November 01, 2011
Apologies in advance to elementary school geography teachers and other sticklers, but the Big East's definition of "East" is about to get even looser: As expected, the conference has reportedly voted to extend official invitations to six schools — Air Force, Boise State and Navy in football and Central Florida, Houston and SMU in all sports — in a cross-continental effort to shore up its ranks after losing flagship members Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12. Commissioner John Marinatto confirmed the invitations this morning, but didn't specify which schools. As if his targets were any secret.
That's one step down. Step two in the process — assuming the schools actually accept the invitations, which is likely a formality — is shoring up the Big East's automatic bid to a big-money bowl game after the current BCS contract expires at the end of 2013. That's a $10 million-$15 million proposition, and the main reason the conference is willing to extend an arm to far-flung, small-market Boise State: It needs every win it can get to plug into the BCS' formula for determining which conferences receiver automatic bids, and no team has more wins over the last decade than Boise.
The other additions are all solid, winning programs with relatively attractive television markets and so forth, and Central Florida's location and size make it something of a sleeping giant. UCF coach George O'Leary is already arguing that the Big East of the near-future is more attractive than the current one. Houston's having a good run on the prolific arm of quarterback Case Keenum. But without the Broncos, let's face it: This is a mid-major conference.
In less than a decade, the Big East has watched six of its eight original charter members in football abandon ship — led by Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2003-04, followed by Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia over the last few weeks — and kicked out a seventh, Temple, for all-purpose futility. The replacements have all come from the ranks of the "Have Not" conferences, and the influence has been downward: Competitively, the Big East is much closer to a mid-major conference in football than Connecticut, Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida (and Rutgers, for that matter, the only original holdover remaining) are to BCS-caliber programs. The only prospective addition that moves the needle in the right direction is Boise State.
Whether it moves it far enough to keep the BCS cash faucet flowing after the next round of negotiations — that's assuming there's still going to be a BCS cash faucet after the next round of negotiations, which more than a few powerful people are still working to prevent — we shall see. To the same end, Marinatto reiterated the conference's plans to hold Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia hostage under a 27-month notification period that will keep them in the conference through the summer of 2014 — just long enough to apply their on-field records to the cause. West Virginia already has its lawyers on the case to extricate itself sooner (preferably before the 2012 season), with Pitt and Syracuse likely following close behind if WVU succeeds or settles for an earlier release. If it does, the numbers will take a hit.
But take it as a given that any of the proposed additions that accepts the Big East's offer over an opportunity to remain in the fold for the forthcoming Conference USA/Mountain West merger believes the Big East still offers a better chance at a bigger payday than a continent-straddling colossus. Well, a better chance than that continent-straddling colossus, anyway.
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