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O’Connell: Reasons Why BYU Should/Shouldn’t Join AAC

(Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – UConn is out of the AAC heading to the Big East and prioritizing basketball over football.

I’m not sure what that means long term for Connecticut athletics, but that’s hardly important out here on the Wasatch Front.

The obvious reason that this move matters is because it could potentially prove to be extremely significant for Brigham Young University and their football program.

I decided to make a case for (and against) BYU joining the AAC as a football-only competitor.

Reason #1: The Schedule

Tom Holmoe has proven to be quite the alchemist when it comes to crafting football schedules for BYU.  Year in and year out, he puts together a compelling slate of games – both home and away – for Cougar fans to attend and watch.

Pac-12 blue-bloods, SEC powers, and Big Ten stalwarts have all agreed to games and series’ with BYU in the era of FBS Independence.

But that has been a first-half-of-the-season kind of thing, and “Big Boy” football is only fun to watch if you are in a place to be consistently competitive. BYU is not in that place right now. A schedule front-loaded with heavyweights is exciting to think about every August, but really a drag come late September when the team is sitting on two losses and the fan base already knows which underwhelming bowl game they’re headed to.

Joining the AAC that you are still playing for something significant from mid-October on…

Reason #2: The Postseason

This is the significant thing you are playing for. No, I am not talking about a spot in the College Football Playoff. AAC champs – even undefeated ones – don’t get invited to that party.

But even Power-5 conference champs don’t get an automatic invite, so that’s a different discussion. I’m talking about Conference Championship Weekend. Where everyone else is sitting at home waiting for the same stupid bowl bids that Independence virtually guarantees you, but the best in each division is playing against a tough conference opponent for bragging rights, a title, a banner, and a ring.

I’m not willing to listen to the “but who cares about an AAC championship?” discussion either. Because you know who cares about that?  Players. Coaches. And educated fans who have some idea how hard it is to win a championship at any level. Big Sky, Big Ten, or Natty, a championship is something to play for, period.

In fact it is stated goal of virtually every football program in the country. BYU is not in the conversation for a national championship as an Independent unless they complete back-to-back undefeated seasons.

So currently, you are asking athletes to come play for one of five schools in the country who can’t offer even the slimmest glimmer of hope for bringing home a championship. Army football players have another mission in mind, Notre Dame is the lone independent who actually has a shot at the playoff if they win, based on reputation alone.

So you are in the same boat as Liberty, UMass, and New Mexico State when it comes to what you can realistically offer recruits in terms of championship aspirations? BYU deserves better than that!

Reason #3: Recruiting

The Cougars are already at a disadvantage on the recruiting front because of academic strictures and the Honor Code Office, but there are many great seasons in the past that show this can be overcome with the right combination of circumstances.

As a member of the WAC and the Mountain West, BYU was a respected national power and boasted an established NFL pipeline. That has faded in recent years, partly because of Independence.

One reason is that All-conference honors matter to players. High School athletes want an opportunity to be singled out for their accomplishments and their efforts.  This is not a “millennial” thing, or a sign that kids these days are selfish.

This has mattered since the first time somebody decided to vote on an all-region team in some Podunk corner of Ohio. (I am aware BYU players already get named to the all-independent team. But nobody cares, and they know it, so the honor is meaningless) Seeing your name on an All-MWC team or an all-AAC team matters, and it always will.

The ability to dangle the carrots of potential conference championships and postseason honors would make a difference in BYU’s ability to recruit top talent.

The leap wouldn’t be huge, because the aforementioned academic and Honor Code issues are the real problems in recruiting for the Cougars, but every little bit helps.

The prospect of a championships would also help BYU in drawing coaches to Provo. When you see a coach’s accomplishments listed on his bio, the first things mentioned are how many championships he was a part of, and how many of his players won postseason honors under his tutelage.

BYU cannot currently offer those resume-builders to members of the staff. That’s a problem!

Reason #4: The Money

This one is a maybe…  BYU’s individual deal with ESPN has been good for the school and its program, but we don’t have a precise idea on just how lucrative it is. If you believe the high-end estimates, it’s hard to imagine an AAC share would be more profitable for the Cougars.

But with ongoing extension talks in the works right now, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that ESPN knows how desperately BYU needs them right now.

The network and its affiliates need content, and BYU is an appealing, nationwide draw, but winning is always part of the equation when it comes to cash, and the Cougars can’t demand top dollar right now because of their recent mediocrity.

ESPN has a clause in their deal with the AAC that allows them to renegotiate if a team leaves. With UConn’s departure, maybe ESPN flexes their influence and arranges a marriage between BYU (who they have a long and successful history with) and an upstart conference with emerging powers such as Houston and UCF.

Adding the brand recognition and audience-reach of BYU immediately makes the AAC a better television product. The other institutions should recognize that.

College football insider Brett McMurphy has reported that the last time BYU and the AAC flirted with the idea of the Cougars becoming a member of the conference, talks stalled because BYU wanted special considerations and larger share than the other schools.

If the Cougars can bring definitive metrics that prove they would immediately be the top TV draw in the AAC, maybe this time around the conference would be willing to pay.

Reason #5: The Rivalry

Right now, BYU’s entire reason for playing football and only significant season goal is to beat Utah. This hasn’t happened in a long time, and joining the AAC could help reverse the Cougars fortunes on this front (especially if the AAC finances are an improvement over the current ESPN deal).

For all of the reasons I listed previously, joining the American Athletic Conference makes BYU football a more viable and interesting program. Ultimately, this translates to an improvement in every aspect of the football product, which is exactly what BYU needs to get over the hump and beat their in-state rival.

The Holy War needs BYU to win a game or two soon in order to preserve the intensity of the rivalry. Indirectly, joining a conference could make that happen. Also,  Navy presents a nice little secondary rival for BYU as a member of the AAC. Cougars couldn’t get Ken Niumatololo to come to Provo, so he is like Kyle-Whittingham-Lite the LDS coach who betrayed his calling to coach at BYU!

Also, they could have a pretty fierce battle over the number of clean-cut white guys on each roster every year.

Reason #6: The Call Isn’t Coming

I get the feeling that a large part of the reluctance to join a conference like the AAC, or even rejoin the Mountain West, comes from the hope and expectation that an invite to join the Big 12 or Pac 12 is coming eventually. It isn’t.

Not because BYU isn’t competitive enough, (doesn’t matter, Colorado was terrible when Pac-12 added them) or because they aren’t a large enough draw (fans nationwide, something almost no other college football team can claim).

The Pac-12 is too liberal to invite BYU and the Big 12 doesn’t want football-only members, which would be the best situation for BYU because of the whole Sunday play thing that Big 12 folks wouldn’t budge on.

Until the next seismic shift of realignment comes, BYU’s best option for a place at any table is with a highly respected mid-major like the AAC.

Reason #7: Wait… The Call Might Actually Come!

Maybe the American Athletic Conference is not as prestigious as Cougar fans would ideally hope for, but in all likelihood, the Cougars would be immediate power-players and not suffer the same growing pains that Utah experienced in joining the Pac-12.

That means a quicker rise to contention and power. If anything, being a perennial champion of the AAC will increase the likelihood that BYU is eventually invited to join a P5. Let’s say that the Big-12 finally breaks and decides they actually want twelve teams in a league called the Big 12.

Houston and BYU might make a neat little package. Easy transition. No harm done.

Of course it’s not reasonable to make a case as to why BYU should join the American Athletic conference without also examining the opposite side of the same coin. Here’s the case for why BYU should NOT seek membership in the American Athletic Conference.

Reason #1: The Schedule…

While I am confident that Tom Holmoe would keep the early-season matchups with Utah alive and probably add another top tier opponent each year, there is just no way that BYU keeps so many powerhouse matchups in September.

Scheduling would become much more about ramping up to conference play in the pursuit of a championship. This is what happens at virtually every other school in America, but maybe Tom Holmoe would get bored with only having to find four games a year?

If you join the American, BYU fans can kiss the multiple Pac-12 matchup’s per season goodbye, and you might get a Wisconsin or LSU matchup even less frequently than you do now.

Unfortunately, home games and against Cincy and Temple every other year are never going to be hot tickets, no matter how important those games are for the conference standings.

Reason #2: The Postseason

If you aren’t competing for a conference championship regularly, the AAC bowl affiliations aren’t even as good as the ones BYU has now. Mostly because of geographic proximity for the sake of travel and attendance.

Birmingham (and the Birmingham Bowl) may very well be a lovely and historically significant city, but we all know that BYU fans would rather travel to Hawaii for a little “Mele Kalikimaka” that time of year.

And as I already stated, affiliation with the American Athletic Conference doesn’t get you closer to the College Football Playoff. UCF did everything they could over the past couple of seasons, and it ultimately wasn’t enough. So a New Year’s Six game is likely the ceiling; in the AAC, or out of it.

Reason #3: The Money

I know that I used financial gain as a potential reason to join the conference, but there is just as much risk that doing so would be a disaster for the bank accounts of BYU football.

In fact the travel costs associated with the conference so far-flung may actually negate the profits even if the AAC can somehow negotiate a better broadcast deal than BYU could get on their own.

It’s not always clear what the grander purpose of BYU football is in the eyes of the decision makers at the University, but it’s clear that pure financial profit is not foremost among the concerns, so maybe it ultimately doesn’t matter as long as the numbers are in the same ballpark?

Reason #4  …..

There is no Reason #4. Which means there are more compelling reasons for BYU to seek membership in the American Athletic Conference than there are not to. Tom Holmoe should be sprinting to the front of the line, cutting in front of the Army brass, and refusing to take “no” for an answer. BYU to the AAC. Get on board Cougar Fans!

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