Full membership slots require member schools to be good in everything not to hurt the perception of a conference. There simply are not enough well rounded programs to go that route.
Using football only bids in a play for Florida might be the conference's smartest possible enhancement move.
Going to 14 in football with UCF and Florida International as football only members would bring their large alumni-bases in the Orlando and Miami DMAs into the Big East footprint along with putting the conference in a great recruiting position. Sadly it seems USF would likely prevent that from occurring.
What's the deal with USF?
USF is the 7th largest university in the US with an enrollment of 47,576. They are located in the Tampa DMA, an NFL sized DMA. The problem is that they have NFL competition. So while they may have had attendance swell to over 53,000 in 2007, all it took is a resurgence of the Bucaneers and USF was back down to 40,000 in attendance last year. That limiting factor is always going to be there.
And there is the fact UCF in many ways has a better hand. Both are in similar NFL sized DMAs, but UCF doesn't have NFL competition that is continuously sapping their attendance. UCF is the second largest university in the US with an enrollment of 56,064. They drew 39,614 to their five-year-old, 45,301 seat Bright House stadium last year, which is 87 percent of capacity. The stadium is designed to be expandable to 65,000 and UCF has plans to expand it to 56,000 in the next 10 years.
It is reasonable to imagine that if both schools were full members in the Big East that UCF might quickly surpass USF. This could be an issue if at some point the ACC might feel forced to add another school from Florida. Today, if that extremely unlikely situation arose, the slot would almost assuredly be USF's.
FIU is a school clearly a decade behind the first two in their development, but they have very similar bones to USF. They have NFL competition. Additionally football attendance in Miami seems a bit soft overall at the collegiate and pro levels. FIU has an enrollment of 44,010, which puts them just behind the 10th largest enrollment US university, Penn State at 44,817. Their stadium seats 23,500 today, but is designed to be expandable to 45,000.
None of these three schools have BCS AQ level academic profiles and none of them are all that great at basketball, so the idea of the football schools leaving for an all-sports association with them is unlikely.
In an optimal situation, UCF and FIU could be given football only memberships. USF could push more money into basketball and become one of the better basketball programs in the Big East. That would help USF remain ahead of UCF in the extremely unlikely chance the ACC comes calling.
UCF and USF have both had flirtations with dominance and it is becoming abundantly clear that FIU is loaded with more talent in depth than other Sun Belt schools can match up against.
As the ACC would likely never be interested in either UCF or USF over their academic shortfalls, the Big East would have three of the largest alumni bases in three NFL sized DMA in a football crazy state. The football schools of the Big East would have an unprecedented advantage in mining talent out of Florida.
While it would be great to imagine USF sacrificing their football headstart for the good of the conference, I don't see it happening today. They seem too set in their ways.
So football is set at 12.
...On to plan B.
Plan B: (for basketball)
The Big East needs reinforcement in the Northeast, but no schools in the Northeast have sufficiently developed FBS football programs.
The smart play is to target the Northeast schools the Big East wants playing Big East football 10 years from now.
The logic is simple. The conference has to know it is simply a matter of time before they lose UCONN and Rutgers. They need to be proactive and start grooming football playing public university replacements who would want to stay around and help the conference keep its Northeastern identity.
The Big East added exclusively Catholic non-football playing Universities last time to balance the football schools. Now the basketball schools need to think bigger.
There is every reason to believe they can extract an equal basketball TV share for a basketball member who brings a significant number of new TVs to the table for the Big East. That money can be used by the new members to help finance upgrading their football stadiums to Big East standards.
Offer Olympic sports membership to targeted publics with an agreement that those schools need to funnel money into football stadium improvements. Those new schools need to get into the MAC as soon as possible so the Big East can pull their teams from an FBS conference instead of an FCS one.
Which schools to offer
I think the questions of which schools to choose is a matter of preference to some degree, but I would step back and take a long view of the conference. The obvious heart of the conference is the northeast and that is where reinforcement will be needed.
Adding schools in large DMAs or with statewide followings in states say north of North Carolina and East of Cincinnati makes sense to me. The basketball Big East does a great job of blanketing many of the key DMAs in their footprint to allow one member's support to work off another's.
UMASS, the state flagship of Massachusetts is the obvious first choice. Geographically they are very well placed should UConn join Syracuse in leaving the conference. Historically they have played good basketball, they have a strong following across all of the state's DMAs including the large Boston DMA, and they are already in the MAC. Academically they are ranked 94th in the US News rankings. Currently, the Big East does not have a presence in Massachusetts, a state of 6.5 million people.
Delaware is another prestigious FCS school who it might be worth calling to guage interest, even if their basketball fan support is pedestrian. If they are willing to transition their football program through the MAC, it might be worth adding the Blue Hens as an Olympic sports member in order to secure another prestigious state flagship. Delaware is ranked 75th in the US News ratings and although they are another school located in the Philadelphia DMA, they have a good number of fans and alumni in living in the Philadelphia area, Southern New Jersey, eastern Maryland, and Delaware.
Adding a school in inland New York could be sensible, but would probably work against the conference's long term interests today. Having Buffalo is probably a big part of what lead the MAC to offer a football only membership to UMass and what has them allegedly talking to Stonybrook.
Adding a Virginia school might make a world of sense. Virginia has a population of 8 million. Between George Mason, James Madison, Virginia Commonwealth, William & Mary, and Old Dominion there are a number of reasonable candidates. Old Dominion has quite a successful new FCS program and is in a good DMA, but have mediocre academics for a BCS AQ candidate.
George Mason is a Virginia University in the Washington DC DMA (where the Big East already has Georgetown), but they have the required academic profile and are big enough that playing football could be an option if they desired. They are located 30 miles away from the Fed-Ex Field where the Redskins play --- that may be far enough away that they could build a successful BCS program in time if they were inclined to do so.
Adding a second Ohio school could be sensible as well. The state of Ohio has a population of 11.5 million. The state is dominated by three very large DMAs—Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus. The Big East already has a presence in the Cincinnati DMA. Miami (Oxford) and Ohio University both fit the bill academically. While Miami (Oxford) is in the Cincinnati DMA and would be a duplication, Ohio U is in the Columbus DMA - a totally new DMA to the Big East.
Although Peden Stadium is too small for Big East play, years of Big East basketball money coming in could help fund smart football stadium expansions getting it up to where Cincinnati's stadium is today. The proximity of Ohio U. to West Virginia could also help ease Mountaineer boosters' feelings of abandonment and isolation following the loss of Pitt.
This would yield two mostly independent divisions of 10 teams each --- perfect for basketball scheduling. The conference halves would meet in Philadelphia turning the negative of duplication into a natural discussion point for fans in an important Northeastern city.
George Mason or Old Dominion (or VCU, William & Mary, or James Madison)