There has been a whole lot of congratulatory backslapping in the media for Craig Thompson for his Mountain West Conference's strafing run on the Western Athletic Conference.
MWC fans are celebrating wildly and proclaiming that this has ended BYU's dreams of independence and has removed the WAC from consideration.
I think this is a basic misunderstanding of how conference realignment works in general and deep misunderstanding of why BYU is considering the independent route.
The MWC no longer does it for BYU
BYU is the big dog of the non-BCS ranks. They have the largest football game day average attendance of BCS non-AQ conference members with a multi-year average of over 60,000 a game.
They are 29th in that regard out of the 120 teams playing at the FBS level and are one of the best road draws in the Western US.
The BCS is a coalition of top academic schools and big bowl games. BYU is clearly BCS caliber to both parties.
There is only one school, the University of Hawaii, among the members of non-AQ conferences that even finishes in the top half of the FBS in per game attendance over this multi-year sample. Utah was in that group at 55th, but now they are in a BCS conference.
BCS Bowls have to fill their stadiums.
BYU is clearly seen as BCS caliber. Their conference is not.
There was a compelling argument to be made to politicians and fans when BYU could trot out TCU, Utah, and Boise State as MWC members. BYU had the assets in the MWC to possibly have created enough public pressure to sway the BCS committee that will likely ultimately weigh the fate of the MWC's BCS AQ merits at the end of the current BCS evaluation period.
(Bleacher Report scribe Crayton wrote a tremendous article on the MWC's BCS hopes a few months ago that is probably one of the best pieces written on the subject.)
BYU looking to go independent clearly shows that BYU does not think the MWC without Utah is capable of earning an AQ slot.
The MWC was likely seen as BCS-caliber—BYU as a big dog and eight poodles in the minds of the BCS Bowl component of the BCS.
BYU realized that playing against SDSU, UNM, and other weaker teams in the MWC painted BYU as a peer to those non-BCS knuckle draggers. That is likely not a position BYU will tolerate with Utah in a BCS AQ conference.
If BYU did finish in the top 14 and is eligible to play in the BCS Bowls, their affiliation with the MWC could keep them out of a BCS Bowl even though their fan base makes them a quite attractive candidate.
That very scenario arguably happened last season.
BYU as an independent clearly would project a different identity. It projects them as what they really are—a western peer of Notre Dame—albeit on a smaller scale.
Playing as an independent, BYU could load their schedule up with Pac-10 teams and power schools from the Big 12 like Texas, OU, and Texas Tech. That is a much tougher strength of schedule than anything the MWC could offer.
BYU's ability to draw fans as a road team and draw TV interest makes them a compelling opponent. Even though the entirety of the Pac-10 may not want them in the conference over a variety of well hashed over reasons, any Pac-10 school would love to play BYU in a lucrative football game, even likely BYU detrators such as Cal and Stanford.
OU sold out the Jerry Dome against BYU. Texas just signed up for a series against them. Tech's largest alumni base is in DFW.
When you consider every top BCS AQ team plays body bag games, it does not seem all that unlikely that BYU can fill most of a schedule as an independent.
The Dog wags its tail, not vice versa
The power school in the conference gets their needs and desires met or they are at risk of leaving. If an offer comes along that puts them in a better position to meet their goals, they leave. That is the natural order of conference realignment.
The addition of Fresno State and Nevada does not help the MWC in any way shape or form in terms of the BCS AQ evaluation measurables. They are still going to have to go up to a BCS committee and be evaluated.
If BYU thought adding those two schools would get the conference into the BCS, wouldn't BYU have championed adding them? The fact they did not, and instead have been working on leaving the conference speaks volumes.
BYU is now the big dog with 10 poodles.
Adding Fresno State and Nevada just makes BYU less likely to be the team that comes out of the MWC. As the BCS Bowls love BYU's large fanbase and strong road support, it actually hurts the MWC's argument with the BCS Bowls. They don't want to get stuck having to offer a slot to a southern bowl to a Boise or even heaven forbid a Wyoming or Colorado State some years.
This does nothing to trap BYU.
If BYU wants to go, they leave. Everyone is still going to want to play them. It is not like the University of Hawaii's Independence dream where they would need to bribe any and every FBS team with big dollars to fly in.
They just need a non-sports home. And they obviously have two conferences willing to do whatever BYU wants to get them in conference.
BYU is the kingmaker. If BYU leaves to become a football independent with the WCC or the WAC as a non-football home, the MWC erodes.
If BYU leaves, even the MWC's slight BCS dreams are gone. The MWC is a no-vote by any committee members seated by the Bowls to represent their interests.
TCU knows this.
Why would TCU hang around if BYU leaves? TCU would likely either drift back to CUSA (which would likely take them back in a second) or possibly see if they could catch on with the Big East in some form (football only?)
If BYU is feeling particularly vengeful over the ridicule they have endured, they could wield their football games as a weapon.
"UNM, owner of the 18th largest game day attendance for basketball games at the DI level, join the WAC and we will play you in football. Fresno State, with the 33rd, rethink your move to the MWC and we will play you in football..."
The MWC as far as I know does not have exit fees. There is nothing there to prevent schools from selling out their conference mates to stay on BYU's schedule.
It really depends on how pissed and embarrassed BYU is right now.
The WAC's new-found solidarity thwarts a potentially fatal hit and run by the MWC
The WAC on the other hand has some odd stability. Sure they are technically very damaged, but they have at least five of the remaining six members signed to the exit fee agreement.
The main agitators are gone—with the exception of Hawaii.
The remaining six schools can look at what has happened and realize that committing to each other is what kept Utah State on board. If they hadn't committed to each other, the MWC would have taken three of their eight members.
That membership total is very important due to a rule informally called the "5/6/7" rule that determines what conferences get automatic bids to the NCAA basketball tournament. While all other sports only take two years for a conference that meets the membership requirements to qualify for postseason play, the NCAA tournament does not.
It requires six core DI members to play in the same conference for five years and to be joined by another core DI member for a total of seven basketball playing core DI members.
If the MWC had succeeded they would have dropped the WAC down to five members, causing the WAC to lose their basketball tourney automatic invitation.
Without that invitation it would be extremely difficult for the WAC to attract replacement members from conferences that do have tourney berths (guaranteed access to basketball postseaon money), like, for example the Sun Belt, Big Sky, Big West, or Southland.
The WAC would have dropped down to peer status with the Great West for at least a few years. In that situation, the WAC would likely have suffered further attrition and the conferenc elikely would have died.
It appears the MWC attempted to kill the WAC. It really goes well beyond any conference raid I have seen in that it appears to have been designed to ensure the remaining schools were isolated and were immensely crippled in their efforts to rebuild.
Adding one more member would be the norm.
Adding two more would be understandable, but attempting to add three leaving only five members? This would have probably directly lead to three or more schools downgrading or dropping football entirely. It would have cost a lot of athletic department employees their jobs.
This generally isn't done. Predator conferences almost always leave the schools left behind survivable if repugnant options. It looks like the MWC invitations were designed not to do that.
It seems beyond petty. It seems personal.
That should piss off the WAC membership.
The WAC's last minute solidarity pact may not have totally worked, but it ultimately protected the conference from this attempted homicidal attack and it leaves a much more cohesive WAC, albeit a sadder, wiser WAC.
Today there is only one loose cannon in the WAC—The University of Hawaii.
If BYU ties their commitment to playing UH to Hawaii staying in the WAC and rubberstamping the decisions made by the other five members, then the WAC will have the solidarity that has thwarted the conference's ability to expand sensibly for years.
Without Fresno State's, Boise State's, Hawaii's, and (sometimes) Nevada's self-centered viewpoints and ridiculous concerns of "perception" the WAC should be free to add what they have desperately needed for years—media markets of note that allow the conference to generate TV revenue.
FCS schools like Portland State, Sacramento State, and even non-football schools like Seattle, Denver, and Oral Roberts can be likely be approved now.
If BYU desires strongly attended basketball programs, the WAC can add FCS and IAA schools that can't manage FBS football but draw well in basketball like Creighton (21), Wichita State (41), Bradley (47), or even Weber State (117).
Even adding large DII schools in big markets as non-football members is a possibility now.
Sensible expansion to a travel cost reducing split division membership would likely be a lot easier for commissioner Benson to get approved. Hawaii could still play four of the current schools in the WAC and maybe Portland State and Sacramento State in division in football. La Tech could play NMSU and 4 schools they play a big role in picking from their region in the center of the US.
Thompson has all the pieces today, but he may have sacrificed his leverage
The cards are all out on the table.
Is BYU content to be publicly owned by Thompson? I am going to call that as unlikely.
I think Thompson overstepped with BYU and the WAC. He'd have done much better to simply offer BYU a non-football membership. I think they embarrassed BYU and there will be repercussions for that.
I will say this for Thompson. Even if I consider it unlikely, his big play could work and even if it doesn't, it puts the MWC in much better position to survive a BYU defection.
The MWC was likely looking at BYU's defection devastating the MWC. If BYU left, TCU would likely leave shortly thereafter.
With those two out, the WAC might look more attractive to Boise. Boise may have been a somewhat unloyal and fickle conference mate over the last five years or so, but they did not appear to burn any bridges on the way out of the WAC.
From there the WAC would clearly be the better conference and able to cherry pick what was left of the MWC. The remaining schools would have had to look to raid the Sun Belt or Southland for replacements as the MWC became a peer of the Sun Belt.
Thompson had nothing in his hand, so he bluffed masterfully. He appealed to Nevada's lust and probably Fresno's fears of being left behind to land two more than above average football members.
He landed them when there may still be no better odds the MWC will retain BYU than when last week started and with a conference with a bad media position. In that, one has to say, "Bravo!"
As it stands now the MWC has more members in hand and that will help if BYU shuffles the deck for a better hand.
Now lets see what BYU—and to a lesser role Hawaii—does.