If anything crystallized Monday during BYU's annual Football Media Day, it is how much that Sept. 6 game in Austin means to the Cougars. It's not as if Texas and other Big 12 schools would be so impressed that they immediately would vote to expand the conference, but that's certainly a good place for BYU to build the credibility that any such invitation eventually would require.
Mendenhall is trying to sell BYU's past, present and future all at the same time, which is tricky. There's some inevitable contradiction between Mendenhall's saying "independence is a great place to launch from" in one breath and "it doesn't mean I'm unhappy with independence" in the next expression. What's clear is that all BYU can do right now to position itself for inclusion in college football's power structure is to win a bunch of elite-level games.
The Cougars did so in Provo last season when they knocked off Texas, only to backtrack by losing at Wisconsin and Notre Dame. In 2014, Texas is the biggest brand name on BYU's schedule. If the Longhorns will "have that game circled, for sure," as BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said, so will his own team, for different reasons.
"We all know what has to happen there," Mendenhall said.
The Cougars have to make a statement, in other words.
Mendenhall recently said as much as he could to boost his program's Big 12 stock, telling an Austin newspaper that BYU "would love" to join the conference and all he accomplished was getting some administrators to respond that the 10-school league is not interested in sharing any wealth via expansion.
About the only way that status could change is if the Big 12 goes a few years without being included in the four-team College Football Playoff, with the selection committee determining that the league's lack of a conference championship game weakens the winner's credentials.
But from Mendenhall's perspective, there's no harm in getting BYU's name out there, and he did so in a way that was partly impulsive and partly calculated. "I thought someone needed to say it," he explained Monday.
So he steered a routine interview for one of a series of summer stories about Texas' opponents into his own campaign for Big 12 membership. Holmoe, himself a former football coach, attributed the ploy strictly to Mendenhall. "The emotions of a coach run a little bit high," Holmoe said, smiling.
Yet even if Mendenhall's comments were not part of any departmental strategy, Holmoe shares his viewpoint. The Cougars may like where they are, compared to their former Mountain West existence, but they want to go places.
Such a quest is further beyond their own influence than they would like to believe. But winning big-time football games and building their brand is something they can control.
Yeah, they already beat Texas in 2013. But that achievement was easily dismissed as a case of the Longhorns' own doing. After allowing 259 rushing yards to BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, Texas fired its defensive coordinator the next day. Texas coach Mack Brown later retired, launching a series of staffing moves around the country. ESPN.com calculated that Brown's move ultimately affected 103 coaching positions around the country (including an opening at Utah, filled by receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield).
BYU played its part in creating that upheaval with a 40-21 victory. A repeat performance may not cause as much havoc in the college football landscape. But it's the only kind of statement that would do the Cougars any good.