bid. No. 10 Iowa, also 10-2, got one instead. BYU finished 16th, 17th and 20th the years before that. The Cougs have been gradually gaining national respect, in part because of victories like last year's season-opening upset of No. 3 Oklahoma, but more so due to the overall success of the conference they'd now be ditching.
In nearly any season, a 10-2 Notre Dame team will get a BCS berth, no questions asked. It's doubtful a 10-2 BYU team playing its own version of a "national" schedule would get similar treatment from voters. It is possible, however, that just by separating itself as an independent -- by shedding that "non-BCS" stigma -- BYU's perception among voters would improve. It's also possible a couple more years of national rankings might merit an invite from the remodeling Big 12 or another look from the Pac-10.
Then again, it's also possible voters would treat the Cougars like Navy, which won 10 games last season and didn't even crack the final Top 25.
It's easy to see why BYU, as a religious institution with a passionate fan base, would choose to emulate Notre Dame. But the weird reality of college football is that winning more games than Notre Dame (as the Cougars have each of the past four seasons) doesn't turn you into Notre Dame. Playing on national television every week (as nearly every Big Ten and SEC team now does) doesn't turn you into Notre Dame.
Ironically, BCS affiliation is about the only true path today toward emulating Notre Dame.
"We are not Notre Dame, and we can't make demands," Holmoe said last month. "We don't have multiple invitations. So we try to make the best of this jigsaw puzzle, and position ourselves for the current [time], and the future."
Stay or go, the Cougars -- like Utah before them, like Boise State now -- have been forced to audition for the BCS. Twelve years in the Mountain West couldn't bring BYU that favored status. Perhaps it's time to try another way.