October 28, 2011
After 72 hours of false starts, eleventh-hour reversals and senatorial threats, one tug-of-war is over: West Virginia has been officially invited to join the Big 12 for the second time this week, finally outmaneuvering Big East rival Louisville for the bid. There is a press release. There is another press release. They are totally serious this time.
From here, the Mountaineers will inevitably accept, bringing the conference roster to eleven ahead of Missouri's imminent exodus to the SEC. At which point the next tug-of-war begins, this time over the fate of the Big East.
When West Virginia's departure was prematurely reported on Tuesday, I wrote that it marked the end of the Big East as a major football conference — that is, one with an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game for its conference champion — which is self-evident based on the current lineup. Seven of the eight charter members for football in 1991 are either gone or on their way out, leaving only Rutgers. Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville and South Florida are all less than a decade removed from "mid-major" status, and their arrival after the last round of attrition in 2003-04 has done more to define the league downward than vice versa. It's only addition in the meantime, TCU, bolted at the first opportunity earlier this month. Remaining candidates to pad the membership out to ten or twelve teams are all culled from the same mediocre ranks in the Mountain West and Conference USA. If Air Force, Central Florida Houston, Navy and SMU don't command the BCS' attention in their current locales, why would they alongside their former second-class peers?
Then there's the obvious exception: Boise State, the one upwardly mobile candidate with a record and reputation that, disconnected from the dregs that make up the bottom halves of the WAC and Mountain West, might have enough juice to carry the Big East's campaign to keep its "Have" status across the next finish line. That's what the Big East seems to think, anyway, and what its top brass has been telling Boise officials in a series of meetings over the last week. If the Broncos can be convinced the conference is in position to keep its place at the table — with the Broncos as the new anchor — and their non-gridiron sports can find a suitable home within the same time zone, they're very likely to take the bait. Once Boise is on board, the rest should fall into place in short order.
At the same time, though, Boise has to weigh its chances of salvaging a big-money slot in the Big East with counterweight on the other end of the rope, the colossal new "super conference" forged by a pending merger between the Mountain West and Conference USA. The tentative plan, according to the Boston Globe, is a colossal league — somewhere between 22 and 32 teams — split into four divisions, the winners of which would meet over the last two weekends of the regular season in a mini-playoff for (they hope) an automatic BCS bid. Under that scenario, the consolidation of multiple conference — perhaps including the Big East, though it seems to want no part of it — would open access to more schools without adding another slice to the pie. It would also increases the competitiveness of BCS games themselves, i.e. undefeated Boise State (or Houston, or Hawaii, whomever happens to be the hot upstart du jour) would get the automatic bid out of a huge pool of teams instead of unranked UConn out of a very small one, thereby also freeing up a coveted at-large bid — the one that would have gone to undefeated Boise State — for the traditional power conferences. It's an intriguing idea, and if the remnants of the Big East can be lured into the fold, it could work.
The only way that will happen is if Boise State decides there's more strength in the numbers of the transcontinental colossus, and leaves the Big East without a lynchpin for moving forward. At that point, stuck with five teams that all seem to want out themselves (Louisville, UConn and Rutgers have been front in center in thwarted attempts to jump ship) and no obvious selling point for other schools looking to move up, it may have no choice but to join forces or die.
In the meantime: Welcome to the Big 12, West Virginia. It's only a 23-hour, 1,500-mile drive to Lubbock, Texas. If you're flying, you might want to book that seat well in advance.