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Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Big East's Days are Numbered

I've tried to avoid being the "sky is falling" USF/Big East fan, reacting to every new piece of conference realignment news as though it spells doom and gloom for the conference. But I'll be honest, the more I look at things that have transpired recently, the more I'm led to the conclusion that the Big East will soon cease to exist, at least in its current state as a BCS auto-qualifying conference.

First, I'll put up the counterpoint, which actually did make me feel a bit better. Over at Outkick the Coverage, Clay Travis believes that the Big East is unlikely to lose its bid. He makes a few compelling arguments, among them the lack of clear definition of the requirements of continued participation, the allegations of collusion on the part of ESPN (the BCS' TV partner) in the Syracuse and Pitt to the ACC deal, and perhaps most importantly, as an original member of the BCS cartel, they may know too much and it becomes a liability to jettison them.

Hopefully that rings true, because evidence to the contrary is mounting rapidly. Here are a few of the facts that I think may doom the conference:

The Big East can't stop the bleeding. Recently, we saw both the Big XII and the ACC rally its members and raise exit fees in an attempt to keep their respective members from being cherry picked by hungry conferences. The trouble is, that sort of move requires a vote of the membership. In the Big East, with everyone trying to get out to save their own skin, they are unlikely to raise this above the current $5 million, which has proven to be little deterrent.

Lack of schools that can add value. I'll admit that USF, Cincinnati, and Louisville proved six years ago that a non-AQ can rise to the occasion when picked up. Still, there have always been a number of "next in" possibilities for BCS expansion. These are the schools in non AQ conferences that have shown prolonged success and perhaps have made their way to the BCS on their own merit. The trouble is, that list is shrinking rapidly, as most have already made their way to AQ conferences. Utah's in the Pac-12. TCU, a former future Big East member, is now headed to the Big XII. Hawaii is a shell if what it was in the June Jones era. This leaves Boise State, who is allegedly being actively courted. This leads me to another point:

The Big East is being forced to reach. There are really only two reasons to reach significantly beyond your geographic base for a new team. The first is that the team you seek to add has a tremendous upside, as was the case when pretty much every conference in the country was courting Texas. The second is desperation, which is the mold from which the Big East seeks Boise State. Look, I was able to bend my mind enough to interpret Fort Worth as "East" when we were bringing in TCU, but there's no convincing me that a team located in the Northwest belongs in the Big East. And while Boise is certainly the most deserving of the non-AQs, I still contend that they really don't hold a huge upside for a conference to pick up. After all, once they stop being a Cinderella story and join the big kids table, what you're left with is the Boise media market and Idaho recruiting.

The Big East had nowhere to go but up--and still went down. When the Big XII lost Nebraska and Colorado, most still would have placed their strength as a conference at 3 or 4 among the 6 AQ conferences. Even with the loss of A&M, retaining Texas and Oklahoma goes a long way towards keeping their prestige respectable, even if they end up reaching into the ranks of current non-AQs to fill their empty spots. The Big East, on the other hand, widely regarded as 6th of 6, will continue to fall. Consider that the Big East is the only one of the current AQs to have never had a current member compete for a championship in the BCS era. Without the clout to lure schools in other AQ conferences away, the Big East has no choice but to add current non-AQs to fill its coffers, further jeopardizing conference prestige.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. The Big East remains a divided conference, and it may cause its downfall. The current member ship currently consists of eight schools who play football within the conference and eight who do not, though the latter set includes Notre Dame, a football independent, and Villanova and Georgetown, both of whom play FCS football. The loss of Pitt and Syracuse tips this balance in basketball's favor. What's more, the already unwieldy size of the basketball side of things makes expansion harder; evening out the football schools means creating an unmanageable behemoth come basketball season. Even when seemingly logical solutions consisting of a combination of football-only memberships and full memberships are brought up, there has been little movement; in fact the Boston Globe reports that expansion talk has stalled for this very reason. The Big East's need to serve two masters and the disparity of the lenses through which different conference members view its preservation may ultimately lead to its undoing.
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