Disaster averted, will Big East now expand?
Now that the possibility of major conference reshuffling in college football has seemed to subside, the lingering question is whether the Big East will itself expand in the aftermath.
WKMG-TV in Orlando reported Wednesday that the Big East is "highly likely" to extend invitations "as soon as next week" to Central Florida and Memphis, citing multiple unnamed college football sources. Such a move would bring the league to 10 members in football and an unprecedented 18 in basketball, presuming the invitation was for all sports.
(UPDATE: Busy morning, as the Big East office is now officially dismissing the WKMG report as not true, and the Orlando Sentinel is citing its own sources in reporting that the WKMG report is premature, with no commitment from the Big East to pre-emptively expand yet. The Sentinel reports that league officials will discuss the matter in a teleconference today.)
When the Big East was raided in 2003-04, the league turned to Conference USA, plucking USF, Cincinnati and Louisville, as well as DePaul and Marquette as non-football members. The current C-USA teams most often mentioned as possible Big East additions are UCF, East Carolina and Memphis, though Big East commissioner John Marinatto (and before him, Mike Tranghese) have consistently said they had not added a ninth football member because there was no available school that added the necessary value to the league.
Could this be the Big East's time to expand? Keep in mind, WKMG's headline has a question mark at the end, and the subhead, "Knights Could Jump to Same Conference at USF," could have been written at any point in recent years. UCF and Memphis haven't changed as potential additions, though months of headlines fearing the league's demise at the hands of the Big Ten may make the Big East more likely to protect itself by pre-emptively adding depth to its football roster.
If the conference were expanding as a survival instinct, concerned longterm about its automatic BCS berth should multiple teams be raided by another BCS league, UCF and Memphis might not be the best match. In that scenario, the best qualities in an addition might not be market size (where UCF has a clear edge with the No. 19 market in Orlando) or basketball tradition, where Memphis has the edge.
There might be more consideration for ECU, which has won C-USA titles in the past two seasons, and has easily the best success against BCS-level teams, with six wins in the last five years. ECU is 6-14 against BCS opponents since 2005; UCF is 1-14 and Memphis is 0-10. So while adding programs like the Knights or Tigers would insulate the Big East from being left with five or six football schools, it might lessen the perceived strength of a league that's already facing critics in that area.
UCF would give the league a bigger presence in Florida, allowing all football schools to play in either Orlando or Tampa each year to help recruiting in the state. Having the Bulls and the Knights would make travel easier in Olympic sports, giving them two opponents from one out-of-the-way road trip.
Last week gave the Big East a glimpse into the possibility of adding schools from another BCS league, as schools like Kansas and Missouri were potentially left without a home had six Big 12 schools gone to the Pac-10. The question now for the Big East is which is more likely -- that happening again, or the Big East facing schools leaving down the road.
-- The Orlando Sentinel explored the same topic, with columnist Mike Bianchi writing that the Big East should make the call to add UCF.
-- One more note on such potential expansion -- just has having eight football schools has meant an unbalanced seven-game conference schedule for the Big East, having 10 members would create a similar problem. If the Big East used the Pac-10's model, that would call for nine league games, leaving only three for nonconference opponents. That's probably easier logistically on a college -- USF could reduce its current nonconference formula of two BCS opponents, two non-BCS I-A schools and a I-AA home game to one from each category -- but it still presents a situation where some teams have more home conference games than others every year.