BYU enters world full of unknowns

What seemed to be a dying way of doing business has gotten a jolt from BYU.

But it is unclear how successful BYU can be as an independent.

The Cougars became the fourth major college football program to go that route Wednesday, breaking away from the Mountain West for the 2011 season. With an eight-year ESPN contract to broadcast its home games, along with scheduling help from its broadcast partner, the move seems to be a good one on the surface.

BYU gets the national exposure it believes it deserves. It gets to keep all the proceeds of its TV deal. It gets to place its sports inventory on its own BYUtv network. It essentially gets complete control over everything BYU-related.

“BYU is doing this for the reasons of exposure and access and for what we feel is best for BYU,” athletic director Tom Holmoe said. “We feel there’s so much to accomplish.”

The Cougars already have a six-game series worked out with Notre Dame through 2020. They have WAC games on its schedule for 2011 and 2012. They have Boise State and Texas upcoming on their schedule in previously announced deals. Holmoe said the rivalry game with Utah would continue.

But there are risks, and plenty of unknowns.

First, BYU has no idea whether it will be granted the special access Notre Dame has into the BCS. The Cougars are going to be held to the same qualifying procedures as all others looking for an at-large berth -- if they finish in the Top 14 of the BCS standings they would qualify to get consideration. Also unclear is how much of the BCS financial pie they would get as an independent.

Those future opponents look good for now, but how is BYU going to balance its schedule? The Cougars cannot kill themselves with games against six of the top teams in the country. They would eliminate themselves from contention off the bat. They need a good mix of winnable games, and games against teams like Texas and Notre Dame.

It was already hard enough for non-AQ teams to make it into the BCS. It is safe to say BYU would face a more daunting road as an independent. The Cougars have never made it into a BCS game.

Filling out a 12-game schedule once this two-year partnership with the WAC ends is going to present challenges, too.

“Scheduling is one of the drawbacks people will fear,” Holmoe said. “That’s a little bit frightening. That’s one of the risks. We’ve calculated that risk and are willing to take it.”

Holmoe declined to talk about how this benefits BYU financially, saying the deal was not about the money. But it is a valid to ask how much more this deal benefits BYU than being a member of a conference.

As for the WAC, commissioner Karl Benson believes the scheduling partnership with BYU benefits his schools. Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State and San Jose State will play BYU in 2011; everyone but Idaho is on the schedule for 2012. He would love nothing more than to extend the scheduling partnership because it increases exposure for his programs.

BYU, of course, initially wanted to partner up with the WAC as a home for its other sports, but that deal fell apart when Fresno State and Nevada decided to join the Mountain West. Benson reiterated Wednesday that both those schools face a $5 million penalty for breaking a solidarity pact and insisted they must remain members of his league through 2011-12.

He also announced the formation of a membership committee that will begin looking at adding other schools to the conference. The athletic directors of all six remaining schools are on the committee. The goal is to add two to three more football playing schools. Benson didn’t rule out adding non-football members in addition to the football schools.

With speculation swirling that Hawaii or Utah State could leave the WAC, Benson said he anticipated all members to remain in the conference. “It’s my job to create a business model that will accommodate our six schools in the future,” he said. “There are teams out there that I’m sure will bring value to the WAC, and I’m also confident the six remaining schools will continue to get better under the WAC umbrella and there will be a team from the six that will stand out in the near future.”

It is safe to say big questions remain for BYU and the WAC going forward. They are essentially entering a world full of the unknown.