Dr. Saturday

Westward Ho: Your guide to the Big East’s new manifest destiny

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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It's official: After weeks of wrangling, the Big East is officially welcoming five new schools today to shore up its ranks in the face of potentially crippling attrition. You should know about this. This is what you should know:

Who? The first wave of additions includes Boise State and San Diego State in football and Central Florida, Houston and SMU in all sports, bringing committed football membership to ten. (See below.) Two other targets, Air Force and Navy, have yet to commit to the Big East, and Air Force appears to be leaning toward staying in the Mountain West Conference out of a sense of — brace yourself — loyalty.

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Why? Pure survival instinct. The NCAA requires at least eight members to qualify as a Division I football conference; after flagship members Pittsburgh and Syracuse bolted for the ACC, the Big East was left with six teams, and West Virginia's defection to the Big 12 cut that number to five. (Remaining members: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers and South Florida.) And at least three of those five — UConn, Louisville and Rutgers — were ready to take the first train out to anyone willing to give them a ticket.

It was literally an expand-or-die situation. Assuming the Montreal Alouettes weren't interested, the vast majority of viable expansion options were west of the Mississippi.

When? Boise, Central Florida, Houston, San Diego State and SMU are expected to join the fold in 2013, meaning they'll have another year to toil as short-timers in the Mountain West and Conference USA, respectively. The more interesting question in the meantime: While it waits, how many teams is the Big East going to have in 2012?{YSP:MORE}

The conference wants Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia to remain through the end of their current contract, which holds them in place until June 2014. West Virginia wants out immediately, arguing that the loss of three fellow members (including pending addition TCU, which took its opportunity to defect to the Big 12 before it even formally arrived in the Big East) invalidates the contract. The best guess — and it's only a guess — is that the divorce lawyers reach a settlement that allows the Mountaineers (and Panthers, and Orangemen) to leave with some level of financial penalty a year early, after the 2012-13 season. If WVU manages to get out before then, it will mean utter chaos for the league.

They don't really have the guts to keep calling it the Big East, do they? The new alignment spreads the league from Storrs, Conn. to San Diego, a 2,984-mile trip. A flight from Boise, Idaho, to Tampa, Fla., covers 2,673 miles. It spans all four time zones. Elementary school geography teachers probably aren't going to be very happy.

But the league began stretching its East Coast orientation when it added Cincinnati and Louisville — not to mention DePaul, Marquette and Notre Dame in basketball — in the last decade, and abandoned it completely last year when it decided to move into Texas to add TCU. And if Missouri and Texas A&M can play in the Southeastern Conference, and the Big Ten can claim twelve schools, and the Big 12 can claim ten schools… well, what's in a name? If the "Big East" brand still doesn't carry much weight in football after 20 years, it's certainly worth preserving on the hoops side.

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Ideally, the league plans to mitigate excessive travel with an East-West divisional format — Louisville would probably be the odd man out in the West, stuck with Boise State, Houston, San Diego State and SMU — that will restrict cross-country flights. But that requires twelve schools, and the service academies' reluctance leaves the league with just ten. Considering its overtures to BYU have already come up short, it's hard to see where the other two are going to come from if Air Force and Navy back out.

The $15 million question: Are they going to keep their automatic bid to the BCS? The league certainly seems to think so, which sounds ambitious. Out of ten committed members, only one (1) was playing in a "Big Six" BCS conference in 2004: Rutgers. It's the Mid-Major All-Stars here.

Based on the BCS' own formula for determining "AQ" status, though, Boise State's addition will be a boon to the league's cause, and all but three of the prospective members — Louisville, San Diego State and SMU — have winning records over the last four years. If TCU had remained in the fold, it would be a lock. As it stands, the tentative guess is that the bid is safe, but that may depend on how long the conference is allowed to claim West Virginia and Pittsburgh's records on its resumé.

So Boise State is actually going to anchor a BCS conference? For the foreseeable future, that's the plan. And if you think Boise are going anywhere now that prolific quarterback Kellen Moore on his way out, you probably want to think again: Moore has won more games as a starter than any other QB in the history of college football, but the Broncos won a BCS bowl before he ever set foot on campus, and finished in the top 20 with a single loss three of the four seasons prior to that. The last four years under Moore have only been the high point of a decade-long rise.

Football-wise, trading Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia for Boise State, Houston and SMU is a wash at worst, and wealthier versions of Central Florida and San Diego State — bolstered by an annual BCS payout — could be sleeping giants. They actually make a perennially basketball-centric league more oriented toward football, without asking Providence and Seton Hall to travel to Idaho every other year. It's not going to stop the "Big Least" jokes, but it's not going to get any worse.

Now: If they went through all that, only to watch the BCS eliminate the automatic bid altogether, John Marinatto is not going to be very happy.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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