100 years: The evolution of BYU football

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BYU football players come out onto the field prior to the football game against Baylor Sept. 10, 2022. (BYU Photo)

Exactly 100 years ago this season, Brigham Young University’s football team began playing in its first school-documented college football season, competing in five games. 

College football, which began in 1869, is a sport that has evolved in a variety of ways, including the number of games, stadiums and style of play. This evolution will continue through several structural changes happening within the next three to four years.

Like college football, BYU has evolved in its mission to compete with the very best in the sport. It has been a part of many conferences and made the decision 11 years ago to be independent and play games all over the country.

In 2023, after spending the last 12 seasons playing independently, BYU will join the Big 12, one of five “Power 5” leagues that reside at the top of college football in terms of prestige and monetary distributions.

BYU President Kevin J Worthen talked about the significance of BYU joining this new conference at a press conference announcing the move in September 2021. 

“This is an historic day for BYU Athletics — and the entire University,” he said. “Membership in the Big 12 … gives us an opportunity to compete at the highest levels both on and off the field.”

Conference realignment

There was much that needed to change in the college football world for this move to be possible. The Big 12 had been at 10 schools since the last moves within the conference back in 2011, and though there were discussions in 2016 about expansion that could potentially include BYU, they ultimately decided to stay put.

However, that all began to change on July 21, 2021 — a day that rocked the college football world. The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas and Oklahoma, long-time members of the Big 12, were working out the details to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC conference. 

It was reported that the two had been talking with the SEC for quite some time and the Big 12 was blindsided by this news.

John Kurtz, a long-time Kansas State (Big 12 school) fan who covered the Wildcats while as a student and for a time after graduation, shared his experience after finding out the news about Texas and Oklahoma.

(Created by Jaren Wood using VennGage)

“It felt like it was all crumbling, felt like it was all crashing down for the conference,” said Kurtz, who now has a YouTube channel covering Kansas State, the Big 12 and realignment. “It was a really helpless feeling … being a fan of a school that was left behind, the remaining 8 … Just to be honest, for a week or two I thought, ‘This is gonna be it.’”

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who retired Aug. 1, 2022, worked quickly to come up with a solution. Within six weeks of finding out the news about Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 had solidified the invitees who would be part of “the NEW Big 12”: BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston.

“He (Bowlsby) galvanized everyone enough to get support to add clearly the four best teams that were out there,” Kurtz said. “It was an incredible legacy for him to leave on his way out, in a real time of crisis … It’s not gonna be what it used to be (with Texas and Oklahoma), but I think as well as you could’ve asked for is how it’s gonna turn out.”

In late 2020, the SEC announced a new TV deal that would be the richest the sport had ever seen to that point, valued at $3B. With the subsequent move to add Texas and Oklahoma, the SEC had solidified itself as the top conference in the country, became the largest Power 5 conference membership-wise with 16 schools, and could increase that TV deal with the new additions.

Following the announcements of the new Big 12, college football realignment stabilized until early this summer. A report came from the Mercury News in the Bay Area that USC and UCLA, members of the PAC-12 that had been a conference since 1915, were expected to move to the Big Ten. 

Those conversations had been happening since late 2021, and the PAC-12 was blindsided, according to reports.

This move adds the membership of the Big Ten up to 16 teams to match the SEC. In August 2022, the Big Ten announced their upcoming TV deal, valued at $7B, with yearly distributions for each school at anywhere from $70M–$90M. 

USC Athletic Director Mike Bohl told the Los Angeles Times what this news signified to the rest of the college football world.

 “I don’t believe there’s a college administrator in the country that didn’t recognize that clearly there were two conferences that were separating themselves from everyone else,” Bohl said.

Senior writer for The Athletic Chris Vannini has concerns about the shifting and consolidation of power within college football going forward. 

“One of the biggest structural issues is that the money is getting bigger and bigger and upending a lot of tradition, thanks to leaders who want to maximize revenue everywhere.

“There are people who want to turn the top of college football into a mini-NFL because they believe there’s more money in that,” Vannini added. “Of course, with the money getting bigger and bigger, player compensation is a part of this as well … schools will want to avoid paying their fair share to the players but will have to figure it out.”

BYU football is beginning a new era as they join the Big 12 Conference in 2023. (BYU Photo)

College football playoff

Another recent announcement changed the landscape of college football. The College Football Playoff has been a four-team tournament going back to 2014. Last year, there was discussion of a 12-team playoff, but because of issues commissioners and presidents had with the proposal, it was pushed off for a year. 

However, it was announced in late August that college football will implement the 12-team playoff as early as 2024 and as late as 2026.

According to the proposal, the six highest-ranked conference champions will get an auto-bid to the playoff with the remaining six being at-large bids. Though the Big Ten and SEC make the most money and will likely remain at the top, outside conferences still have an opportunity to compete for a national title.

Vannini sees this change as a big deal for conferences outside the Big Ten and SEC, particularly schools like BYU and others that will join new conferences. 

“With a 12-team playoff, they (schools) have a clear path to the tournament without changing conferences,” Vannini said. “Schools still want to join the Big Ten and SEC and get the money that comes with it, but there’s less desperation for fear of being left out of some smaller breakaway situation for now.”

Brett McMurphy, college football insider for ActionSportsNetwork, believes the biggest issue with college football is “how to compensate players going forward.” 

With the move to 12 teams in the playoff, there will be 12 regular season games, a conference championship game, and either three or four playoff games, totaling 16 or 17 games from just 14 previously.

McMurphy doesn’t believe the 12-team playoff slows down conference expansion. 

“If the Big Ten gets four Pac-12 schools to get to 20, then the Big 12 will add four Pac-12 schools to get to 16 and that likely would be the end of the Pac-12,” he said.

BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe announced the move to the Big 12 Conference Sept. 10, 2021. (BYU Photo)

BYU’s fit in college football

Regardless of what happens with future conference expansion, BYU is in a good spot with the news of the 12-team playoff and move to the Big 12. The Big 12 champion will almost assuredly be in the playoff, and an outside shot at at-large spots in the playoff provide BYU with a chance every year of playing for a conference title and national title. 

“They’re (BYU) in great shape … They’ll be in a Power 4 or 5 conference next year and don’t have to go 12-0 to have a shot at the playoff now,” McMurphy said. “They can win the conference with 1 or 2 losses and still get a spot in the playoff … Much different than their days as an independent.”

Vannini has similar feelings about BYU being in the Big 12. 

“I’m excited to see BYU in a conference again because independence feels like purgatory… BYU football just kind of existed on its own plane,” he said. “The Cougars finally moving into a league and it being a Power 5 conference is a great move for everyone.”

Kurtz is excited about sharing a conference with BYU.

“They (BYU) create a national fanbase, of course with the LDS connection…then the history of the football program, obviously the basketball program brings a lot to the table as well, and obviously anybody that can get you into TV homes across the country is a huge step in the right direction,” Kurtz said.

“The thing that I’ve been really impressed with is just how good of a good partner BYU is in all of this … It’s cool to see a school genuinely excited about being in a conference because we’ve dealt with partners for so long with one foot out the door that eventually left,” he said.

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