The first rule in conference realignment is, Nothing is a done deal until it's a done deal, a lesson we've learned the hard way two years in a row. At the moment, though, everyone with the slightest interest in the subject — up to and including the power brokers of the schools and conferences in question — is working on two assumptions that appear very, very certain.
The first is that Missouri is days away from announcing its formal withdrawal from the Big 12 and subsequent arrival in the SEC. Chancellor Brady Deaton has already been given the go-ahead to execute the move if and when he sees fit, and his latest message to the Big 12 is "I wish them the best and all of that." The second assumption, as reported by multiple outlets this morning, is that the Big 12 will respond immediately to Missouri's departure by extending an invitation to West Virginia:
West Virginia is headed to the Big 12, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, a move that leaves the Big East with five football programs and an uncertain future. The person said Tuesday that the Mountaineers had "applied and are accepted," leaving only legal entanglements from making the move official. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal had not been formally announced.
Word from the locals is that the move is "a done deal" — there's that term again — with a press conference scheduled for tomorrow. I think it's safe to book it: The Mountaineers are headed for the Heartland.
The good news for the Big East: Having now successfully blunted the exits of Missouri and Texas A&M with the addition of West Virginia and TCU, the Big 12is reportedly content to remain at ten members for the foreseeable future, meaning it won't be pursuing Louisville as a potential target for expansion. The bad news for the Big East: With its most consistently successful football school leaving five second-rate football programs in its wake, the Big East as we know it is finished as a major football conference.
If it remains as a free-standing football conference at all, it will be in barely recognizable form — of the eight charter members for Big East football in 1992, only one remains: Rutgers — and it will be without its only notable asset, an automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series. That bid only existed in the first place because of the presence of one legitimate national power (Miami) and respectable lot of second-tier contenders (Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and West Virginia) in the mid-nineties, any of which was likely to be making a few national ripples at any given time. The bid barely survived the exit of Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC in the last decade, and may have already been on the chopping block with Pitt and Syracuse's decision to follow the 'Canes and Hokies out last month. West Virginia's defection is like the last crew member hopping into the last lifeboat.
Of the five members left standing, three of them — Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida — are less than a decade removed from the obscurity of Conference USA, and a fourth (UConn) is barely a decade removed from its transition out of I-AA. The fifth is Rutgers.
The hope for those schools when they were "promoted" to the Big East to replace Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004-05 was that the newcomers would rise to the level of the new surroundings as emerging, "big time" programs. For brief stretches (Louisville under Bobby Petrino, Cincinnati under Brian Kelly) they managed to look the part. But the reality was the opposite: The addition of mid-major schools brought the Big East that much closer to a mid-major conference. Since 2004, five different head coaches have won the Big East championship at five different schools — Walt Harris at Pitt, Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia, Petrino at Louisville, Kelly at Cincinnati and Randy Edsall at UConn — and all five have accepted more attractive offers from outside of the league immediately after winning the title. Among those offers were gigs at Stanford and Maryland.
It was already a stepping-stone conference, a poaching ground for the actual players, and now that there's nothing left worth poaching, it's left to join the other Have-Not leagues that have never pretended they're anything but. In fact, survival may dictate that it literally join them, under the umbrella of a massive "super conference" already being forged by an unwieldy marriage of convenience between the Mountain West and Conference USA. The merger gives those two conferences — or one conference, or whatever it is now — all of the leverage in the next round of musical chairs: Where the Big East appeared poised to invite up to six Mtn. and C-USA teams to fill out its dwindling ranks, there is no compelling incentive to leave a relatively stable ship for one that appears to be sinking. Suddenly, it's the Big East that has to accept the reality of the new landscape, or cease to exist.
There's still a chance (possibly a distant one, but a real one) that a colossus consisting of the Mountain West, Conference USA and the Big East could sustain an automatic BCS bid. The tentative plan, according to the Boston Globe, is a 28 or 32-team league split into four divisions, the winners of which would meet over the last two weekends of the regular season in a mini-playoff for the bid, which frankly sounds like kind of a great idea for everyone involved: It opens access to more schools without adding another slice to the pie, and thereby also increases the competitiveness — i.e. undefeated Boise State (or Houston, or Hawaii, whomever happens to be the hot upstart du jour) gets the automatic bid out of a huge pool of teams instead of unranked UConn out of a very small one, which would also free up a coveted at-large bid that would have gone to undefeated Boise State for the traditional power conferences. That's not as good as a playoff (which the Mountain West still wants, for the record), but it is a proactive solution to a lot of problems.
That's one thing the Big East has never had: A solution. Poaching Conference USA for Conference USA-level programs bought it a little time, but it did nothing in the interim to address the larger existential crisis — the never-ending, decades-long trend toward separating the "Haves" from the "Have Nots" — that forced it to fill out its ranks with the Have-Nots in the first place. When the Big East escaped the guillotine last summer, its response was to invite TCU and dither over the addition of Villanova. The former hopped another ship before it ever came aboard, and nobody outside of Philadelphia and a board room in New York even pretended to care about the latter.
The time for the only, bold proactive decision the league seemed to have at its disposal — kicking out Notre Dame in non-football sports, in hopes of grinding the realignment gears to a halt by driving the Irish into the Big Ten — has long passed. And Notre Dame may be on its way out, anyway.
What the Big East is left with, then, is a shell that no one has any good reason to join and its remaining members are actively attempting to flee. If it survives — and it still might, with the possible addition of Houston, Air Force and others — it will be with the scraps the rest of the adults' table has already passed over. And soon enough, it will arrive to find its chair has been taken away.