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PROVO — If there was ever a picture to sum up BYU’s football independence it would have been last Saturday.
Here were the Cougars, lining up at LaVell Edwards Stadium at 8:30 p.m. on a November night playing one of the worst teams in college football. It was cold. It was snowy. And the game was over by the end of the first quarter with BYU leading Idaho 28-7. By halftime the Cougars led 42-7. The announced attendance was 61,091, but by most estimations there were no more than 40,000 fans at the start and probably as few as 10,000 by the end.
And what were those remaining fans doing? Building snowmen and snow forts. That’s right — while other schools across the country were playing meaningful conference games with their fans on the edges of their seats dreaming of a league title, or pulling off an upset of a rival or still playing to get to a better bowl — BYU fans were building replicas of Frosty the Snowman and Fort Douglas. Is this the vision BYU officials had when they declared their independence two years ago?
It’s time for BYU to swallow its pride and join a conference. And the announcement this week of the approval of the six-bowl, four-team playoff system that takes effect in 2014 only reinforces this. While the top conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) already have automatic access to the new system the new wrinkle is that the highest rated school from the so-called “Group of Five” (Big East, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) will also be guaranteed a spot. This means the so-called “little guy” will actually get a reserved spot at the adult’s table. Of course, this new world also continues to include Notre Dame, which always seems to be at the head of the table.
So where does this leave the other major independent school, BYU? On the outside looking in. It basically means BYU must go unbeaten to get into the playoff or one of the major six bowls. And let’s face it — the likelihood of that is very slim since the last time the Cougars accomplished that feat was 28 years ago. And considering their schedule is getting more and more difficult it makes it even less of a possibility. And while the major conferences, Notre Dame and to a lesser extent the “Group of Five” leagues will share the extra revenue a playoff will bring, BYU will have to be perfect to do so.
In many ways you cannot fault BYU for making the decision to go independent. At the time the college football landscape was changing. The MWC appeared to be imploding, arch-rival Utah had the opportunity to jump to the Pac-12, and not to be outdone, BYU decided to carve out its own path. The Cougars had the resources to do so, reached a long-term television rights deal with ESPN and deciding that touring the country to bring exposure to the university and the LDS Church was to be their primary mission.
But two years later the college football landscape has changed drastically. Mega-conferences have formed. The BCS leagues have solidified. And scheduling games for BYU has become more and more of a challenge. And while BYU and many of its fans believe they’re bigger than the Big East or MWC — the harsh reality is they’re not. That is clear because those conferences have a better chance of reaching one of the six major bowls or playoff than the Cougars.
Is that right? Probably not. Is it reality? Yes. And BYU better face it before it's left completely behind. It’s time to join the Big East or even go back to the MWC. Otherwise a new November tradition will officially be established — that of fans building snowmen and snow forts inside LES in the many empty seats while their team plays yet another meaningless game.
I don't think playing in front of Frosty is the scenario a proud program and fanbase deserves.