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BYU hopes independent status means a BCS opportunity

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PROVO, Utah -- BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe is well aware of the sacrifices made and tribulations suffered by individuals that decided to declare their independence.

"The people that signed the Declaration of Independence, you can look it up, the people that signed it did not have easy lives," Holmoe said. "A lot were persecuted, went broke, got run out and some were killed. Some, though, survived and did well such as John Adams and Ben Franklin."

BYU's move from playing in the Mountain West Conference to becoming an independent certainly won't be that dramatic, but Holmoe knows one thing: it won't be boring.

"Good or bad," Holmoe said. "People will know our name."

BYU fans will watch their team play a national schedule in 2011 -- including games against Ole Miss, Texas and UCF. (Getty Images)  
BYU fans will watch their team play a national schedule in 2011 -- including games against Ole Miss, Texas and UCF. (Getty Images)  
Since BYU's football program began in 1922, the Cougars have always played in a conference. They started in something called the Rocky Mountain Faculty Athletic Conference. Then there was the Mountain States, Skyline, Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences. After 89 years, though, BYU had enough and decided to venture out on its own.

Awaiting the Cougars is a 2011 schedule featuring Ole Miss, Texas, Utah and UCF -- and that's just in September. BYU's future schedules include Texas, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Oregon State, Boise State, Georgia Tech and Utah. "We could get our bell rung a few times -– big time," Holmoe said. "And maybe even this year. But it's either take the chance or not. This was too good of a chance. We're optimistic, but it's a long road.

"Independence could be an incredible shot in the arm. Does it help and push us forward? Yes. Now if we are good –- only one thing that means good and that means winning games -– that could be a great push and momentum and who knows where we go."

Holmoe is very candid about how vital it is for the Cougars to be successful.

"If we're an independent that's average, we'll be irrelevant fast," he said.

That's doubtful because BYU's name, faith and "Y" helmets will be transmitted worldwide on BYUtv and, more importantly, ESPN for the next eight years.

"When this opportunity came up for us," said ESPN vice president Dave Brown, "it was a no-brainer to get BYU."

For the next eight seasons, ESPN's family of networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU) will televise every BYU home game, except for one game a year that will appear on BYUtv, which reaches 60 million households.

This will give the program and the university, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even more exposure.

"With the greater spotlight comes more scrutiny," BYU sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps said. "We want to be at this level. We want to be a household name that everyone talks about as a big-time school and we think we are that kind of school. We want to prove it."

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BYU senior defensive back Travis Uale summed up how he and his teammates felt about the move to independence and, specifically, being a fixture on ESPN.

"I was stoked," he said.

By being on national television virtually every week, BYU could quickly become Notre Dame West or an even a much smaller version of the New York Yankees –- well, if the Yankees had an honor code.

"Many fans that are not BYU fans are hoping BYU will stumble," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "Whether they are BYU fans or not, they will tune in. BYU is a polarizing institution."

This fall Mendenhall begins his seventh season at BYU. He is tied for seventh in winning percentage among active Football Bowl Subdivision coaches, but any past success at BYU means little when encountering its upcoming challenges.

"I'm anxious for this to be a defining moment in the institution's history to move forward," Mendenhall said. "Whether I'm capable of helping this program do it or not, [I know] somebody will. I hope I'm able to. To not take the risk would not be right."

BYU senior lineman Matt Reynolds said it's going to be different and difficult playing against teams the Cougars haven't annually faced.

"We're going to play teams we've never played or played in a long time," said Reynolds, a preseason candidate for the Outland and Lombardi trophies.

However, Reynolds and Heaps believe the Cougars also will no longer be pulled down by being in the Mountain West.

"Nobody can look at BYU and say we have a weak conference this year," Reynolds said. "Is BYU a good team or not? We make our own destiny by how we play each week."

Heaps said becoming an independent will be a huge boost to the program, whose 50 victories in the past five seasons are the ninth-most among the FBS teams.

"When I committed to BYU the hardest thing was coming into the Mountain West Conference," said Heaps, a highly touted recruit from Issaquah, Wash. "Am I going to get seen? Am I going to have that opportunity?

This fall Bronco Mendenhall enters his seventh season coaching BYU, with the team still seeking its first BCS bid. (Getty Images)  
This fall Bronco Mendenhall enters his seventh season coaching BYU, with the team still seeking its first BCS bid. (Getty Images)  
"Now you take away one of the biggest downers about BYU and [being an independent] is the No. 1 thing. There's no place in the country where a team will have more exposure on ESPN."

Trevor Matich, who was a center on BYU's 1984 national championship team, said the national television exposure will be huge for recruiting.

"Potential recruits from all over the country will see BYU now," said Matich, now an ESPN college football commentator. "If that leads to two guys a year that come here that wouldn't have, that's an upgrade right there.

"It does feed on itself in a positive way. Do the math on LDS [Latter-day Saints] families that live in the SEC, ACC and Big Ten [footprints] that couldn't get access to BYU football until now. You're looking at a big increase on eyeballs. This will help recruiting a lot."

Running backs coach Joe DuPaix, who also is BYU's recruiting coordinator, added: "If you were going to come to BYU the best times would be in 1984 after we won the national championship or you would come now."

The time is now for the Cougars

"There's only one championship to play for and that's a national championship," Heaps said. "We're not shy to say that. That's our goal, that's what's on our mind. That's what we'll shoot for."

Added Mendenhall: "I'm not afraid to say it. I know we have a lot of work to do. I know we have to be undefeated to get there. To say that's not possible, I won't acknowledge that."

Holmoe said by leaving the Mountain West, the Cougars will have a better shot at reaching a BCS bowl. Despite winning 10 or more games in four of the last five seasons and going 13-1 in 1996, the Cougars still have never played in a BCS bowl.

"You have to start winning games," Holmoe said. "TCU, Boise State and Utah -- as hard as it is for me to say that -– they've earned respect of the nation by going to BCS [bowl] games and winning.

"I think if we play well -– we're going to have a better schedule now than in the Mountain West -- if we can be undefeated with our schedule, we'll be in a BCS bowl game."

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said BYU going independent makes sense.

"[Independence] is not for everybody, but they certainly fit the profile of an institution for whom it probably does make great sense -– frankly, in the same way it still does for Army and Navy," Swarbrick told the Chicago Tribune.

Holmoe, a defensive back for the Cougars from 1978-82, said the scariest thing is that "we've got to be better than we are right now.

"You've just got to be better and it will be hard because we're going to play real tough opponents, a lot of them on the road," he said. "To be better will be hard, but that's our task. It's scary."

BYU begins fall practice next month the way it always have under Mendenhall -- by running about a mile up the side of the Wasatch Mountains.

The Cougars race to reach the big "Y" on the mountain, which overlooks Lavell Edwards Stadium. The coaches go first. Then the players follow.

When Mendenhall arrived at BYU in 2005 he was 39 years old. Back then he said only a few players beat his time up the mountain.

"The first year three players beat me," said Mendenhall, 45. "Now about 40 beat me. But it's a good sign. I'm still running the same time. They're just better."

The Cougars better be. They're an independent now.

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