Living outside of the framework of a conference, BYU lacks any defined, built-in measurement of performance. Basically, there's bowl eligibility and there's a national championship and a lot of subjectivity in the middle. While coach Bronco Mendenhall likes to cite Top 25 finishes and bowl victories, those benchmarks are hollow when the postseason opponents are Tulsa and San Diego State.
And that's the problem the Cougars will always have. Unless they beat Utah and they won't have that opportunity in 2014 or '15 or stage a signature road victory over the likes of Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Nebraska or Michigan in the coming years, they can win eight or nine games in a season and nobody beyond their own fan base will care.
Notre Dame has multiple rivalries and much greater access to elite-level bowls. Army and Navy have the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series to define their seasons.
BYU's 2013 schedule is attractive, giving the Cougars "an opportunity to be relevant nationally," according to Trevor Matich, the ESPN analyst and former BYU offensive linemen. Yet that will happen only if the Cougars win a bunch of games against the right opponents. Otherwise, all they're doing is filling ESPN programming slots and staging road shows for the benefit of their church members around the country.
That's why former coach LaVell Edwards, while not wanting to come across as a contrarian, just can't quite get behind independence. "Personally, I always liked playing for a conference championship," he said during the recent BYU Football Media Day. "I'm a traditionalist, I guess."
He's also a realist, which is why he never talked about trying to win a national championship even if he once succeeded in doing so. The conference title always was his priority, and that's how he judged the program.
Again, I like BYU's 2013 schedule much better than anything the Cougars would have faced as Mountain West members. Going against Wisconsin and Notre Dame will make November "more fun for everybody," as Mendenhall said, and booking USC in future late-season games is another breakthrough.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, Mendenhall and ESPN executives deserve credit for scheduling advancements, only three years after launching this scheme with a desperate initial strategy. There's now sufficient motivation for fans to follow BYU for an entire season.
But ultimately, what's the difference if the Cougars win six or eight or even 10 games in the regular season? They're playing in a lower-tier bowl game, regardless, and not necessarily against a power-conference member (after meeting a Pac-12 opponent in this year's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl).
By belonging to a conference, they would have avenues to bigger and better bowls. Just as important, they would be able to test themselves year after year against the same schools. Pac-12 competition may be sobering to the University of Utah's football program after two seasons, but at least the other five schools in the South give the Utes a comparative baseline.
In contrast, BYU's criteria will keep changing. The Cougars are determined to make independence work for them, and they say they're succeeding. That's fine. I'm saying the rest of us are entitled to judge them by whatever standards we choose, in the absence of any traditional guidelines.