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SALT LAKE CITY — Already, several weeks before it can even happen, the BYU football program has to deal with talk of being irrelevant on a national scale this season.
As the theory goes, a few losses will push the Cougars into obscurity well before the season is half over. With a September schedule that features three teams — Louisiana State, Utah and Wisconsin — all ranked in the preseason Top 25, BYU probably won’t be going undefeated this year.
As an independent in football, BYU cannot contend for a conference championship like all but three other teams. Once the Cougars get tagged with a few losses, they drift off the national radar and close the season by playing in a second-tier bowl game.
“Once you lose a couple of games you really are off the national scene and you’re not playing for a conference title anymore because you’re an independent,” Associated Press college football writer Ralph Russo said during an interview with 97.5-FM and 1280-AM The Zone.
The scenario has played out in all six seasons since BYU left the Mountain West Conference. Starting with the 2011 season, the program has averaged at least four losses.
Twice since going independent BYU has created a national buzz early in the season but failed to sustain it. In 2014, the Cougars started 4-0, including a 41-7 defeat of Texas, before an injury to quarterback Taysom Hill squashed any dreams. The following season, on the strength of Tanner Mangum’s last-second touchdown heaves to beat Nebraska and Boise State, BYU captured the imagination of the sport, but all the positivity was lost after a 31-0 embarrassment at Michigan.
Last season, the first under coach Kalani Sitake, was typical of BYU’s life as an independent. The Cougars began 1-3, losing to three Power 5 schools, and then closed the regular-season on a four-game winning streak against lesser competition. They beat Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl, which ceased operations in the offseason.
“Once you slip up once or twice, you’re out of that conversation playing for any kind of big major bowl,” Russo said. “What is the definition of relevant if within the first month of the season we don’t have to think about you as far as the playoff is concerned or as far as those big major playoff bowls is concerned.”
All true, Russo’s statements. But they also are not isolated to BYU, which takes the hit because of the independent status.
Granted, BYU cannot celebrate a conference championship, as it did repeatedly in the WAC and Mountain West. And the reality of making the four-team college playoff is only a pipedream.
But the Cougars are hardly alone. The reality is, more than half of the Power 5 programs don’t have a legitimate chance at winning a conference or national championship this season.
Outside of a few select big-name programs, most Power 5 teams never have a realistic shot to win anything noteworthy beyond a second-tier bowl game. The only real difference between these teams and BYU is they can start the season with the fantasy of winning a conference title.
Do we really think anybody but two or three teams can win the Pac-12 this season? Since Utah joined the Pac-12 six years ago, only Washington, Oregon and Stanford have won the conference.
The University of California last won an outright conference championship in 1958. Arizona, which plays Utah annually as members of the South Division, has never won the championship.
To be sure, it is far better to play out the season in a Power 5 conference than as an independent. But none of those conferences appear to be extending an invitation to BYU any time soon.
The idea of playing out the string after a few early-season losses also is debatable in terms of being meaningless. All teams can play with the goal of getting the six wins required for bowl eligibility or at the least play for the thought of developing for the next season, when the hope starts all over again.