Looking ahead at BYU football’s long-term options

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Bryan Pearson
The BYU football stadium is named after former Coach LaVell Edwards. (Bryan Pearson)

The sun set on the final day of spring practice in late March and the buzz around BYU football began to settle. Since then, fans have had to wait four long, grueling summer months before fall camp brought football back to the headlines.

Part of the wait was relatively calm after the turmoil of last year’s offseason for BYU football.

The Big 12 Conference expansion, quarterback questions and a new coaching staff left Cougar fans with plenty to talk about from December 2015 until September 2016.

Coach Kalani Sitake now has a full year under his belt, and junior quarterback Tanner Mangum is the undisputed starting quarterback.

“I think we’re starting to settle in more,” Sitake said after the spring scrimmage. “We’re comfortable with our team and program. Last year, we were still trying to get to know everyone. A year later, I think we as a coaching staff have earned the trust of the players. I think the team has become closer as a unit. When you have that, you can accomplish a lot of things.”

The Big 12 maintained the status quo of 10 members. The group said the expansion will most likely remain on hold until 2024, when the current television grant of rights contract ends.

So what could happen to BYU after that seven-year period ends?

Scenario No. 1: BYU remains independent

The 2017 football season has the potential to be incredible. An early trip to NRG Stadium in Houston against the Louisiana State University Tigers highlights a strong opening slate for BYU. Following the neutral site game, the Cougars return home to face rival Utah and Big Ten heavyweight Wisconsin.

“I’m excited about this upcoming season and the direction Kalani and the rest of the crew are taking the program,” said Calvin Westfall, a sophomore majoring in Spanish translation. “I look forward to seeing who will shine out and make the big plays.”

Beyond 2017, the Cougars have games lined up with Tennessee, USC, Michigan State, Oregon, Virginia Tech and Stanford to name a few. These schedules have the potential to help BYU crack the college football playoff.

“Really I think we’re scheduled out pretty thick for a number of years,” said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe in his semiannual Q&A with the media earlier this year. He said some of those games could become yearly parts of future schedules.

Strong performances year in and year out with these schedules would give BYU the potential to be in the playoff or New Year’s Six conversations for the next few years.

Additionally, until another major shift occurs in the college football landscape, independence gives BYU control of its media rights negotiations.

BYUtv Senior Coordinating Producer and former ESPN producer Mikel Minor said independence also makes BYU a commodity for ESPN in these shaky times.

“BYU is in a good position because it isn’t attached to a conference,” Minor said. “It’s kind of a paradox because BYU would benefit from being in a Power Five conference. But in this case, where they need a commercial broadcast partner, they’re probably in a good position.”

ESPN picked up the one-year extension on its contract with BYU, which runs through 2019, earlier this year.

Scenario No. 2: BYU joins a Power Five conference in 2024

If the next seven years go well for the Cougars, an invite to a Power Five conference seems realistic.

BYU is one of 40 schools with a Heisman Trophy winner and one of 31 schools with a national championship in the poll era.

According to Winsipedia.com, the Cougars all-time win record, number of conference championships and total bowl game appearances rank in the top 50 nationally.

The 2017 BYU Football Spring Prospectus said BYU and Penn State are the only schools in the nation to win the Heisman Trophy, Outland Trophy, Doak Walker Award, Davey O’Brien Award and Sammy Baugh Trophy.

The Cougars’ resume is impressive by any standard.

BYU ranks fifth nationally for total wins since 1977.

“I prefer that BYU seeks conference membership in a P5 conference to have equal access to the college football playoffs, keep up with other schools’ revenue and be considered on the same level as the big boys,” said Cougar Club member Michael Noel. “Also, to increase recruiting of top tier LDS kids that currently choose P5 schools over BYU.”

BYU ROC Vice President Russell Pham said P5 is the goal for BYU football.

“I’d say independence may not be able to last forever,” Pham said. “I think we’re getting great looks at recruits with Coach Sitake, but imagine what he could do in a P5 conference.”

Scenario No. 3: BYU is forced to join a Group of Five conference

If the next seven years ends with subpar results for BYU, finding a seat at the Power Five or four table in 2024 could be tough.

After the instability the Big 12 has seen over the last two years, it is possible the conference could dissolve and see its members scramble to find a new home.

BYU would be forced to push for conference membership at that point, especially if the P4 conferences have their conference championship games become de facto quarterfinal games for the college football playoff.

The SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 would expand to 16 teams apiece at that point, creating regional playoff groups.

The issue for the Cougars then becomes this: there would be 12 teams fighting for 10 Power Four spots. BYU would join Notre Dame and the members of a dissolved Big 12 Conference in the realignment scramble, and two teams would be left out.

“I prefer that BYU stays independent versus going to a Group of Five conference,” Noel said. “Independence gets BYU closer to being a P5 school someday.”

Seven years is a long time, and many things could play out in the increasingly unstable world of college football. The potential is there and it’s an exciting time to follow BYU football.