It’s Independence Day. Today we’re celebrating pride, freedom, freedom to be proud, and justified military conflict against an oppressive colonial power. We also get to shoot fireworks and be proud to be an American, whatever that means.
In honor of this day, let’s contemplate what would happen if the Colorado Buffaloes left a stable position that pays well, is secure and has a solid reputation — and let’s replace that with a complete unknown that could be better and more fulfilling, but it’s more likely to be a disaster. Isn’t that the most American thing the Buffs could do, stubbornly (and desperately) pursue an opportunity that sounds good hypothetically, but isn’t even remotely possible considering the logistics?
Unless you’re Notre Dame, there aren’t many good reasons to be independent. Notre Dame makes it work because they’re historically dominant, have a killer TV deal with NBC, have the name recognition to schedule whomever they want, and they get the benefit of the doubt from the Playoff committee. All the upsides to playing in a conference — TV money, schedule stability, bowl game tie-ins, etc. — are replicable because Notre Dame’s brand is so strong. And yet, the Irish are only independent in football and compete in the ACC in every other sport.
Army and Navy were fun independent teams as well. Like Notre Dame, they’re both historically independent, don’t have to worry about funding (Happy Fourth to the military budget!) and they don’t have much practical benefit to playing in a conference. Army finessed their way into an 11-2 record and a win in the Armed Forces Bowl. However, apart from a weird game against Oklahoma that they nearly won (!), Army didn’t play nobody. It’s important to note, as well, that Navy hasn’t actually been independent since 2014, when they joined the newly founded American Athletic Conference. Navy have now cracked the Top 25 in three of their four years in the AAC, compared to being ranked just one time between 1980 and 2014.
The other independent football teams are BYU, Liberty, New Mexico State and UMass. Not great company, but we can work with it.
- BYU is easily the most accomplished on this list because they won the 1984 National Championship, despite going undefeated against a very soft schedule and beating the mighty Michigan Wolverines (with a 6-6 record) in a bowl game. They were part of the Mountain West, but opted to be independent because their TV deal was garbage. Now like Notre Dame, they have brand-name recognition as a faith-based university, their own TV channel and a history of success.
- Liberty is independent because they’ve always been; according to Wikipedia, they wanted to be the Evangelical version of Notre Dame, a statement that I refuse to touch on such an important Evangelical holiday. Liberty also made a recent jump from FCS and will be competing in the ASUN conference in their other sports.
- NMSU used to be part of the WAC, but that dissolved and split the remaining teams between the Mountain West and Sun Belt. NMSU, along with Idaho, joined the Sun Belt from 2014 to 2017, but both of them got kicked out because they weren’t technically in the “Sun Belt” (I think NMSU was lied to. Maps of the Sun Belt definitely include Las Cruces.) NMSU went independent and Idaho dropped down to FCS.
- Liberty and NMSU have been so desperate for scheduling that they have scheduled two-game home-and-homes in both 2018 and 2019. Four games in two years because they have no one else to play against.
- UMass moved from FCS to FBS in 2011 and immediately joined the MAC as a football-only member. Drama happened, however, when the MAC wanted UMass to join the conference as a full-time member. UMass declined and have been independent since 2016. They will be independent until 2021 at the very least.
- Connecticut might be added to this list in 2020. Their basketball team (and other sports) moved back into the Big East, which still exists but all its schools are in FCS for football. UConn could move to FCS for football or stay in the AAC as a football-only member.
If there are any lessons about being independent, it’s that (1) the weirdos do it, (2) you need a TV deal and generous boosters to do it successfully, and (3) if you’re not doing it successfully, you’re desperate for the stability of being in a conference.
If Colorado were to leave the Pac-12, they would certainly have the name-brand recognition as 1990 National Champions with a strong history of success. In respect to TV deals, they could partner with ESPN+, but even the Weather Channel would be an upgrade from the Pac-12 Network. The main snag is that their boosters aren’t the wealthiest or most generous and even in the Pac-12, CU can’t always afford to keep assistants on richer deals.
Colorado shouldn’t even consider being independent, obviously, but it’s fun to imagine what their schedule could be. Using Notre Dame’s model of scheduling a mix of historical football rivals, basketball rivals, and some local teams, here’s what Colorado’s schedule might look like:
vs. Colorado State
@ Kansas State
@ Air Force
In case you took the bait and clicked on this article, feel free to comment with who you would want CU to play on an independent schedule.