The 1996 BYU Cougars, led by Steve Sarkisian, were snubbed by the BCS precurser, the Bowl Alliance, enroute to winning an NCAA record 14 games.
Entering the upcoming 2011 season as an independent, BYU stands once again to alter the format of the college football post season.
In 1996, despite finishing the regular season with an NCAA best 13-1 record and an impressive 25-point average margin of victory, No. 5 BYU was snubbed by the lucrative and glamorous Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, after BYU had felt all but promised a bid by frequenting bowl officials.
Bon fires of Tostitos tortilla chips raged in protest throughout Provo, and after the season coach LaVell Edwards would go on to testify before congress of the unfairness of the control schools in the six privileged conferences exercised over college football.
This controversial event significantly influenced the formation of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998. While BCS proponents maintain that the BCS opened the doors of the top bowl games to outsiders like BYU, critics argue that the criteria set forth for an outsider to secure a BCS slot were directly intended to exclude the non-AQ schools, and prevent a non-AQ from winning a national championship as BYU did in 1984.
Critics further argued these criteria were inconsistent with the pedigree of other BCS participants from AQ conferences.
To the credit of the AQ conferences, the BCS was altered in 2006 to improve access of non-AQs by lowering the benchmark for automatic qualification from No. 6 to No. 12 in the final BCS standings (in large part thanks to the 2001 12-0 BYU team that failed to crack into the top six of the BCS standings).
And if you visit the BCS official website, you will find that the BCS considers teams from all FBS conferences and Notre Dame “BCS” programs, as all are covered by the BCS agreement dictating the criteria for access and revenue sharing.
When BYU decided to free itself from the confines of the Mountain West Conference, it did so under a cloud of uncertainty about its access to the BCS. As later tweeted by ESPN’s Joe Schad, that uncertainty was removed when BCS President Bill Hancock confirmed that BYU would be viewed by the BCS like Army and Navy, and not like Notre Dame.
Though he expressed deep respect for BYU, Hancock also stipulated, “I think most people would agree…that Notre Dame’s tradition and place in college football are special.”
So if you thought before of BYU as a non-AQ, consider that BYU can earn a guaranteed spot in the BCS now only if it qualifies to play in the championship game itself. While that may be unlikely, the idea of BYU putting together a team worthy of a BCS game is well within reason.
It seems only a matter of time before the Cougars, which have been regulars in the top 25 under Coach Mendenhall, put together a complete season as the small handful of BCS busters have done before. For now the question of how to treat BYU within the BCS remains.
Option 1: Amend the BCS agreement to include an AQ provision for BYU.
BYU supporters and objective college football fans may think this fair, and no doubt such an amendment is what BYU administrators are hoping for, but the proposition may not be well-received by the five conferences not granted automatic BCS access. For BYU to gain even only the same degree of access it possessed as a member of the Mountain West, that would create a model for other schools thinking themselves to be big fish in little ponds.
Unfortunately for BYU, such a provision could very well require the blessing of those five little ponds, which would undoubtedly be reluctant to cast their votes in favor of establishing a pathway for their best programs to leave them. For cash-strapped leagues normally eager to sell themselves for a sliver of the BCS pie, this may present a situation where the non-AQs feel compelled to dig in their heels.
Option 2: Maintain the BCS agreement, including BYU’s lack of access, as is.
Critics may say BYU knew the situation it was getting itself into, and others may call this a nonissue, suggesting a high-ranking BYU squad would certainly be selected at large.
At-large inclusion would certainly put a band-aid over the question, but another BYU snub would apply further negative pressure to the embattled BCS. Consider one nightmare scenario for the BCS: this year BYU plays former BCS busters TCU and Hawaii, and C-USA favorite UCF. Any one of those schools could finish the year with a single loss to BYU, ranked behind BYU in the BCS standings, and still qualify for an AQ slot while BYU is relegated to a lesser bowl.
It seems the BCS has dealt with heavy anti-trust issues during every other offseason for nearly a decade, so it stands to reason that Hancock and company may seek to avoid further tarnish on the BCS image, should BYU put them in that position.
Here’s to hoping BYU puts the BCS in that position this fall.