As it was reported a few weeks ago, five new schools have officially pledged to join the Big East conference in the near future: the University of Central Florida (UCF), University of Houston, and Southern Methodist University (SMU) as full members, as well as Boise State University and San Diego State University (SDSU)as football only members.
Where does the timline stand?
Outbound members of the Big East (the University of Pittsburgh, Syracuse University, and West Virginia University) are being held to the Big East’s 27-month notice policy, meaning at least two more years of play in the Big East (the 2012 and 2013 seasons). The previously mentioned inbound members of the Big East are all expected to join in 2013.
Put that into perspective: In 2012, the Big East will still be an eight team football conference. In 2013, the Big East will grow to be a thirteen team football conference. In 2014, the Big East will shrink back down to be a ten team conference.
So what’s obvious about these numbers? The Big East clearly isn’t done. The ultimate goal of the league is to have, at minimum, a twelve team constituency for the long haul in order to effectively split into divisions and play a conference championship game; the BCS’ rule is that in order for a league to play a championship game, they must have at least twelve teams. Allegedly, conference commissioner John Marianatto has petitioned to lower that number to ten (a move that would surely make the current Big 12 happy in the interim as well), which means that the Big East is toying with the idea that they might have to remain at ten, at least for the foreseeable future.
But the oddest part of the entire scenario is the extreme western nature of two of the five teams coming on board: the Boise State Broncos of the Mountain time zone, and the San Diego State Aztecs of the Pacific time zone. Marianatto is certainly optimistic in two of his observations:
1) The Big East is the first conference to embrace a national demographic, and stop limiting itself by the mindset of a “localized” conference; and
2) The Big East could potentially setup Saturday showdowns with regular timed games in all four time zones, making an unbelievable back-to-back-to-back-to-back schedule possible.
There is a major fatal flaw to the current setup that kills these points of optimism. The league has managed to recruit ONE team each from the two farthest (lower-48) times zones. The idea of a long run of Big East games happening on the same day at regular time intervals would ideally mean a team in each time zone playing a home game every week – otherwise the idea (at least as Marianatto initially described his vision) falls apart. Surely, I don’t think every team in the Big East will sign up for Boise State and San Diego State getting all home games. In order for that plan to work, the Big East would need to secure at least one more team in both of those time zones. Then, it would still take some creative scheduling to make sure that at least one of the two teams was at home in that zone every week; something that will be even more difficult when you have to start planning home-and-away alternating games annually.
The other big probelm is still geographic – even if 2014 is the test subject, when an even number of teams will exist (10), how are division lines possibly drawn? Houston and SMU may be the next farthest west behind Boise and SDSU, but they are still substantially closer to Louisville and Cincinnati than they are Idaho or California. Even if Boise, Houston, SDSU and SMU are grouped into the west, which other team flies out that direction all year to balance the divisions at five a-piece? Louisville and Cincinnati have allegedly both balked at the idea of inclusion in the West; and if both of those schools are taken out, the next farthest west team is actually South Florida! Making matters worse are rumors about Navy still looking to join in the future (they needed to see the Big East gain some stability before choosing to sign on); if Navy does join after fulfilling the scheduling obligations they already have, that would only serve to further upset the imbalance of Eastern vs. Western teams at 7-4.
Therefore, the only answer available is a simple one: unless some eastern teams drop out, the Big East absolutely MUST shop for AT LEAST two more Western schools; then the current six schools east of the Mississippi could remain as is, and two more Western schools would balance the league at 6-6. And if the Big East can find a Mountain Time and a Pacific Time school to join, they effectively solve the majority of the problems listed above.
So the real question becomes – who gets the call?
The obvious first answer is the United States Air Force Academy. Initially, the Big East was alleged to have invited seven schools to join before only five accepted; the two outliers were reportedly the Naval Academy in the east, and the Air Force in the west. Air Force is supposedly still mulling its options, but, considering the invite is already on the table, their acceptance would make half this battle much easier. Air Force would give the league a team with a national following, and obviously a very passionate fan base of former service members and their families. Air Force also gives the Big East that highly needed second team from the Mountain time zone, and a fifth team for the Western division.
In order to get the sixth team out west and a second team from the Pacific time zone, the league has a few options:
1) A couple of traditional Boise State rivals, in Idaho or Nevada;
2) A stakehold in Las Vegas by grabbing UNLV;
3) Picking out another of the teams from California, i.e. Fresno State or San Jose State; or
4) Actually go BEYOND the Pacific time zone and pickup the University of Hawai’i
While there is not a clear-cut winner in the above grouping, the bottom line is that to satisfy the immediate need, there are six teams that fit the bill. Although, can you imagine the Hawai’i Warriors playing a conference game in Storrs, Connecticut?
The smarter idea for the Big East, once it solidifies a twelve team rotation as outlined above, is to then move beyond to a 14 or 16 incarnation, if not bigger. This lets the teams in the western and eastern divisions play a vast majority of their games in their respective regions, and only have to cross the country once or twice a year. A 12-team league traditionally means a five-game division schedule and a three-game non-division schedule. If you move to 14 or 16, you can shift the 5-3 number to 6-2 or 7-1/2* (*should they move to a nine game conference schedule). Sure, that might mean only getting to play the teams of the opposite division years apart, but a team like San Diego State would surely prefer to travel to Connecticut or New Jersey every once in a while and not all the time.
The other huge factor in the Big East going bigger is an attempt to be proactive in the event other teams should jump ship. If the league gets up to 14 or 16 football playing institutions, especially considering that Connecticut and Rutgers, at least at one time, were all in for the ACC, then the new losses would mean a league that still has a good number of teams, instead of Marianatto and company having to scramble for membership again in a couple years time.
However, bulking football up to 14 or 16 likely means even more hemorrhaging of the basketball league unless all the future members become football only. As it stands today, the league is comprised of 16 basketball playing institutions. In 2013, when the three new schools arrive, the league will be at 19; this will drop back to 16 in 2014 when the three departing schools join their new leagues. But leaving basketball out of the expansion plans surely isn’t going to appease the remaining major basketball schools, particularly Connecticut and Louisville that also play football. Central Florida, Houston, and SMU can’t hold a candle to Pittsburgh and Syracuse basketball wise. But unless the Big East goes cost-to-coast on the hardwood as well, the number of high level basketball schools that also field a football team at the FBS level is pretty slim; there’s Temple, which would be a solid fit to rejoin the Big East (they were members before the football team got demoted a few years back); then there’s Memphis and Western Kentucky, who’s football teams – well – might as well be playing at the FCS level right now.
Even the addition of Memphis and Temple – which Rick Pitino has been adamantly pushing for some time now – again destroys the balance of eastern and western teams for the football league. It sort of puts this entire plan in jeopardy of starting from scratch again, but this time, there isn’t much room to grow in any direction.
THE BOTTOM LINE: the recent expansion announcement from the Big East is a really pretty band-aid for a bigger set of problems. The Big East is merely trying to survive as a football conference, and the quality of it’s basketball product is suffering the consequences. Boise State and Houston will be really nice additions to the football landscape – but what do Central Florida or Southern Methodist have to add to the basketball league besides new media markets and potential conference bottom dwellers?
Facing facts, the Big East has gotten enough flax since the 2005 expansion because of the perpetual mediocrity of the bottom of the league, most notably DePaul (who doesn’t even play football) and South Florida (added primarily for football). One cannot simply cut the head of the Big East off (perennial #1 teams Pittsburgh and Syracuse) and then refill those positions with schools that ONLY benefit the football rotation. Here’s a really telling statistic for you: over the past three seasons, SMU is 43-53 overall. Pittsburgh is 43-11 in the Big East alone. Pitt has won as many games in the most grueling conference in the country as SMU has won altogether, Conference-USA or non-conference (Pittsburgh is 84-20 overall during that stretch). And Pitt doesn’t even have the basketball tradition and clout that Syracuse has on the national stage. The Big East has learned the hard way what it meant to bring in a middle of the pack Conference-USA team (DePaul) and watched them flounder; so what would the addition of a Conference-USA cellar team (SMU is 18-30 in the league the last three seasons) do for the Big East? Why would the Louisville’s and Georgetown’s and Villanova’s of the world want to give up great competition for a couple easy wins? Especially the latter two on that list, who don’t field the football team that Louisville does in conference.
The move that the league made to bring in a western football division is ground-breaking; but it is not sustainable. What reasonable means actually exist for ensuring that the schools remain on board when other conferences come calling? The name TCU clearly delivers a bitter sting when this idea comes to mind. Expecially with the conference currently in a screaming match with the three departing schools about waiting periods, the Big 12 losing Missouri and Texas A&M next season means they can’t really afford to wait two years for West Virginia. So why not steal a Boise State or a Houston or even an SMU now while the getting is good?
This entire deal was about bringing in Boise State, to give them a chance to be in a BCS automatically qualifying league, something they have deserved for a long time (surely their snub again this year made the decision that much easier); but it was also a desperate hope that bringing in Boise State would somehow keep that automatic qualifying label on the Big East moving forward. But if the revamping of the BCS slated for after the 2013 season holds true to some of it’s reported proposals, it makes the Big East’s need for Boise far outweigh Boise’s need for the Big East.
The Big East expansion set for 2013 sounds really exciting – but will it sustain the conference, particularly as a football league for the long haul? Only time will tell, but, it does not look promising.