PROVO — Once a proud football program that competed with some of the best in what is now the Football Championship Subdivision, UConn football has become a shell of itself since joining the NCAA’s top subdivision around the turn of the century.
Even a brief stop on top of the Big East — when the Big East sponsored football — that included a berth in the Orange Bowl in 2011 couldn’t halt the Huskies’ eventual decline. And when the “Catholic 7” faction of Big East schools took the conference into a non-football-sponsoring future in 2013, the Huskies opted to stay with their football-sponsoring counterparts in launching the American Athletic Conference.
This week, the white flag will be waived. According to reports from across the country — from Digital Sports Desk, to ESPN and The Athletic, to the Associated Press and USA Today — the Huskies will accept an invitation to rejoin their former rivals in the Big East sometime this week.
The move makes sense for UConn on a number of levels. No doubt it pleases head coach Geno Auriemma and the women’s basketball team that has become one of the country’s top powers, regardless of conference affiliation, in upgrading its schedule. It also likely assures new men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley as he tries to take the former national champions under Jim Calhoun back to the highest levels of the sport.
But UConn football has been an afterthought in this move. And that’s the portion that has much of college football talking — and speculating — that the Huskies are about to become another version of BYU.
That’s because the Huskies may not have a place to park their football program. Because the AAC, Mid-American Conference and Conference USA seem to have no desire to add a football-only school from the upper northeast, in a media market like Storrs, Connecticut.
Because the most logical next step — barring a drop back to the subdivision that once served the 15-time Yankee Conference champions well — is FBS independence.
It’s clear the two schools have intertwined destinies. But only time will tell exactly what that will look like.
The Cougars have been an independent squad since 2011, when rival Utah was invited to join the Pac 10 along with Colorado, quickly leaving the conference it helped found in the Mountain West. And while conference affiliation isn’t the reason for BYU’s recent struggles, including a 4-9 season just two years ago, many have looked at the departure from college football’s “Group of Five” as contributing to the program’s decline.
BYU will likely be on the list of desired candidates for the AAC to replace UConn — if the American Athletic Conference wants to fill the void left by the Huskies. Multiple reports say the league could be content to stay at 11 teams, despite the inherent disadvantages that geography and an odd number of teams will likely portend.
Besides, these same reports argue, there simply isn’t a slam dunk candidate for the conference. Army might make sense, geographically, but the Black Knights finally figured out how to navigate football independence (Army competes in the Patriot League in all other sports) and thrive, even more than archrival Navy, which has been a football-only member of the AAC since 2015.
But, because of the school’s football independence, BYU has been postulated as an expansion candidate. However, the Cougars’ nearest geographic rival in The American would be either Tulsa, a simple 1,172-mile journey, or SMU, a mere 1,200-mile trip.
On top of that, BYU is close to signing a new deal with ESPN that would keep its football program handsomely paid by the “Worldwide Leader” to broadcast their games. Add to it the Cougars’ capability of reach with BYUtv, and the move to a smaller conference offering less money to its teams (even in the AAC) seems to make less sense.
So where do the Cougars come in with regards to UConn?
Simply put, scheduling.
If — or more likely, when — the Huskies declare independence, BYU should be the first team to offer its services as a scheduled opponent. The Cougars have faced UConn twice, both wins, in 2014 and 2015, when BYU simply needed to fill out a schedule while chopping off its deal with the Mountain West (they’ve since gone on to schedule most of the teams in that league, primarily in the late months of October and November).
The Cougars have made similar scheduling pacts with other teams who have joined Team Independence: Idaho, New Mexico State, and more recently, UMass and Liberty. BYU initially signed a long-term deal with Notre Dame, as well, but the Fighting Irish put the series on indefinite hiatus following a pair of games in South Bend, Indiana.
Even Dixie State, which will join Division I in 2020 and become an FCS independent in football, already has a scheduling contract with the Cougars.
No, a scheduling alliance between BYU and UConn will happen. It’s the right thing to do, and will make sense for both parties. Once details of the agreement are worked out (will it be a home-and-home series, perhaps include a neutral-site contest, and will BYU try to get a 2-for-1 agreement from the desperate Huskies?) the two sides should be open to announcing a series.
Of course, the Cougars’ schedule is mostly full until 2023. But contracts can always be moved, postponed or rearranged (remember Notre Dame?), and that should be the case with UConn.
If the Huskies are as serious about independence as they are about promoting their marquee sports of men’s and women’s basketball, it should be wrapped up quickly.