TAMPA — The last time the ACC raided the Big East, it was a fortuitous break for USF, allowing a young Bulls football program to vault up into a conference with an automatic BCS berth after just two seasons in Conference USA and just four in Division I-A.
But on Sunday, when the ACC struck again, stealing away longtime Big East members Pittsburgh and Syracuse, it had the opposite effect, putting the future of Big East football — and USF, by association — in considerable jeopardy.
The landscape of conference college football continues to shift wildly with each passing day — Sunday's news from the Austin American-Statesman had four key Big 12 teams, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, in talks to join the Pac-12 for the first 16-team megaconference.
USF's future — and again, the Big East's — could be tied to whether the league can outlast the Big 12, perhaps poaching some of its remaining schools such as Kansas, Kansas State or even Missouri, which has been mentioned as a potential 14th member of the SEC.
Sunday's aftermath from the Pittsburgh and Syracuse defections had Rutgers and Connecticut making public their interests to seek soft places to land. The survival instinct with the future uncertain creates an urgency for the Big East to find worthy additions to stabilize its football lineup before the conference is hit with another departure.
Seven years ago, the Big East had lost Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, and the league replaced those three with USF, Cincinnati and Louisville from Conference USA. The Big East then pulled off a coup of its own in landing TCU — a consistent top-10 team in recent years — to leave the Mountain West and join the Bulls in the league in 2012, though the next wave of changes could put that move in jeopardy as well.
USF is unique among the BCS schools for its youth, both as a university — founded in 1956 — and as a football program, which launched in 1997, a full century after some of its current peers. Its selling points in the current round of free agency are only stronger: USF is the ninth largest university in the country, in the nation's 13th-largest media market, with a football program now ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press poll and in position to contend for its first conference championship.
The oddity for the Bulls is they could win the Big East and play in a BCS bowl in the next few months, then find themselves on the outside of the BCS hierarchy looking in, sitting on the bubble if college football is reconfigured to a group of four massive 16-team conferences.
If the Pac-12 adds its four teams, then the SEC, ACC and Big Ten may seek to do the same, which would leave the remaining 12 members of the Big 12 and Big East competing for what would be nine openings between those three superconferences as each expand to 16 teams. The ACC, perhaps the most natural geographic match for USF, already has a strong foothold in Florida with Miami and Florida State, so that league may only look toward the Bulls if the SEC poached one of its Florida schools. That's all the less likely after the ACC voted to raise its buyout fee to $20 million; the Big East's by comparison, is $5 million, with 27 months' notice.
The Big East, too, is unique among conferences in having a dual existence, with eight football members this year and 16 in basketball, so the loss of Pittsburgh and Syracuse could lead to a split between the league's remaining football schools and its basketball members, Seton Hall, St. John's, Villanova, Providence, Georgetown, DePaul and Marquette.
USF has kept quiet in these uncertain days of conference change, with fans left only with a two-paragraph statement from athletic director Doug Woolard and USF president Judy Genshaft saying that the Bulls are aware of the changes taking place and that they have been "actively engaged in dialogue" over the last 18 months with an eye toward preserving the solid position to which USF has risen.
As college football's major conferences continue to swell to unprecedented levels, it's uncertain where the next step will be for USF football, and perhaps for the first time in the program's young history, whether that will be another step forward.