It has been more than 30 years since BYU won a National Championship in football. Things have changed quite a bit since 1984. Many of the larger schools were upset that the undefeated BYU team (who played in the Western Athletic Conference-WAC) played a 6-6 Michigan team in its final game, and changes soon followed. Power conferences originally set up the Bowl Alliance where they tried to pit the #1 vs #2 teams to play. It was definitely an improvement, but the Pacific 10 (Pac-10) Conference refused to participate for a few years, and sometimes the Pac-10 had one of the two best teams. This led to the Bowl Championship Series that included the Pac-10 teams. It was basically a coalition of the largest conferences who tended to dominate college football. Besides the Pac-10 Conference, the conferences who participated included the Big Ten, Big Twelve, Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and the Southeastern Conference (SEC.) These conferences generally left out teams like BYU, Utah, and Boise State (members of the Western Athletic Conference or Mountain West Conference), so the system was tweaked again to allow teams from other conferences to participate.
About 5 years ago, some of these larger conferences were looking to expand. The Big Ten added Penn State (previously independent) in 1990 and kept their name of Big Ten despite having 11 teams. In 2009, some of the larger leagues wanted larger television contracts and wanted to add more geographically diverse schools. In addition, the NCAA allows conferences to play a championship game if there are at least 12 teams, so the Big 10 decided to add Nebraska (from the Big 12), Rutgers (Big East), and Maryland (ACC), causing other leagues to start raiding other leagues.
The Pac-10, decided to make a huge splash and tried to expand by inviting 6 teams from the Big 12 Conference. Colorado accepted, but Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State decided to stay put. This gave an opening to the University of Utah to join Colorado in the Pac-10 Conference, which has been renamed the Pac-12 Conference now. But that didn’t stop the Big 12 from hemorrhaging. Texas thought it could make more money by creating its own television network (with the help and guidance from ESPN). In turn this upset Texas A&M, their chief rival, so A&M decided to abandon the Big 12 to join the SEC. Confused yet? Well the Big Ten has 14 teams, while the Big Twelve has just 10 (and neither conference has plans to change names.)
Meanwhile the basketball schools from the Big East decided to abandon the Big East and take the name with them. The Old Big East, desperate for new teams, invited the BYU and Boise State to join their conference (and have a new name of the American Athletic Conference-AAC.) The Big Twelve then lost Missouri to the SEC, and was concerned it would be raided by other conferences. The ACC decided to add Boston College, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, and Miami University from the Big East. With the Big East/AAC crumbling, it seems the BYU made a wise decision not to join, and Boise State decided to back out of their previously announced move to the Big East/AAC. BYU wasn’t sure what was going to happen to the Big 12, and because they hesitated, the Big Twelve added TCU (from MWC) and West Virginia (from Big East) instead of BYU, and the Big 12 currently has just 10 teams.
Things seem to have stabilized. BYU, seeing Utah leave the Mountain West Conference (MWC) for much more money in the Pac-12 Conference, decided to abandon the Mountain West Conference in football and become independent. They signed what seemed like a huge television contract, earning approximately $5-6 million per year for an 8 year contract with ESPN (up from an estimated $1.5 million as a member of the MWC.) However, there are some drawbacks. Other sports are suffering because BYU has moved to the West Coast Conference (WCC), a much lower-profile conference which has hurt BYU’s ability to recruit athletes. The drop has been notable in not just football (where Utah as a member of the Pac-12 has seen a huge boost in recruiting and has beaten BYU 4 years in a row), but all other sports BYU participates in (with the exception of rugby, where BYU won the National Championship this weekend for the 4th year in a row.)
Additionally, the future of college football allows teams from larger conferences to pay athletes more money. If BYU wants to keep up with the Joneses, they are going to have to pay athletes too, and they have pledged to do so. As a result, they are making open overtures to the Big 12 Conference, as it seems the most likely geographical fit, as well as the fact that many of the Pac-12 schools just plain don’t like BYU. The Pac-10 Conference refused to play BYU in the 1970s due to the the priesthood ban, and the fact is that many schools such as Stanford and UCLA are much more liberal politically and just don’t want to worry about BYU. Utah will probably make around $8 million per year under the current Pac-12 television deal (a reported $8 billion to the league), and it appears BYU is falling further behind in the money war, despite it’s huge pay increase from ESPN. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is actively campaigning to join the Big 12 Conference.
But big money comes with other issues. Utah, now a member of the Pac-12 Conference, plays on Sundays, a big no-no for BYU. As a member of the WAC and MWC, BYU was a big fish in a little pond, and dictated that there would be no Sunday play. The WCC, despite being all private religious institutions, used to play on Sundays. With the addition of BYU, they have relented and do not require BYU to play on Sundays and have moved tournaments to avoid Sunday play. The addition of BYU was a huge boost to the WCC, but for BYU, the level of competition has suffered. In short, it was great for the WCC to add BYU, but has not been great for BYU. A general authority recently noted that BYU is the ONLY school in the NCAA that will not play games on Sundays.
Will this be a problem for the Big 12, or will they make the accommodation for BYU that the WCC did? It remains to be seen. The Big 12 used to have a conference championship in football, but now that they are just 10 teams, they do not hold a championship anymore. It hurt them this past year. TCU and Baylor, two religiously affiliated schools from the Big 12, were shut out of the new College Football playoff because they did not play a conference championship like the Big 10, Pac-12, SEC, and ACC leagues did. The selection committee specifically cited the Big 12’s lack of championship as a reason for the snub. This has led some to speculate that the Big 12 needs to add BYU (and another team) in order to level the playing field. But thus far, the Big 12 has resisted efforts to expand. BYU officials have publicly stated that they believe there will be at least one more wave of conference realignment, but the question is, will BYU drop the Sunday play rule to join the Big 12? Other schools, notably San Diego State, have noted that BYU isn’t fun to deal with as a conference member, in order to improve SDSU’s chance of joining other conferences. Connecticut has long campaigned to join another conference and wants to get out of the AAC, which is no longer considered a “Power Conference” due to the loss of big schools like Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech. BYU’s scheduling issues are becoming harder: the SEC and ACC have made a new policy that non-league games can only involve “Power 5” conferences, and since BYU is not in a conference, they can’t schedule games against those leagues. They already are having a tough time scheduling football games. Other leagues are talking about a similar rule, and the Pac-12 and Big Ten have an arrangement that has caused Utah to drop BYU from the schedule last year and this coming year, although the series is scheduled to resume in 2016. (Utah will instead play Michigan.) So here are some questions.