Skip Holtz spent last weekend at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, and the race gave him a new perspective on the ever-changing speculation surrounding conference expansion in college football.
"Everyone is trying to pick a horse," said the first-year USF football coach, who will attend the Big East's annual meetings in Ponte Vedra, which start in earnest on Monday.
With much being written about what the Big Ten might do, and how that might impact a potentially plundered league like the Big East, Holtz readily admits he does not know what will happen. He wishes that more people would recognize that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany might be the only person who has an idea at this point.
"You have 17,000 different things written, and it's all speculation," Holtz said. "Everyone is trying to project what will happen, but there's so much uncertainty. The process travels much slower than the projection."
The last time college football saw conference realignment, USF had much to gain, joining the Big East in 2005 after the ACC plucked Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech from the league. The question now is where the Big Ten will seek its growth. Will it target one or more Big East mainstays such as Syracuse, Rutgers and/or Pittsburgh, and in doing so put the conference's football future in jeopardy?
But the Big Ten, seeking new markets for new sources of TV revenue, could also raid the Big 12, with attractive options such as Texas, Nebraska and Missouri, and of course, the biggest coup would be Notre Dame, which is an independent in football but competes in the Big East in all other sports.
"There are so many scenarios out there," first-year Big East commissioner John Marinatto told the Providence Journal this week, "that it's created an unsettled landscape for every conference in the country. I'm spending my days and nights looking at where we fit and what we can do better for our schools."
Marinatto has compared the fascination with conference expansion to the widespread anticipation of the NCAA basketball tournament expanding from 65 to 96 teams; the tournament opted for a less-drastic change, adding three play-in games for a 68-team model.
Marinatto has hired former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a consultant, and while Tagliabue isn't expected to be in Ponte Vedra next week, the league's athletic directors and football and basketball head coaches will be able to talk about their best course of action.
The league instituted harsher exit penalties after the last reshuffling, such that league members must now pay $5 million and give 27 months' notice, which would push any change to at least 2012.
Connecticut football coach Randy Edsall has said that the Big East's football coaches want the conference to issue an ultimatum to Notre Dame to join the Big East in football or move entirely to the Big Ten. If that was the only loss the Big East took, it could cherry-pick a Conference USA program such as East Carolina or UCF, keeping a 16-team basketball lineup and move to a nine-team football league.
Could sacrificing Notre Dame preserve the Big East's football lineup? Holtz is a Notre Dame graduate whose father, Lou, won a national championship there, but he has limited insights on what the Irish might do.
"I speak with no authority," he said, "but I know that for a long time, Notre Dame has tried to maintain their independence. I don't think they would succumb to that for financial reasons."
It may be months before the Big Ten decides how big its expansion will be, but the Big East's top athletic minds will continue to work on its best course of action to anticipate the first domino in the next power shift in college football.
"I would imagine athletic directors in all leagues are having discussions about this in their spring meetings,'' USF athletic director Doug Woolard said. "I think the Big East is a league that shows you can have good camaraderie with a lot of diverse schools."