This article is a bit more focused and concise than my last article on this topic, so I'll get right to the point:
The Big East should invite all Conference USA teams to participate in Big East football (and only football).
The two divisions created by the merger would follow a geographical alignment:
|Western Division||Eastern Division|
|Southern Miss||West Virginia|
|TCU * ||Louisville|
The basic plan is that each team plays only the other teams in its division for conference play. The two division winners meet for a Big East Championship game to determine the conference champion (and BCS bid invitee).
There are several advantages to this plan:
The Big East adds several markets for "Big East football." Houston, New Orleans, Orlando, North Carolina and Memphis are existing markets in Conference USA.
Several quality football programs are added. Houston, SMU, Tulsa, So. Miss and UCF are all ranked in the top 75 in the latest Sagarin rankings.
No additional members are added for non-football sports. This will help to pacify the non-football schools. It also means no more "geographic outposts" are added.
South Florida, West Virginia and TCU all gain in-conference in-state rivals. Central Florida and Marshall would both be part of the Eastern Division. TCU would be in the Western Division with SMU.
Big East schools gain a presence in North Carolina. By adding ECU to the Eastern Division, Big East schools will have a game in one of the best football recruiting states in the nation.
Big East football survives and the conference maintains its BCS AQ (Automatic Qualifier) status. This is the primary goal above all else.
There are also some potential disadvantages:
Several poor football programs are added. Memphis, Tulane and UAB have mediocre football teams (although they would not directly compete with the current Big East schools).
WVU may complain about traveling to Huntington to play Marshall. Hopefully, the folks in that state will be able to play nice (in the boardroom, not on the field).
What is the best option for Big East football?
The divisions will have an uneven number of teams. A nuisance, but not a deal-breaker, and one with several potential solutions.
Big East football is dependent on C-USA for half of its teams. It is not the preferred situation, but it could be better than not having Big East football at all.
Conference USA is already discussing a football merger with the Mountain West Conference. Their hope is that the two conferences' football teams merged into one would provide a good enough mix for the BCS to grant them AQ status.
The Big East can offer Conference USA a better merger plan because it is already a BCS AQ conference.
It may not be the ideal plan. But there is no ideal plan, and there are very few decent plans at all.
With the news that the Big 12 will likely stay together, the Big East's expansion options are limited to less-than-elite options such as Temple, Navy, UCF and ECU. If the conference adds in some of these schools as full members (excluding Navy), the basketball schools may finally decide that they've had enough and leave the Big East.
While the football programs may be fine with that, it is not in the best interest of the Big East. The conference was founded as a basketball conference and still can be a very good one, but not without the non-football schools.
Long-term, the best action for the Big East to take is to get together with the other conferences and form a football playoff. The BCS should be scrapped. It would be in the best interest of the schools, the teams and the fans.
Read more about issues with the BCS in the Arizona Republic's investigative series.
Short-term, the Big East is nearly out of options. If it wants to maintain BCS-level football, it needs to act.
And it needs to act now before all of its options are gone.
* Note: Since this article was originally posted, TCU has apparently been invited to join the Big 12. With that in mind, this combined football league would become two nine-team divisions and not need any additional teams. Each team would have a comfortable eight-game conference schedule with a championship game at the end of the season for the division winners.
In addition, a better divisional alignment might be north and south. USF and UCF could join the other schools in the Western (now Southern) Division, and Tulsa and Memphis could join the schools in the Eastern (now Northern) Division.
Given the lack of leadership in the Big East, I doubt they would consider doing anything as big as this proposal. But if the conference wants to maintain football and not destroy basketball in the process, this might be its best option. It may be its only option.