The Big Ten Conference’s recent announcement that it will study adding a 12th member should have fans of Big East football worried. Many have speculated that the Big Ten will look eastward to round out its membership, with Rutgers, Pitt, and Syracuse mentioned as possible candidates.
The Big East’s long-term existence has been in question since Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College defected to the ACC in 2004. Recently the conference has demonstrated its viability and worthiness as a member of the BCS alliance but the loss of one of those teams could place the eight team conference’s football future in jeopardy not to mention its automatic BCS berth.
So what is the Big East to do? Wait and hope the Big Ten invites Missouri, a more geographically logical although less lucrative choice? Lose any one of the above programs and the conference will have to find a replacement in short order once again, with the loss of its automatic BCS bid a likely result.
The Big East’s football schools would be wise to eliminate any questions about its future direction by taking action now. Any possible move is complicated by the fact that basketball runs the Big East and, in contrast to football, it is widely recognized as the leading conference. With 15 members, there is little to no motivation to make major changes. Having said that, there are ways the conference can elevate its standing in football while protecting its basketball core. Here is an approach which could accomplish that goal.
Decide to expand to 12 teams and establish a championship game. Doing so gives current football member schools a reason to stay and puts the word out to potential new members. This year’s Cincinnati-Pitt de-facto championship game was great for the conference, but there is no guarantee of a repeat each year in an eight team league.
With 12 members, a championship game can be staged and the logical site for this is in the new Meadowlands Stadium in the New York City area. An annual championship in NYC is an attractive destination for fans and is certain to draw significant media coverage. Its also a location that is within driving distance for most of its member schools.
Invite both Army and Navy to join as football only members. Adding the service academies offers some benefits. Both schools are currently independent for football and make sense geographically, so they are potentially easy additions.
Navy brings a respected football program which already plays a number of the Big East schools and has been bowl eligible during the past few years.
The advantage of Army is the opportunity it provides Rutgers, Syracuse, and UConn fans to attend away games at West Point, a beautiful venue for college football. By placing Army and Navy in the same division, their annual match-up becomes a Big East regular season game.
Make Notre Dame an offer it can’t refuse. Notre Dame is on record as saying it wishes to remain independent for football, although it's in the Big East for most other sports including basketball.
A 7-8 game regular season would still allow the Fighting Irish the opportunity to maintain many of its existing relationships. Two such relationships, Navy and Pitt, could become regular season games in the Big East. Notre Dame’s annual game with USC could be maintained and the conference could permit them to schedule this before the BE regular season schedule is set.
Further, the chance to play in a nationally televised championship game in New York City would be appealing to its alumni. The conference also might consider allowing ND to keep its television contract with NBC while the conference grows and establishes its championship game. It is possible to arrive at a solution which allows Notre Dame to have its cake and eat it too.
If Notre Dame rejects the overture, the Big East should consider giving them an ultimatum—join or leave the entire conference. Notre Dame adds next to nothing to the basketball line-up, yet benefits from the association. The spot they currently hold could be offered up to a lure another worthy and more willing school.
Round out the 12th spot with an up and coming program. There are a couple of possible scenarios here. One is to approach Villanova, already a Big East member, about the possibility of moving up from the FCS division. The Wildcats, reigning national champions, have had a consistent program but lack the stadium capacity.
Another possibility is Temple, a prior football member dropped by the conference due to its lack of emphasis on the sport. That has changed, with the Owls making a respectable showing in its recent appearance in the Eagle Bank Bowl. As Temple is currently an A-10 member for basketball, a full invite would not be required. The question is whether Temple would consider a return to the conference which cast it aside.
Aside from those two Philadelphia area programs, there are other programs which bring a modicum of football credibility, but would require a basketball invite to move. At 15 teams currently for basketball, the Big East could expand by one more team (or two if ND is given its walking papers) and some logical choices include Central Florida and East Carolina.
There are admittedly a lot of “what ifs” to the above scenario and acceptance by the service academies is by no means a given, much less Notre Dame. But as time goes on, all could find themselves shut out of a playoff system without a conference affiliation.
Should the Big Ten’s expansion plans not include a Big East school, the risk to the conference’s football is given a stay of execution. Solidifying its long-term future with the BCS, fans, alumni and recruits though, requires a commitment to growth and a championship game. Standing still in the current environment does not provide the security the Big East football schools need to survive as big-time programs.