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PROVO — Much to the delight of all associated with BYU football, the era of independence has mercifully and finally ended.
From this point forward, after the Cougars beat favored Southern Methodist in the New Mexico Bowl, it's all about the Big 12. As thrilling as the game was, ending with BYU stopping SMU's potential go-ahead 2-point conversion in the waning seconds, winning a pre-Christmas game in Albuquerque won't rank among the program's greatest accomplishments.
To put it mildly, BYU's bowl affiliations as an independent lacked any pizzazz. Postseason destinations were one of the downsides that accompanied the administration's decision to bolt from the Mountain West Conference in time for the 2011 season.
Good thing is, in theory anyway, their negatives are gone. No longer stuck in no-mans land as neither a Power Five nor Group of Five program, BYU now has what it desired for the last decade.
"We're looking forward toward being in a conference next year and start officially working towards that," coach Kalani Sitake said after the 24-23 win. "Now we can officially talk about it."
Since accepting the coveted invitation in Sept. 2021 to join the Big 12 starting next summer, noting his team still had another two seasons to play as an independent, Sitake wisely avoided going in-depth on the move. The goal now is to ramp up the program in every aspect going into a potentially difficult situation.
Injuries have plagued the program the last several years, testing the limits at several positions. Improving depth, particularly on defense, ranks high on the BYU to-do list.
Seeking overall improvement, Sitake hired Jay Hill as the new defensive coordinator and is replacing strength and conditioning coaches. Additional coaching hires are expected in the coming weeks.
But all the staff changes can work only so many miracles. Schemes and formations are nice concepts, but the coaches are fully aware they need a greater infusion of talent across the board.
Recruiting classes that rank in the 60s and 70s, as has been the case for BYU, likely will lead to disaster during Big 12 Conference play. The Cougars no longer can afford to lose a host of difference makers to the likes of Utah, which has enjoyed tremendous success in recruiting LDS players — even extending to BYU's backyard in Utah County — and other Pac-12 programs.
Theoretically, with the program now able to play for a conference championship and more prestigious bowl games, recruiting should improve. Same goes for the opportunity to lure more high-level players from the transfer portal.
The obstacles of independence, which often included scheduling a slew of late-season games against nobodies, are gone. It's now a matter of signing and coaching up talent.
Overall, the program must get tougher in the trenches. In a glaring statistic that often led to a porous defense, the Cougars ended the regular season with only 13 sacks in 12 games, ranking among the worst at the FBS level.
"We're excited to go to the Big 12. It will be a lot of fun," Sitake said. "We've known about it for a while now and I've asked these guys not to talk about it. Now let's go. We're going to work. Emphasis going into the offseason is going to be a lot of work. These guys know, they're ready to be uncomfortable and grow."
From a fan base perspective, conference membership will lead to a rejuvenation of interest in the program. While the administration was correct in making the move to independence for the sake of exposure, BYU often fell into national irrelevance before conference play began in earnest around the country.
From now on, the fans can enjoy the benefits of either being in a conference race deep into a season or at least playing the role of spoiler. Along with it, comes the chance to improve upon easily forgettable bowl games.