Typically reserved BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall made some candid comments at the program’s media day on Wednesday, and the motivation behind them is clear.
Following an announcement that BYU football had brokered a series with the Pac-12 headlining USC Trojans, Mendenhall put his program on the same echelon as those multiple champioship-winning, nationally-prominent Men of Troy:
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) June 26, 2013
Mendenhall also made a bold proclamation: BYU is playing for national titles. Via The Deseret News:
“There’s not a timetable on it,” Mendenhall said of a championship, “but I think it’s possible.”
Mendenhall’s confident assertions should not be misinterpreted as bravado or delusions. Quite the opposite. There is a calculated strategy inherit in the typically guarded Mendenhall speaking with a little swagger.
BYU is striving for a pinnacle it only reached once before, as the 30th anniversary of its 1984 national championship closes in. Coinciding with the anniversary is the launch of a new postseason format that could grant the Cougars more reasonable access, albeit still with difficult odds.
Cutting to the chase, BYU is perceived nationally as a mid-major. It’s an independent that left a non-BCS conference, never reached a BCS bowl and plays a predominantly non-BCS schedule.
Perception matters in college football. This is true almost universally in various walks of life, and the solution is just as universally true. Countless self-help gurus stock bookshelves with repackaged babble on the topic of changing others’ perception, but Fast Times At Ridgemont High‘s Mike Damone said it best: “‘The Attitude’ dictates…no matter what happens, your toes are still tappin’.”
Make no mistake: USC-BYU is not a “step across,” as Mendenhall described it. That’s evident in the Cougar administration agreeing to two road games in exchange for the one trip the Trojans will take to Provo.
Still, the 2-for-1 swap doesn’t diminish the significance of BYU landing this series, particularly given when it is slated. Each of the Cougars’ trips to Los Angeles come in November, which is when USC rival and fellow independent Notre Dame visits the Coliseum.
The Cougars fill the vacancy Notre Dame leaves in years that USC travels to South Bend. There’s symbolic importance to take from that distinction.
Notre Dame is the shining example BYU would like to follow: a university founded on religion, independent of a conference but held in the same esteem as the powerhouses from the most respected leagues.
Now, UND has about a century head-start and thus, a more established fan base. Decades of prominence added legions of fans not already ranking among the estimated 60 million Catholics in the United States — that’s about 10 times more than the estimated population of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Barring mass conversions to LDS in the next few years, BYU’s football fan base is going to grow with high profile wins. Games against traditional powers like USC provide those opportunities.
In playing USC in November, BYU also gets a crack at those necessary top tier wins at a time that is most visible. The home stretch of the season brings added attention, and opportunities to unseat a potential playoff contender
Closing out its first two years of independence with high profile dates that TV networks would prominently feature has proven difficult.
In 2011, BYU took two November byes and drew three WAC opponents. Last season brought another three games against opponents from the now-defunct conference. And while an impressive 2013 slate features late-season contests vs. Wisconsin and Notre Dame, 2014 is a step backward. Much of 2015 remains opens. There is a lot of work to be done before that first BYU-USC contest in 2019.
Plenty of programs play weak games in November — hello, SEC vs. FCS Week — but conference affiliation offsets the problems bad games cause for BYU.
The SEC is a great example of this. Alabama might face Western Carolina one week, but preceding it are games against LSU and Texas A&M, which the conference guarantees.
To that end, BYU’s recent additions of Pac-12 partners is a smart, long-term investment. The Cougars recently locked into a series with an Arizona program on the rise. BYU played Oregon State last; Arizona State is a program willing to take on quality opponents; and I have a hard time believing the fences can’t be mend with longtime rival Utah. Assuming enough Pac-12 schools come aboard, BYU could craft a nice block of its schedule, guaranteed to feature quality opponents on an annual basis — not unlike what Notre Dame is embarking on with the ACC.
BYU is certainly capable of reaching that plateau in the near future. The Cougars are not there yet, but the right attitude can go a long way to making it seem like they are.
Editor’s note: “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” was edited from an earlier version omitting Jesus Christ.