SALT LAKE CITY — With no invitation to a Power 5 conference forthcoming any time soon, BYU could face a decision to abandon being an independent in football and return to enjoying the benefits that conference membership provides.
The news that Connecticut is interested in rejoining the Big East in basketball, a move that essentially would eliminate membership in the American Athletic Conference, could provide a path for BYU to replace the Huskies in football only. Longtime national college football writer Brett McMurphy has reported Army and BYU are the top two candidates to join the AAC if Connecticut follows through on leaving.
“BYU football-only makes a ton of sense,” McMurphy said during an interview on The Zone Sports Network.
As athletic director Tom Holmoe has stated in previous group interviews with local media representatives, BYU’s status as an independent in football is not sustainable over the long-term. But the goal all along has been to join a Power 5 conference, a group which does not include the AAC.
Nine years into independence, BYU has relied on a contract with ESPN to maintain viability in football. The two entities are working through details to extend the contract, which will include stipulations for bowl games.
The decision to leave the Mountain West Conference made sense financially for BYU during the same summer the newly expanded Pac-12 decided to invite rival Utah. Going forward, it also might make sense for BYU to consider aligning with the AAC.
Starting next year, the AAC will begin a 12-year deal with ESPN expected to worth an estimated $1 billion. Including a replacement for Connecticut, the conference has 12 teams for football spilt into East and West divisions.
As part of the contract, ESPN has the right to renegotiate if any teams leave the conference. In effect, replacing Connecticut with BYU would help the AAC maintain its financial terms with ESPN.
The AAC is set to be one of the bigger draws for the ESPN+ subscription service. Many conference competitions, which will include football, are going to be on the platform.
“If BYU would go to the American, they would make more money in media rights deals than they are currently with ESPN, so that would be a positive,” McMurphy said. “The negative would be the travel would increase because you’re heading east every conference game. Obviously, it would make life easier for Tom Holmoe, as far as scheduling, because now you’re finding four games every year instead of 12.”
BYU’s inclusion would open the Mountain time zone for the AAC, which has teams in the Eastern and Central time zones. The conference and network then would likely be able to have three nationally televised games on a given Saturday, with BYU in the latest time slot for home games.
In addition to potentially receiving more money, McMurphy points out BYU would enjoy significantly better bowl arrangements with the AAC. A successful season, as Central Florida proved in its win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl in 2017, would result in a New Year’s Day bowl bid.
“If you go 10-2 as an independent, you’re not going to go to those bowl games,” McMurphy said.
Given the nature of scheduling as an independent, considering the front-loaded difficulty, BYU likely isn’t going through a season with less than three losses. The eight-game AAC schedule, combined with four non-conference opponents at BYU’s discretion, definitely would increase the chances to produce a glossy record.
And even though the AAC does not have Power 5 status, it could serve as a stepping-stone for BYU. A successful run in the conference could help BYU draw the attention of the Big 12, which currently has 10 members.
Apparently, this is not the first time BYU and the AAC have entertained joining forces. As McMurphy understands, the two sides almost agreed to a merger before the deal fell apart.
“I was told the last time BYU and the American kind of did this song and dance, it got fairly close,” he said, “but in the end, BYU wanted more revenue from the TV deal, or the media rights deal, than the other conference members. Basically, that’s when the American balked.”