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The Salt Lake Tribune
Provo — As if coach Kalani Sitake didn't have enough pressure heaped upon him to right the BYU football ship after last year's disastrous 4-9 season, an entire Power 5 conference also needs the independent Cougars to get better quickly.
It is not just any Power 5 league, either, but one that many BYU fans despise.
The Pac-12 is counting on BYU's once-proud football program to improve, and the sooner the better.
As veteran college football writer Jon Wilner pointed out in the San Jose Mercury News recently, nine Pac-12 teams will play a total of 18 games against the Cougars in the next five years. That's 10 percent of the league's nonconference total, according to Wilner's research.
"The games themselves aren't the issue," Wilner wrote. "There is no issue unless the Cougars struggle in 2018 and beyond the way they struggled in 2017. Then the Pac-12 would have all those dates tied to an opponent that does nothing for, and perhaps even undermines, the conference's strength of schedule."
Sitake said it's pressure he relishes when it was suggested this year's schedule, which includes five Power 5 teams, is too difficult for a program that lacks Power 5 resources.
"We want to play the best opponents we can," Sitake said.
Strength of schedule is important to Pac-12 schools because it is the primary metric the playoff committee looks at for entrants into the College Football Playoff and the lucrative New Year's Six bowl games. Revenue from television has fallen short of projections for the league, and its schools are looking elsewhere to make up the shortfall.
So the Pac-12 and BYU continue to have a complicated relationship. They just can't seem to quit each other.
"The Pac-12 has been very helpful in working with BYU's football scheduling requests," BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said Friday. "Many Pac-12 teams feel playing a regional team like BYU makes sense in their philosophies, and we are certainly thrilled to play any of the Pac-12's great institutions."
The irony of it all is not lost on the BYU faithful because the Pac-12 is not interested in adding BYU as a member and won't be for the foreseeable future for reasons that have little to do with athletics. But the Cougars have a small level of control over the league because the majority of the league's schools continue to schedule BYU as a nonconference opponent, partly because of what it brought to the table - until last season.
Pac-12 teams not named Utah schedule BYU because travel to Provo is easy and relatively inexpensive and wins in the past generally have boosted their power ratings. The infrequent losses have not been devastating.
And as West Coast Conference basketball programs have learned, there are thousands of BYU fans up and down the West Coast (and in Arizona), and they pack stadiums and arenas like few other non-Power 5 programs in the West.
BYU has gone 4-10 against Pac-12 foes since it went independent in football in 2011, but throw out the 0-6 record against Utah, and the Cougars are a respectable 4-4 against the rest of the league during that stretch. Two of those 10 losses were in bowl games, 35-28 to Utah in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl and 31-16 to Washington in the 2013 Fight Hunger Bowl.
The Cougars will play at Arizona, Washington and Utah and host California in 2018 as the Bears return BYU's 42-35 win in 2014 in Berkeley. BYU's only other game against a Power 5 opponent in 2018 is at Wisconsin on Sept. 15.
The conference that doesn't want the Cougars as a member wants them to win that intersectional clash, unlike last year when the Badgers crushed the Cougars 40-6 in Provo.
"The Pac-12 needs the Cougars to be a player on the national scene and then turn around and beat the Cougars in the head-to-head games," Wilner said. "That's really the crux of the matter for the Pac-12."
BYU would welcome a scheduling agreement with the Pac-12, much like fellow independent Notre Dame has with the ACC, especially if it calls for an annual matchup in November when the Cougars struggle to find quality opponents. Wilner hasn't heard of any scheduling agreement discussions but assumes none are necessary because Pac-12 teams already are motivated to schedule BYU and most don't want the league office dictating scheduling.
"They tried that with the Big Ten a few years ago, and it imploded," he said.
Wilner believes BYU will show up on Pac-12 schedules as often in the five years following 2022 as the five years preceding it.
After the 2022 season that completes the five-year span Wilner researched, BYU has games scheduled at USC and Stanford in 2023, Arizona in 2027 and to host Stanford in 2025 and Arizona in 2026.
The three-game BYU-USC series was set up in 2013 and begins at BYU in 2019. The reward for BYU agreeing to a two-for-one arrangement with USC is that it gets two high-quality games in November in 2021 and 2023. Holmoe has said there are only a half dozen programs in the country with which BYU will sign two-for-one deals, and USC apparently is one of them.
"We have a huge number of Cougar football fans in southern California who will love having a chance to see their team play twice against one of the best programs in all of college football," Holmoe said when the USC series was announced.
Many Pac-12 schools classify nonconference games on three levels, A, B or C.
Interestingly, Wilner asked Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens if BYU counted as an A-level or B-level opponent, and he replied "They're in the A-B range."
The new chairman of the playoff selection committee did note the Cougars' ability to sell tickets wherever they go, Wilner reported.
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