After what seemed like a dozen false alarms over the past few weeks, the Big East is poised to finally add Houston, SMU and UCF as all-sports members and Boise State and San Diego State as football-only members with the schools joining for the 2013 season. Navy won’t be able to join until after 2014, which likely means that Air Force won’t come until that time, as well. (Colorado Spring Gazette Air Force beat writer Frank Schwab has been fairly consistent over the past month that the decision for the academy is actually extremely tough. It’s interesting to recall back in September that Air Force appeared much more enthusiastic about joining the Big East than Navy, but now the roles have switched.)
A year ago, I wrote this post proposing that the Big East ought to form a conference by adding football-only members from the West (which I called the “Big Country Conference”) while keeping the hybrid intact for non-football sports. While the actual schools have changed a bit as a result of defections to the ACC and Big 12 and my proposal was for a 16-school football league, it delights me to no end that the Big East is effectively going to employ this format conceptually.
Would anyone choose to build what the Big East is going to look like from scratch? Heck no! It’s a Frankenstein-looking conference spanning from the northeast corner to its southwestern border with football-only members and non-football members. (I keep imagining that John Marinatto’s press conference to announce the new alignment will look like this.) However, there are really only three conferences that are in 100% control their own destinies (Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) and another that is reasonably assured of not suffering of any defections (ACC). We’ve already seen everyone that had the ability to leave the Big 12 do so, which indicates that conference stability is virtually impossible outside of those top 4 AQ conferences. As a result, in terms of a triage procedure to keep a viable football league alive, I actually believe the new Big East/Big Country looks pretty good. All of the current Big East members might still always look for greener pastures (see my last post about possible Big 12 expansion scenarios), but that doesn’t mean much if other conferences aren’t reciprocating. Therefore, they needed to make their current home as strong as possible and the best way to do that was adding the top non-AQ schools from the west (particularly Boise State). Limiting themselves to only more geographically friendly schools from Conference USA or the MAC would’ve been a major mistake. As ugly as the new conference might look on a map, it really doesn’t matter much as a football-only entity. The real travel concerns come from having non-revenue sports traveling across the country, which won’t be happening here with the western outposts being football-only members.
Regardless of whether AQ status for BCS bowls exists in a few years, the schools that are about to join the Big East are going to be better off, as well. Houston, SMU and UCF would be in a moving to a stronger top-to-bottom all-sports conference even without the football consideration. At the same time, those that follow conference realignment closely know that TV money is really the largest financial driver for moves. San Diego State has apparently been told by outside media consultants that the projected low end for the new Big East TV contract would be $6.4 million per year per school for just football compared to $1.5 million per year for all sports in the Mountain West. The increased TV money alone would be enough to justify Boise State and San Diego State to sign on as football-only members. Finally, it’s a classic “bird in the hand” situation regarding the AQ status of the Big East. Many people speculate that the Big East would lose such status, but that’s simply all it is at this point: speculation. All we know is that if Boise State was a member of the Big East this season, they’d probably be heading to the Orange Bowl as opposed to a pre-Christmas bowl in Las Vegas for the second consecutive year. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Vegas.) To the extent there’s an overhaul of the BCS system, it’s likely going to look more like the Jim Delany Proposal of a more exclusive club consisting of those on the inside, so this is effectively the only way that schools like Boise State will even have a chance of being part of college football’s power structure. If they get kicked out of that power structure in a few years, then they’ll still be no worse off than if they didn’t take the chance and just stayed in the Mount USA (the Mountain West/C-USA Alliance).
While the Big East has made a lot of mistakes over the years, the fact of the matter is that the conference doomed to be perpetually unstable the day that Penn State joined the Big Ten. Couple that with the fact that Miami was always going to take an ACC invite if it ever came their way and it would never have mattered if the Big East would’ve split up its hybrid structure or added more football members earlier. Every Big East member would have still left for one of the other AQ conferences if they had the choice, so the league would have been in the same position today from a big picture standpoint. Of course, as we’ve now seen, every Mountain West and C-USA school would leave for the Big East in a heartbeat, as well. They know that being in an unstable conference that might only have AQ status for a couple of more years is still a more valuable home than any of the non-AQ conferences. The Big East did the best that they could do with the pieces they could reasonably work with and from a pure competitive football standpoint, the new setup looks like it’s going to be an entertaining league. In a Big Country Conference, dreams stay with you.
(Image from blog.mcall.com)