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BYU administrators can say the school was not genuinely rejected by the Big 12, because the conference simply did not choose to expand.

Monday's outcome is the same, regardless of the semantics. So this is the fundamental question: Can you lose something you never had?

Absolutely. The advantages that Big 12 membership offers (even with a possible football-only affiliation) in comparison to BYU's independence make the absence of an invitation a loss, especially after the school once looked like the No. 1 contender for expansion.

Independence remains BYU's best alternative to Power 5 membership, though. The interest created by the football team's performance this month with wins over Big Ten and Southeastern Conference opponents is justifying that status. Yet it's becoming more and more difficult to compete financially with Power 5 programs, and that's the reality the Cougars will have to live with indefinitely.

In a statement, BYU administrators said the Big 12's process made it clear that "we certainly belong" in a Power 5 league. They're right. They also said they'll continue operating their athletic program like a top-tier school. That's encouraging.

Yet there's no getting around the fact that all of the buildup over several months turned Monday's announcement into an even bigger letdown in Provo.

From a strictly football standpoint, BYU was the most attractive candidate in this goofy Big 12 expansion pageant, with none of the other contenders coming close to the Cougars' 40-year tradition or national brand. No expansion at all is better for BYU's self-image than having the likes of Houston or Cincinnati chosen instead, I suppose. But that doesn't advance the Cougars' cause, either.

BYU's program deserves to compete at the highest level of college football. That will happen someday, just not in the Big 12 in this decade.

Administrators of the 10 schools in the Big 12 turned potential expansion into a crazy process, with BYU announced among 11 finalists for anywhere from zero to four spots. Ever since April — and especially starting in July, when the Big 12 made expansion appear likely with its pledge to study the subject "aggressively" — BYU fans have endured emotional swings amid all of the speculation.

The discussion among Big 12 leaders was "very thorough," Oklahoma president David Boren said, and the no-expansion stance was unanimous in the end. If the whole sequence of events makes the conference appear dysfunctional, the truth is that BYU would love to have become part of such a family.

The only consolation is that BYU's 2016 season is making independence more fun than ever for the Cougars — especially in October, technically beginning with a game-winning field goal vs. Toledo in the first few minutes of the month. Wins over Michigan State and Mississippi State, even in those programs' downtrodden states, have stirred interest in BYU coach Kalani Sitake's first season. And beating No. 14 Boise State on the road Thursday would complete a remarkable run.

BYU's home schedule also will become more attractive in the coming years, with the likes of Wisconsin, USC, Washington and Michigan State coming to town.

But as Monday, all of that stuff just serves to rationalize the Big 12's excluding BYU by not expanding. Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby labeled the decision "a defense of our model," which suggests BYU should not be offended. Even so, the Cougars have to be feeling defeated.

Twitter: @tribkurt