BYU Football: Joining the Big 12 is not that important

It’s that time of year again, when BYU fans begin panicking about conference affiliation and begging the college football gods for an invitation to the Big 12. Recent decisions by the SEC and ACC to not qualify BYU as a “Power Conference” team for purposes of their new scheduling rules has only ramped up Cougar Nation’s hysteria. Even Bronco Mendenhall, who is usually calm and confident as a football independent, has gone to the press to make BYU’s case for inclusion into the Big 12.

While the prospect of losing out on games against the ACC and SEC looms large in BYU fans’ minds, “access” is now the buzzword when it comes to Cougar Nation’s plea for inclusion. When we tweeted the voice of the Cougars, Greg Wrubell, about the possibility of a scheduling agreement with the Big 12, he insisted that access is more important than scheduling (click the timestamp to read the entire converstaion):

I’m on the record in favor of BYU being creative in its negotiations in order to land a spot in the Big 12, but I do not put as much emphasis on “access” as Wrubell and other Cougar fans do. In fact, I’m not sure an invitation to the Big 12 is worth giving up much at all. Here’s why.

1. Playoffs. BYU’s access to a national championship didn’t take a hit at all by the institution of the new playoff system or any other recent changes in college football. In fact, the expansion from two to four playoff teams literally doubled BYU’s admittedly miniscule odds of winning a title. Importantly, the four teams competing in the playoffs will be selected purely by the committee’s rankings; there’s no automatic berths. Of course, conference championships will play a role in the committee’s playoff selections, and conference affiliation will always affect perceptions, so BYU is on the outside looking in on those fronts. But if BYU puts together a strong schedule–and wins–I don’t see its non-affiliation with a P5 conference as being a major barrier to getting into the playoffs.

2. The 4 “New Year’s” bowls. In addition to the two playoff semi-final games, college football will feature 4 other lucrative bowls (think “BCS” bowls), which will be played on New Year’s Eve and Day. I don’t think BYU’s access to these games is much worse now than it has been in the past. Let me explain.

The six bowls that make up the New Year’s and playoff semi-final games are the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, and Peach bowls. Which two bowls host the playoff semi-final games will rotate each year.

Here’s where it gets complicated. When not hosting a playoff game, three of the six major bowls are contracted to select the highest ranked team from certain P5 conferences, and the other three bowls will invite the next highest available teams, regardless of conference affiliation. To make things more complex, the highest ranked “Group of 5” (AAC, MAC, MWC, Sun Belt, Mid-American) conference champion is guaranteed one of the “at large” bids” to the other three bowls.

What does this mean for BYU? Well, BYU’s access to the New year’s bowls depends on the year, but most years it’s not that bad.

The best case scenario is when none of the non-contracted bowls host a playoff game, like this season. In such a year, BYU is eligible to be selected for any of five at large slots (see table below).  Thus, this year BYU has slightly better access than the during last few years of independence, when BYU has only been eligible for four BCS slots (or three if a non-AQ team were to earn an automatic bid).

2014-2015 Bowls Slot 1 Slot 2
Rose Playoff (normally Pac 12) Playoff (normally Big 10)
Sugar Playoff (normally SEC) Playoff (normally Big 12)
Orange ACC SEC/Big 12/Notre Dame
Fiesta Group of 5* At large
Cotton At large At large
Peach At large At large
*I placed the Group of 5 slot in the Fiesta Bowl as a placeholder; that team could play in any of the at-large slots.

When one non-contracted bowl hosts a playoff game,  like in 2015 , BYU is eligible for three New Year’s bowl slots (see table below). This is still about the same access as BYU had in the BCS years, when BYU would be eligible for three or four BCS bids.

2015-2016 Bowls Slot 1 Slot 2
Rose Pac 12 Big 10
Sugar SEC Big 12
Orange Playoff (normally) ACC Playoff (normally SEC/Big 12/ND)
Fiesta Group of 5 At large
Cotton Playoff (normally At large) Playoff (normally At large)
Peach At large At large

And finally, in the worst case scenario, where both playoff games are hosted by non-contracted bowls, like in 2016, BYU is eligible for only 1 New Year’s bowl slot (see table below). Needless to say, this is a serious impediment to BYU’s shot at playing in a big-time bowl. But let’s not forget that this will only happen at most once every three years.

2016-2017 Bowls Slot 1 Slot 2
Rose Pac 12 Big 10
Sugar SEC Big 12
Orange ACC SEC/Big 12/Notre Dame
Fiesta Playoff (normally At large) Playoff(normally At large)
Cotton Group of 5 At large
Peach Playoff (normally At large) Playoff (normally At large)

My conclusion is that since a worst-case scenario for access to the New Year’s bowls will only come around once every few years, there’s no reason to panic about BYU’s conference affiliation.  The vast majority of seasons will offer BYU access to New Year’s bowls on about the same terms as the BCS offered BYU in the past. Granted, that access hasn’t been amazing, but it’s been the same access Boise State, Utah, TCU,  and Hawaii have had and they have made it to the big games.

Number of slots aside, placement in the New Year’s bowls will be based on committee ranking rather than bowl executives. This means that  BYU fans need not worry (at least not as much) about being snubbed by a bowl because of geography, alcohol sales, or other off-the-field considerations.

In any case, the Big 12 has a contract with only one New Year’s bowl (the Sugar Bowl), so joining that conference would give BYU access to only one more game than it currently has access to as an independent. And when the Sugar Bowl hosts the playoffs (like it will this season), the Big 12 is in the same pool of potential at large selections as BYU. Sure, the prestige and perception that comes along with P5 status is helpful, but I’m not sure it’s worth giving away the farm just to sit at the cool kids table.

Look, I’m not saying that if an invitation comes BYU’s way it shouldn’t do what it can to take it. I’m also not saying that BYU’s access to the big money bowls is ideal. I’m just saying that things aren’t as dire as many BYU fans make them out to be. Big 12 membership is not the holy grail of football aspirations, and BYU has shown that it can put together schedules that rival many P5 teams in terms of strength of schedule. All it needs to do is continue to schedule seasons like 2013 and 2015.

Oh yeah, and one more thing.


About the author

Andy Kartchner

I have a Ph.D. in sports analytics. No I don't. But I do have a law degree. And if there's one thing I learned in law school, it's how to write about sports.

I am Big Bro. My brother, Aaron (a.k.a. Little Bro), and I make up the Sports Bros, your one-stop shop for everything BYU sports.


Click here to post a comment
  • Very good analysis. There has been so much ranting about access but this is the first analysis I have seen that breaks it down to what it really means. I agree with the conclusion. BYU is in an ok place and shouldn’t feel the sky is falling and give up all the good they have gotten in Independence just to belong to the Big-12. That said, if they can be invited and keep their ability to broadcast all their games nationally it would be a win-win.

  • Just how important is it that we play for another National Championship?

    How likely is it, in the foreseeable future, that if we were in a P5 conference, we would make it to the Big 4 playoffs?

    With the money paid to the traditional top 5 ranked teams, which are in the multiple millions per year
    paid to their HC, while we pay far less than a million to our HC, how likely is it that we would play for a National Championship?

    Independence will not get us to the Big 4 play offs.

    Independence gives us the opportunity to play as many P5 teams as we want to handle. With each P5 team we play, win or lose, it will be an exciting game that will fill our bleachers and rate us high on the TV networks.

    We MUST STOP scheduling Give Me games vs. Division 2 or worse teams that spoils everything for us. It is better to lose to a P5 team than to kill a division 3 team.