The 2015 schedule gives them that opportunity. BYU's booking of trips to Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan and a home date with Boise State in September is a risk/reward move the only trouble being that the reward of a Power 5 invitation is not guaranteed at any point, regardless of the Cougars' results this season or next season or the season after that.
But they might as well win some big games, just to find out what happens. A sign of encouragement came Wednesday when Oklahoma president David Boren suggested the Big 12 consider going from 10 schools to 12.
"As much as we love the past … it's the future that really counts," said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe.
Yeah, but there's much more certainty in history. The "Four Decades of Dominance" theme has its merits. The Cougars have been really good since 1975, ranking No. 5 in college football victories. But nobody's sure what the next four seasons will look like for this program, much less the next 40 years.
Year 5 of independence is raising only more questions about BYU's future and the sustainability of "an elite program," to use Mendenhall's label, amid a growing financial gap between the Cougars and Power 5 schools.
It all makes 2015 intriguing. Not because there's any promise of a promotion to the big leagues any time soon, just because performing well is BYU's only choice.
Interest from a major conference is "only going to come through increased pressure," Mendenhall said, "and the way you increase pressure is by playing great teams and beating 'em."
Even so, this is not European soccer, where teams are regularly elevated or demoted. This is college football, where BYU remains at an awkward stage.
In many ways, the program has advanced, going into this fifth season of independence. Holmoe's scheduling has been impressive, with more "sweet games" to come, he promised. ESPN's alliance has helped create attractive matchups, beyond televising BYU's home games.
Yet the money issue is why Mendenhall has cited a three-year push for inclusion. He steered away from any timetable Wednesday, while acknowledging the Cougars could win a lot of games in the three seasons, yet remain left out if no league chooses to expand.
And then what? "Don't know," Mendenhall said. "Don't know."
In the absence of any promised rewards, it is clear that BYU must maximize its September menu. The risk for the Cougars is disappointing a fan base that's stuck with one more year of an unattractive home schedule. Those people will be judging everything that happens in the first four games, wanting to be impressed.
The rewards would include varying degrees of revived interest locally and relevance nationally. And everybody in the program knows it.
"It's something that we talk about frequently as a team and an as an offense and as a coaching staff. We've got a great opportunity in front of us," said quarterback Taysom Hill. "We know what it was like to be ranked 18th in the country and trending, and then we know what it was like to be just another program."
Well said. Maybe that 4-0 record was a mirage, built by average opponents: UConn, Texas, Houston and Virginia. Yet Hill and the Cougars became national talking points, until his season-ending injury contributed to a four-game losing streak.
The result, even with fill-in QB Christian Stewart's improvement, was an unsatisfying 8-5 season that ended with an overtime loss to Memphis and a postgame brawl in the Miami Beach Bowl.
That's the lasting impression of BYU, until the Sept. 5 opener at Nebraska. Reasons exist for a better outcome in 2015. Hill and running back Jamaal Williams are healthy, leading an experienced, productive offense. Mendenhall has put himself in charge of the defense, a management strategy that has worked in the past. The Cougars believe the work of Frank Wintrich, their new director of football performance, will improve their conditioning and injury prevention.
The best thing about BYU's 2015 schedule, though, is that sufficient evidence will come early. By late September, people either will care a lot about the Cougars, or not.