Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Feasting on the Big East

It looks like West Virginia is headed to the Big XII. This will be the third defection of a Big East school to another conference this season, and the sixth this decade. That's not counting TCU's decision to move to the Big XII. With WVU, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh leaving, what will happen to the Big East as a football conference? Can it maintain its BCS standing, or will it become a "mid-major?" Or worse?

Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida, UConn, Cincinnati. Five teams. That's all the Big East has for football. That won't work in the BCS. The Big XII is the next smallest BCS conference with at least 10 teams (11 if Missouri stays). Meanwhile, the ACC will have 14, the SEC 13, and the Pac-12 and BigTen have 12 each. So the Big East must add at least 3 teams (preferably more) to remain in the BCS.

But who will they be? In '05, they added Louisville, Cincinnati, and USF to their football league. Back then, there were plenty of solid C-USA programs to invite. Then UConn promoted its football team to I-A. These newcomers claimed 4 of the last 5 conference titles.

But who is out there for the Big East now? That well has gotten very dry. Houston is 7-0 this year, but was 5-7 last year. The Big East wants to add them. UCF was 11-3 last year, they're 4-3 this year. They are a Big East target. SMU is 5-2, but they've barely reached bowl eligibility in recent years and were 1-11 in 2008. The Big East is interested. These are the teams that could replace WVU, Syracuse, and Pitt. That's hardly worthy of a BCS berth.

Oh, the Big East has also been prodding Villanova to bring its football program up to I-A. The Wildcats are 1-7 this year (they beat Penn) down in I-AA.

There have been rumors that the Big East wants to add Air Force, Navy, and even Boise State as football-only members. Obviously Boise State would dramatically improve the conference. But why would the Broncos do it? They've reached the BCS without an automatic bid. They'd have to figure out what conferences their other sports would play in. And do they want to play their road games in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Ohio?

And who buys a ticket to climb aboard a sinking ship?

This article describes a convoluted plan to merge the Big East, C-USA, and Mountain West together as one super-league, with around 30 teams in 4 divisions, a playoff, and hopefully the winner receiving an automatic BCS berth. I think it's a bit too harebrained to even attempt.

The Big East isn't out of danger, either. Louisville is a rumored target of the Big XII. UConn and Rutgers would accept invitations to the ACC in a heartbeat. And if that happens, the Big East is essentially dead. It'd be USF and Cincinnati. Maybe Houston, Navy, UCF, and SMU would join them. But they would certainly not be a BCS conference anymore. They'd fall somewhere between the Mountain West and C-USA.

It's kind of sad. But the Big East has always been a bit too weird. Intentionally so. It was founded as a basketball conference, with the football side forming more than a decade after its original founding. The other conferences were about regional and historical teams joining together to compete in multiple sports. The Big East was about TV revenue from the start. They just picked the wrong sport to focus on.

They snubbed Penn State in 1985, and they've been different from every other conference since then. The idea of 8 football programs and 16 basketball programs sounds nice and neat, but it's messy. The Big East has always been two conferences with one label. How can you let Notre Dame benefit from basketball revenue when they don't share football revenue? How must schools like Georgetown and St. John's feel now that their basketball league is being threatened due to football? It's a crazy mess and always has been. Conferences are supposed to organize and regulate chaos, not cause it.

And a football conference centered in the northeast was doomed to fail anyway. You do have BC, Syracuse, Pitt, and WVU up here. Also up-and-coming programs like Rutgers and UConn. But we've seen that these teams are not going to decline the opportunity to be a part of big time college football, which is based in the South and the Midwest. That's where the big games are, that's where the money is.

Big East football is on life support. And the basketball is severely crippled. 19 Big East football titles have been awarded. And 15 of those are in the trophy cases of schools that have joined or will soon join other conferences. If UConn, Louisville, and Rutgers depart, say goodbye to 2 more football titles, not to mention UConn's basketball programs, along with the 20,000+ fans that Louisville averages at their basketball games. Don't forget about completely losing the New York market once Syracuse, UConn and Rutgers are all playing in the ACC.

As unfortunate as watching the slow death of a conference can be, the moves by West Virginia and TCU almost guarantee that the Big XII will survive. One conference dies, another lives on. The Big East has become an unwilling organ donor, sacrificing its parts to make other conferences healthy again.

The Big XII was in jeopardy a few months ago, but now look very strong. And they can add teams if they want to, like Louisville. They could add Houston to bolster their numbers (as opposed to the Big East, who would add Houston to compete for conference titles). The Big XII can offer Boise State a BCS bid along with geographic convenience. Same with BYU. And the Big XII's monopoly on Texas high school recruiting is an enticement no other conference can match.

The Big East will not be a BCS conference. It will be fortunate to remain in existence as a football league. The Big XII is safe, and might even grow to 12 members once again. Maybe more.