Rush Nation, it’s Simmo here. Before I drop the Independent 2021 Season Preview, I thought I would introduce the concept of an independent program. There’s also a brief introduction of the current independent programs competing at FBS level.
My Independents Day
I am unable to inform you when my “Independents Day” was or the moment I thought that college football looked rather interesting. I had read an article about the 1985 NFL Draft where Bruce Smith from Virginia Tech was taken by the Bills with the first overall pick. From this moment I scoured the college football scene to find “my team”. I chose Notre Dame because my favourite NFL player at that time was Joe Montana. He had played for the Fighting Irish in college.
I was just thirteen years of age and had no idea what an “Independent” team was. To be honest, I knew very little about college football altogether. In 1985 there were 21 independent football teams. None were tied to or affiliated with a specific conference. Fast forward to the 2021 season, and there are seven. Only two of those teams were FBS-Independent back in 1985: Notre Dame and the Army.
For those new to college football or only just starting to take in the circus of college football, here is an insight into the Independent programs for the 2021 college football season.
Most college teams join a conference for various reasons. TV revenue plays a big part. There is also the ease of filling a season schedule, reducing travel costs and gaining exposure for access to the most lucrative Bowl games. Building a fan base outside the college campus is also another, more recent reason for conference affiliation. Not all teams take this route and still have access to bowls and a big fan base.
2021 Independent Programs
The US government fully funds the The Army Black Knights. Therefore, they do not require the TV revenue which most colleges have to rely on. The fan base is not just limited to West Point, but from all around the nation through service families. The Army team also has a deal with CBS for TV exposure. They have regular annual games versus Navy and Air Force. Their primary conference is the Patriot League (Div I-FCS).
The Cougars became an independent program in 2010 after the realignment of the Mountain West Conference. BYU are signed up to ESPN for televised games. Its affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also gives them a significant fan base throughout the country (but centred in Utah). BYU is associated with the West Coast Conference in other college sports.
The Flames moved to independent program status in 2018 after they were unsuccessful in joining Conference USA or the Sun Belt Conference. They have an affiliation with the ASUN Conference, formerly the Atlantic Sun Conference, which begins sponsoring football in Div I-FCS in 2022.
The best known independent program on these shores. The Fighting Irish have an affiliation with the ACC, as their other sports compete here. The school has a football-only TV deal with NBC. They have tried on three occasions to join a Conference in the 20th century, but have remained an independent school. This is with the exception of the 2020 Covid season, when they joined the ACC for scheduling purposes. With its fan base, TV deal and no issue in filling the schedule for the season it has not been so important to the Fighting Irish to join a conference as it has been for other teams.
The Huskies accepted an invitation for their sports to participate in the Big East from 2019, but as that particular conference does not sponsor football, they remained in the AAC. However, that conference was unwilling to allow the Huskies to remain as a football only team and in 2020 they opted to become an independent program. Due to the pandemic they opted out of the 2020 college football season, the first team to announce this decision.
The Minutemen started their two year transition in 2011 and were supported by the Mid-American Conference as a football only program. UMASS declined to become a full member of the conference and left at the end of the 2015 season. They became an independent program in 2017.
There is the comfort and rivalry in being part of a conference, but an independent program can enjoy that maverick element. Independent programs in college football are a spiritual home for those who don’t usually like to conform to the norm.