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BYU 1-on-1: Conference realignment talk takes off again

By Darnell Dickson and Jared Lloyd - | Jun 30, 2022

Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

BYU defenders make a tackle during the 21-19 BYU win over Washington State at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

With the realignment roller coaster back in full swing in college football and transfers moving all over in college basketball, BYU sports experts Darnell Dickson and Jared Lloyd tackle five of the biggest questions regarding Cougar athletics right now:

1. How do the revelations about USC and UCLA allegedly getting set to join the Big 10 in 2024 impact BYU?

DICKSON: Man, where to start? The thing about realignment is that there is a huge domino effect when teams start to jump conferences. Action/reaction, right? BYU is in a better place right now because of its impending move to the Big 12 in 2023, but I wouldn’t call it “comfortable.” The Big 12 is trying to stay relevant but the SEC and the Big Ten are trying to grab all the best college athletic programs for themselves before the new TV contracts are negotiated. If the Big 12 is aggressive, they might raid the remaining best teams in the Pac-12 and BYU could be conference mates with Utah again. The worst thing that could happen is the SEC and Big Ten forming their own 20-team conferences, possibly leaving BYU on the second tier. The Cougars would be thinking, “We just got out of the second tier, didn’t we?” The options are pretty much endless as rumors fly and athletic departments start looking out for No. 1.

LLOYD: In some ways, I think BYU is in a much better position at the moment than just about any of the non-Big 10/SEC programs — although that might seem counterintuitive. But think about how Cougar director of athletics Tom Holmoe has had to work with so many different institutions over the last decade, always trying to figure out what opportunities are there. Unlike other schools who felt relatively comfortable in their “Power 5” leagues, BYU has been playing its own game as it has worked hard to stay relevant. And the reality is it has succeeded. The Cougars were the clear no-brainer when the Big 12 felt like it had to expand because it not only has a national fanbase but it gets good TV ratings and it has won enough to be on the college football radar. I agree with Darnell that BYU shouldn’t be comfortable but I do think Holmoe and the Cougars will be able to weather the winds of change better than a lot of programs.

2. What should BYU’s new conference, the Big 12, do in response?

LLOYD: How would you like to be new Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark? The 55-year-old chief operating officer from Jay-Z’s talent agency, Roc Nation, was officially named the successor to Bob Bowlsby on Tuesday and by Thursday the world of college athletics was hit by another hurricane — and it will be on his shoulders to make some enormous decisions. Welcome to the job, Brett. The Big 12 had to roll the dice after Texas and Oklahoma chose to join the SEC and in doing so might have made things tougher on a Pac-12 (10?) conference that is now in a similar predicament. Does it go all-in by trying to poach big-name programs like Oregon, Washington, Clemson, Florida State or Miami? Does it look to just expand west with teams that are closer to the footprint in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State? The easy answer is to swing for the fences but the Pac-12 tried that over a decade ago and it failed miserably (although it turned out to be a good thing for Utah). The Big 12 has to be smart but it also has to realistically realize there are a lot of things it can’t control.

DICKSON: Expand, expand, expand. With USC and UCLA allegedly leaving the Pac-12 there are ten other teams wondering what to do next. The Big 12 was already going to be a 16-team conference in 2023 (unless Texas and Oklahoma figure out a way to leave for the SEC early) and exploring other options seems prudent. The effect of expansion and realignment on all the other sports is monumental but football makes all the decisions. I imagine there are plenty of nervous college coaches all over the country right now.

3. What do you think are the odds that BYU and Utah will be back in the same conference?

DICKSON: Odds? Kind of hard to calculate odds when the rules are changing every five minutes. That’s what conference expansion is all about: Chaos. Geographically, it makes sense for BYU and Utah to be in the same conference but we left logic in the rear-view mirror a long time ago. College sports are driven by money, money and money, not logic. We’ve lost a lot of the rivalries in college football because of realignment and that’s not good for the sport.

LLOYD: Wouldn’t that be ironic? After all those years of Ute fans smugly proclaiming the superlatives of being in the Pac-12 while BYU was independent, it might be a tough pill for them to swallow to find out Utah was going to the Big 12 with the Cougars (or BYU was being invited to replace USC/UCLA as the Pac-12 seeks to remain viable). But I just don’t know if Utah or BYU are big enough brands to get the coveted invitations to the Big 10 or SEC — and every other conference is scrambling to catch up. I’m going to say that the odds of the two rivals being back in the same league are 50/50 at best but I wouldn’t be surprised (and I would be pleased) if the dominoes fell in such a way that the two institutions join forces in the same league again.

4. What are your opinions on the direction that college football is heading?

LLOYD: It makes me sad although I can’t say I find it shocking, unfortunately. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we get for allowing greed to drive the bus. It started with the TV rulings in the 1980s and continued with the Bowl Alliance, Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff. Coaches started getting paid ridiculous amounts of money and universities started spending fortunes on football facilities, so it’s not surprising players had strong arguments for their right to get their piece of the pie. And these conference changes are all about trying to be in position to get the most money possible when TV deals are negotiated.

I love the game. I love seeing athletes push themselves physically on the field and academically in the classroom. I love watching a bunch of individuals put aside their selfishness to focus on what is best for the entire team. I love seeing both players and programs overcome challenges and become stronger. I love displays of sportsmanship and selflessness. And now I’m seeing all of these be sacrificed to the almighty dollar and I don’t see that changing. I’m an optimistic person but I think college football is in the process of discarding so many of its best characteristics and I don’t know where that will end.

DICKSON: Hate it, for a number of reasons. The very things that make college football unique (regional rivalries, amateurism, loyalty to the program, pageantry of fall Saturdays) are going out the window as programs try to position themselves to be a member of the elite. There are currently more than 120 teams that play FBS football. If the SEC and the Big Ten have their way, they will form two super conferences with 20 teams each and the other 80 teams can go jump in a lake. College football is starting to feel more and more like the minor league to the NFL. Who wants that? Conferences should be disbanded and college football should be organized regionally, which is something the NFL has right. Matt Coatney, play-by-play voice for the Nebraska women’s basketball team, posted on Twitter that it’s a shorter trip from The Rutgers campus to Reykjavik, Iceland (2,636 miles) than it is to the Rose Bowl (2,759 miles). Something is messed up in college sports.

5. What do you think of what the BYU men’s basketball team has done with its roster this offseason?

DICKSON: At the conclusion of the BYU men’s basketball season in March, I was co-hosting with Ben Criddle on ESPN Sports 960 and I said the Cougars would likely turn over half of its roster. Turns out I wildly underestimated: Out of 17 players listed on BYU’s 2021-22 roster, only six remain. The transfer portal has made college basketball a huge game of musical chairs as players look to leave at the slightest provocation. Didn’t get the playing time you think you deserve? Transfer. Classes too hard? Transfer. Coach looks at you funny? Transfer. I don’t wish ill on any of those guys that left, but do they really think changing locations is going to solve all their problems? The guys from the portal coming to BYU face the same issue.

Mark Pope and his staff have worked incredibly hard to fill out the 2022-23 roster and it has potential. But many of the new guys haven’t even arrived in Provo yet and the Cougars have already begun summer workouts. Getting this team to come together is going to be a major undertaking.

LLOYD: It’s hard to be certain how much of the current BYU hoops merry-go-round approach is because of players unable to resist the perception of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence and how much is the coaching staff chasing the birds in the bush and not focusing on the ones in their hands (how’s that for mixing metaphors?). I know one thing: I don’t believe it works. During his time as the head coach at UVU and at BYU, Mark Pope has brought in some talented transfer players from all over the country. But how many great teams has he had? I would say he had one: the 2020 Cougar squad that had its season ended by the COVID-19 pandemic. And the majority of the contributors on that team weren’t transfers. Hmm, could there be a correlation here? To me, basketball is a game that has a foundation in talent, the ability to dribble, pass, shoot, screen and play defense. But truly elite squads also have a clear sense of who they want to be and have everyone buy into the team concept. It’s what Mark Few has done probably better than anyone in the country in the last five or 10 years at Gonzaga. Pope needs to get that core identity and focus on developing players over two or three years to get the most out of them. I truly believe it would lead to more consistent performances and better overall records.

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