The conference realignment carousel has yet to stop spinning - and the Big East has lost yet two more members in the last 18 days.
On December 31st, in the move we all saw coming, Boise State University backed out of their commitment to the Big East to remain a full member of the Mountain West Conference. That left the Big East in a no-win scenario with San Diego State University, the other legitimately western team tagged to join the coast-to-coast conference. Did Big East commissioner Mike Aresco bring in another western team (Fresno State and UNLV were rumored to be in the mix in early December) to try to keep the numbers at (at least) 12, or would San Diego State walk away as well?
ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported last night that San Diego State had been officially re-accepted into the Mountain West, following a "right of first option" clause in Boise State's contract that made the Aztecs the only negotiable team until after January 31st. San Diego State went to bat to get Boise's Olympic sports into the Big West conference so that Boise could move football to the Big East; so Boise went to bat for SDSU to keep them alive in the Mountain West.
While rumors are still out there about a Mountain West move to 14 or 16, something possible albeit unlikely right now, that leaves the Big East membership for the 2013 football season officially at ten. It is an improvement over the smaller number of eight schools that the league has been fielding a season with since 2006; but the group certainly lacks the "flair" of the twelve team, conference championship, coast-to-coast, and BCS-busting group put on paper as little as a month ago.
So as of right now, Pittsburgh and Syracuse will be out for the 2013 season, while Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and Southern Methodist are in. Without 12 teams and a championship game, there will not be divisions for 2013. This should remain the case in 2014 when Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) leave and are replaced by East Carolina and Tulane (Conference-USA). But this will surely change in 2015, when Navy will join an Eastern Division, followed by the odds-on favorite to be team #14 now, Tulsa in the West.
In reality, losing Boise State and San Diego State (coupled with the losses of Pittsburgh and Syracuse) for the Big East this season really hurts the league's perception and RPI, but it's really the best thing for both conferences. Outside of a scheduling alliance or football merger of sorts, I think everyone from day one has been saying that the coast-to-coast league model is anything but sustainable - at least at this level (the outlying non-AQ powerhouses). Certainly if Alabama, Texas, and Oregon wanted to start a nationwide conference, it could succeed - but that's not the case for a league of up-and-comers like Boise State, Houston, and Louisville.
The Big East can reap the benefits now of not having to appease their basketball schools, seeing as the proclaimed "Catholic-7" (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova) are moving on, too. With the final football powers of the Big East moving on and the western schools deciding against going east, the league has a chance to take a deep breath, save hundreds of thousands on travel costs, and become a more localized league again.
There have been talks about the league approaching the University of Massachusetts for membership, primarily to get a foothold back into the northeast again. This is certainly reasonable; but with the majority of the league being away from the Providence home office now, and the money revolving around media markets, I still think the idea I floated before about the Big East approaching Northern Illinois is a no-brainer. NIU has been the MAC champions for consecutive seasons, played BCS buster this season, and just so happens to sit around 65 miles outside the nation's third largest media market in Chicago.
With all that being said, I think it would be an incredibly advantageous situation for the league if Mike Aresco could somehow swing East Carolina and Northern Illinois into the Big East in 2013. With 12 teams, you could make divisions and a conference championship game, earn the league more money by airing that championship game, and potentially slingshot the Big East champion up the polls in much the same way that Northern Illinois went from 21 to 15 in the final rankings. NIU were four positions behind their MAC Championship game opponent going in (#17 Kent State), and finished two spots higher than that with the win. Let's face it, it's an ugly situation for the Big East to be losing so many schools, but why not send out your champion in style? That BCS money is YOURS to keep even if your champion leaves.
I'm not saying Louisville is a shoe-in for the Big East crown at all, but they should certainly be highly favored. And heck! That thorn-in-our-side Syracuse team has moved on! But if the whole world is expecting your conference champion to cake-walk through to an undefeated season, why not use the conference championship game as a catapult, the way the "lowly MAC" did in 2012, to boost your champion as high as possible?
In short, I think the Big East's decision to stand pat at ten teams in 2013 could be a colossal mistake. It could mean at least two years of lost conference money in promoting and getting paid to play a championship game, and it could easily translate into falling critical paces behind the Mountain West for a seat at the BCS table once AQ-status disappears for the league after next season. They need top-notch, worthy teams competing at a high level now (i.e. East Carolina and Northern Illinois) instead of their conference's perception taking another year of media degradation while Memphis and Temple struggle to compete, only to be joined by a struggling Tulane squad a year later.
Facing facts - the landscape of trading conference membership cards doesn't seem to be changing or dying down. If anything, we're calm right now simply because the Big Ten, Big Twelve, and SEC are chomping at the bit for a settlement of the ACC vs. Maryland litigation. Should Maryland get away any kind of clean, it could lead to a pillaging of the ACC unlike what we've ever seen, even in the Big East (it's one thing to have a single predator [ACC] coming after you, but another thing entirely to have an entire swarm feasting on the bones). To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced that the ACC winning the lawsuit outright really stops the predators from coming. So the last two big boys left in the Big East - Cincinnati and Connecticut - you can bet your bottom that they are playing every conceivable angle right now for a new conference home as opposed to being relegated to this Conference-USA 2.0 model.
So the Big East could do themselves a lot of favors by being proactive instead of reactive for the potential Cincinnati/Connecticut losses. By securing twelve teams now, they'll be better suited for stability should the next round of losses happen. Just look at the Big Twelve, back when all of this started! Texas and Oklahoma were going to the Pac-10, taking OK State and Tech with them, and the Big Twelve was going to die. Instead, after four membership losses, the Big Twelve corralled a pair of teams into a grant-of-rights media deal that is thought to be virtually untouchable. Now that the obviously volatile situation of teams out west has come to an early conclusion, the Big East could find itself in a similar situation with teams and end ACC pillaging if it would just be proactive instead of reactive.
Of course, for us Louisville fans, the concerns over the Big East should hypothetically end after the upcoming year. We're set to join the ACC in 2014, meaning just one more year of uncertainty in the Big East. But in 2012, the negative bias against the Big East certainly crippled Louisville's chances of getting to the top of the polls, especially after losing games. 2013 seems poised to be an even bigger hindrance to the Cardinals, especially with the four incoming teams having a lower winning percentage against perceived lesser competition in Conference-USA (26-25, just under .510) than the two outgoing teams from the Big East (14-12, just over .538). Sure, those points are marginal, but when we're talking about national perception, anything lower makes the new-look-league look that much weaker.
Cardinal fans, brace yourself now for what could be a very ugly, media-driven blacklisting of Louisville in 2013. A beginning-to-end manhandling of Florida in the Sugar Bowl still left Louisville four spots behind the team they manhandled this year (Florida finished 9th in the AP, Louisville 13th); so don't think for a minute that conference wins over Central Florida or SMU will boost the Cardinals. But more importantly: a single loss to anyone in the Big East in 2013? Forget ever getting back into the rankings.
Thus Louisville's expectations are set: 12-0. It's 12-0, or it's a seat at the kiddy table in terms of national perception. And that's a darn shame, not just for the solid squad Louisville will field next year, but for the really good ones Central Florida, Cincinnati, and Rutgers will field. It's highly unlikely that the Big East can realistically expect multiple ranked teams during the season, but especially when it ends.
Whoever the Big East champion is will have a serious disadvantage, unless by chance it is an undefeated Louisville, should the Cards start next year as highly ranked as they finished (13th or better). That's a situation Aresco and company can try to remedy now by increasing the league's competition for 2013: accelerate East Carolina's membership and tag Northern Illinois as quickly as possible. Adding those two schools would give the conference the needed twelve teams for divisions and a championship game, and would increase the league's incoming membership winning percentage from .510 (26-25) to .590 (46-32) based on 2012 finishes.
How would that compare to adding Boise State and San Diego State? Try this on for size: one loss. The same group of four new teams (UCF, Houston, Memphis and SMU), plus Boise and SDSU, would have finished 46-31 last season for a .597 winning percentage.
Trading roughly 8 hundredths of a percentage point?
That's what I call turning a negative into a positive, especially considering that percentage is just .510 as it would be with no changes.
And that's not even counting the fact that you can expect some reasonable fall off from teams moving "up" in leagues; Temple went 4-7 in the Big East this year after a 9-4 season in the MAC in 2011. Frankly, I'd rather deal with the ramification of a .590 group facing stiffer competition than a .510 group. Just sayin'.