For decades, BYU football has suffered from an inferiority complex of sorts.
That’s what happens when you do basically nothing for the first 50 years of your existence, from 1922-72. Then, you suddenly flourish in a desert thanks to a previously unknown coach, LaVell Edwards, who becomes a legend. Your high-flying passing offense revolutionizes the sport, yet because of your affiliation of the lightly regarded Western Athletic Conference, skeptics around the nation scoff at your accomplishments (yes, I’m looking at you, Barry Switzer).
Since BYU claimed the 1984 national championship — the only time in the modern era that a team outside the Big Boys Network achieved that feat — the Cougars have had their hearts stomped on from time to time.
A cruel reminder of BYU’s place in the world of college football.
Remember in 1996, when the Cougars challenged what was then known as the Bowl Alliance (precursor to the Bowl Championship Series)? Despite posting a 13-1 record and earning a No. 5 ranking in the national polls, the Alliance snubbed BYU, not allowing the deserving Cougars to play in one of the major bowls. The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl seemed like a natural fit, but BYU didn’t receive an invitation to the party. It cost the Cougars about $7 million in revenue, and some BYU fans vowed to never eat Tostitos again.
Remember in 2001, when the Cougars posted a 12-0 record, yet the BCS released BYU from consideration from the major bowls once again, before the regular season had ended?
Directly and indirectly, the Cougars’ success since the late 1970s played a major role in the creation of the Bowl Alliance and the BCS. When the upstart Cougars won that national title in 1984, the Big Boys did not like that. Not one little bit.
Over the past few years, the landscape of college football has shifted dramatically, as BYU has become an independent and Utah has jumped to the Pac-12.
Now, with the BCS in its final season of existence, there’s talk of college football creating a “Division 4” tier, made up of supposedly the nation’s elite programs. About 60 or so of the nation’s most prestigious football programs would break away from the NCAA, pay their players, and create an even more distinct line of demarcation between the haves and the have-nots of college football.
That makes many Cougar fans more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a roomful of 3-year-olds.
That’s because as of right now, BYU is playing as an independent, with no conference affiliation. If Division 4 happens, will BYU have a home? Does BYU belong in that fraternity?
What does Tom Holmoe, who oversees BYU athletics, think?
“Right now, being able to jump is a good spot to be,” Holmoe said during an Education Week speech in August. “We’re probably in a really good spot right now in my mind as an independent because we’re kind of in the middle. You have these conferences that are fighting to get in, and aren’t, and you have these power conferences that are really elite. At some point in time it’s possible, or probable, that they will continue to expand and divide away from the rest.”
And Holmoe knows from experience that things can change quickly.
“Right now, it’s kind of a slow time in the news for conference expansion and conference changes,” he said. “But it’s always moving. There’s always things going on. But you don’t hear about them, and I don’t hear a lot about them. There are five conferences that are really the power brokers, and those commissioners make all of the rules.”
Simply put, BYU’s chances of inclusion in that so-called Division 4 depends on its performance on the field, Holmoe said.
“The better we do, the better we’re going to get a chance. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve got to be successful on the field. We’re never going to negotiate that in a courtroom.”
And what about BYU’s chances with the BCS this year?
“Win ‘em all, and we’re in. If we win every game this year, we’re in. That’s the route,” Holmoe said in August. “I’m not trying to be cynical. But if you’ve been around BYU football, one loss isn’t going to do it, especially if you’re not in a conference. That’s how it goes.”
As it turned out, in the season-opener, BYU fell at Virginia, virtually crushing hopes of a coveted BCS bowl appearance once again.
But the following week, the Cougars rebounded with a resounding 40–21 thrashing of then-No. 15 Texas by rolling up 550 rushing yards.
That is the type of win BYU is going to need in the weeks — and years — ahead if it wants to be included with the Big Boys of college football.