Could The Idaho Vandals Survive As An FBS Independent?


With the WAC about to go under, the Idaho Vandals are left with some unpleasant choices. The Mountain West Conference does not seem likely to expand further, given that it will be at 12 teams for the 2013 season, unless they decided to go with 14 or 16 at some point in the future. Are the athletic directors altruistic enough to put out a helping hand to Idaho and New Mexico State? That seems likely, since neither program brings in much in terms of media markets (Moscow and Las Cruces?) or pizzazz. But, perhaps if UTEP and BYU came crawling back, they might be amenable to going to 16 teams.

But, without an invite to the MWC, the Idaho Vandals are left with two choices. They could either drop down to FCS and rejoin their old partners in the Big Sky Conference or they could remain as a FBS Independent. The Big Sky would seem a logical fit for their other programs both geographically and athletically. But, the Big Sky has recent gone through their own set of expansion adding teams like North Dakota and Southern Utah in all sports and UC Davis and Cal Poly in football only. That puts them at 13 football playing members and 11 in other sports. So, maybe there is room for one more.

But, dropping down to FCS, after rising up to the FBS level in 1997 would be an embarrassing result. Idaho has been scrambling around looking for conference since they made the jump to FBS football after leaving the Big Sky in 1996. First they went to the Big West until 2000, then the Sun Belt until 2004, and have been in the WAC since. But, with WAC about to dissolve, could there be a future for them as an FBS Independent? Could Idaho could still rejoin the Big Sky in other sports, most importantly basketball, and still maintain its FBS status as an independent?

Being an independent has its disadvantages for three main reasons:

1) No realistic chance for bowl games

2) No regional TV contract that brings in money

3) No logical scheduling partners for late season games

Let’s examine each of these and see if any of them are deal breakers for the Vandals. First of all, bowl games are already exceedingly difficult for Idaho to get to. Since rising to FBS, they have only played in two bowl games in 16 years, both of which were near home-town Humanitarian Bowls. Besides, the money they would receive for a lower tier bowl compared the costs to travel to them make it a break-even proposition anyways.

In terms of being able to share revenue, including TV money, with a conference affiliation, it isn’t as if the WAC is a huge cash cow. I am not sure being in the WAC means all that much. Perhaps a strengthened Mountain West Conference would mean something. But, outside of the major conferences, the TV money split up 12+ ways just isn’t that much for a team like Idaho.

So, lastly comes the biggest issue; scheduling. Really the biggest source of revenue for lower tier FBS teams like Idaho are the non-conference games they play against BCS conference teams. The going rate for bringing a team like this into the home stadium of a Washington or USC is over $1 million. That is why so many BCS teams have gone in the direction of scheduling FCS opponents in non-conference play. These big time programs want a lackey they can beat up and get some practice in before the conference schedule begins, but do not want to spend a lot of money to do so. Since the NCAA allows them to schedule one FCS opponent to count as a DI victory toward bowl eligibility, virtually every program now does that. Even the Huskies, after having never scheduled an FCS opponent in their history, went that direction in 2011 with Eastern Washington, and will have Portland State in town in 2012.

But, there are certainly opportunities for Idaho to schedule games in the first month of the season, especially if they are willing to go on the road for a paycheck. Where it gets more difficult is scheduling in October and November. Once teams begin their conference play, there will not be many open dates for an independent to find games. There are a couple of opportunities though for Idaho to find games in this scenario. Perhaps they could arrange for a scheduling deal with fellow independents like Notre Dame and BYU (and maybe New Mexico State too if they went the same route). Under this scenario, Idaho would agree to play every year in South Bend and perhaps could arrange 2-for-1 deals with BYU. BYU might be willing to head to Moscow every third year given that Idaho has the 2nd highest total Mormon population (460,000) in the country outside of Utah and the 2nd highest percentage of its population (26%).  It would be a way for BYU to reach out to its followers in other locations.

Idaho could probably arrange for Washington State to play home-and-away series with them, since they are just 8 miles apart, as well as, some lower tier teams to make some trips to Moscow, such as teams in the Sun Belt, as well as, their normal rivals in the Mountain West. But, given that they are an independent, they would not need to worry so much about how many FCS games they play, and could probably make arrangements for local Big Sky opponents like Eastern Washington, Montana, and Idaho State to come to town.

So, could Idaho make it as an independent? I think they could. If they can earn some paydays for road trips to BCS opponents in September, they might make enough money to cover their expenses for the rest of the season as they fill out their schedule however they can. It might just buy them some time until the next conference realignment apocalypse happens and suddenly they find themselves a home once again. Idaho is certainly used to instability and scrambling to find a home and if they use a little imagination, they might just be able to survive this one.