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BYU charted its path to the Big 12 through independence

PROVO, Utah (AP) — BYU’s path to the Big 12 began with the unorthodox decision to leave an established conference for the uncertainty of playing as a football independent.

The Cougars had just watched state rival Utah announce in 2010 that it would leave the Mountain West for what became the Pac-12 Conference, and they had no intention sticking around.

They spent 12 seasons cobbling together oddball schedules and racking up flight miles with the specific purpose of maintaining and perhaps even reviving a dormant national brand.

Whether the Cougars achieved that is debatable, and even athletic director Tom Holmoe acknowledged BYU didn't have anything tangible like a conference championship to aim for each season. But BYU had the long-term goal of making a major conference, which happened last September when the Big 12 opened its doors to the Cougars to join this year.

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Did going independent help land BYU in the Big 12? It's possible the Cougars, given their strong national following, would have gotten there anyway from the Mountain West.

"Being independent gave us wings a little bit," Holmoe said. "It gave us an opportunity to say, ‘What the heck?' We were playing for the fun of the game. ... You were playing to compete against great teams. It was just new and exciting.”

No longer tethered to a conference TV contract after leaving the Mountain West, the Cougars signed an eight-year deal with ESPN. It stipulated a minimum of three home games would be on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC each season and additional home contests on ESPNU.

ESPN had helped BYU and its pass-happy and high-scoring offense become a household name in the 1980s and '90s. The Cougars became a staple of the network’s college football broadcasts, which included notable wins such as a 20-14 victory over No. 3 Pittsburgh in 1984 and a 28-21 win over top-ranked Miami in 1990.

The relationship continued into the Mountain West years until the conference formed its own network in 2006. After that, BYU saw its appearances on an ABC/ESPN network fall by about two-thirds, helping spark the move to independence.

From 2011 to 2022, BYU nearly doubled the number of its nationally televised games compared to the Mountain West. The Cougars' 87 appearances were 15th among FBS schools during that timeframe. More than 50 games drew at least 1 million viewers and 23 games surpassed 2 million.

“We called those the two pillars — exposure and access,” Holmoe said. “In hindsight, I think we made progress in both those areas. Our numbers grew as far as people watching us, and then our fan base grew.”

Now being part of the Big 12 creates much-needed schedule stability. Holmoe needs to fill only three nonconference slots annually instead of finding 12 opponents. While the Cougars will still make regular trips to the Eastern and Central time zones for league games, they will log fewer travel miles for football than they did as an independent.

“You play a lot of different teams from a lot of different towns and you’re flying to a lot of different places,” tight end Isaac Rex said. “One week you may be playing in Florida, the next in California. Then maybe you’re going to Arizona and then up to Oregon. You could be all over the map.”

Many power conference opponents played an independent BYU in September because their league schedules were largely packed after that month.

The Cougars hope those front-loaded schedules will serve as good preparation for current and future Big 12 schedules that will include its neighbor 45 minutes to the north in the Utes as well as teams such as Baylor, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

“Obviously, we’re super excited going to the Big 12, but let’s not take for granted all those great years in the independence era,” linebacker Ben Bywater said. “We were able to play a bunch of great teams in a bunch of different Power Five conferences. For us, that definitely prepped us.”

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll