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USF Bulls could soon become America's most embraceable orphans

If you were to gather the top 64 football teams in America into one room, if you were to start over and separate the big boys from the little and the meat from the potatoes and the muscle from the fat, there would be a chair for USF.

That isn't the problem.

If you were to rank the NCAA's teams by television market, if you would rank teams from the high-definition teams to those who ought to be playing on tiny black-and-white sets to those who should be confined to your radio, there would be a place for USF in prime time.

That isn't the problem, either.

As a program, the Bulls are good enough, and they're accomplished enough, and they're attractive enough. They have enough fans, enough potential and a rich enough recruiting ground. Certainly, they are in the top half of college football teams in the country.

And yet, the Bulls could soon become America's most embraceable orphans.

The dizzying reshuffling of college football is bad for a lot of schools, but you can argue it might be worse for USF than for any in the country. For all that the Bulls have accomplished in their brief history, there is a possibility they might soon lead the nation in getting left out.

It is not USF's fault, of course, that it resides in a conference where other schools are racing toward the exits. Syracuse and Pitt have already deserted to the ACC. The athletic directors at UConn and Rutgers are like Horshack, waving their arms and ooh-oohing in an effort to get called on next. West Virginia is staying for now, but only because the SEC and ACC reportedly didn't think it was pretty enough.

The Big East has turned into the Titanic, and poor USF hasn't been around long enough to blow up a life raft. Presidents and athletic directors of the remaining schools that play football met Tuesday in New York; a large conference room was not required.

So here is the question about the Big East, and here is the question about USF.

Can they float?

Granted, there are a few things that USF lacks. Tradition. Timing. Geography. Championships. Money (at least, silly money). Basketball. All of those things help a school build a brand name.

If you look at it, however, USF has some things to offer as a college program. Really, it does.

Success, for one. The Bulls are ranked 18th in the AP poll. They've gone to six straight bowls, and they've won at least eight games for five straight seasons. For a team in its 15th season, that's not bad.

Ah, you ask, but are the Bulls consistently one of the top 64? And the answer is: You betcha. Take a glance at Jeff Sagarin's ratings (one of the services that provides the computer rankings for the BCS). Over the previous five seasons, Sagarin's final ratings have the Bulls 44th, 39th, 43rd, 20th and 31st.

Then there is the TV market. If television contracts are helping to drive this super conference nonsense, someone should note that Tampa Bay has the 14th largest market in the country. Not only that, but the New York Times' Pete Thamel wrote a piece this week in which he adjusted TV markets based on the number of college football fans. In that listing, Tampa Bay was ninth.

Ah, and how about fans? According to Thamel's research, USF has 520,627 fans, which is 53rd in the country. That's more than Mississippi State, more than Maryland, more than Colorado, more than Northwestern.

The problem? The SEC isn't going to throw Mississippi State out, and the ACC isn't going to dismiss Maryland, and the Big Ten isn't going to toss Northwestern. College football isn't starting over. Lesser teams than USF will still be in power conferences.

Potentially, that leaves USF in an unenviable position. It isn't going to get overtures from the SEC or the ACC, and it shouldn't want to take a step backward to Conference USA. Which means that the best option is probably to hope for a merger with the leftover teams from the Big 12 to form the Conference of Misfit Toys.

Yeah, that might work. It could be like a Jilted Lovers League, with a West Division of TCU, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and perhaps others. In the East, it would hang onto as many teams as possible, and if need be, it could do some wooing itself. UCF, maybe? East Carolina? Army? Navy? Memphis?

Would that be enough for the league to keep its automatic qualifier in the BCS? Maybe, if there is still a BCS.

If I ran the Big East — and someone should, don't you think? — here are a couple of other things I would do on my first day of work.

First, I would invite Notre Dame. And if the Irish didn't join, I would kindly ask them to park their other teams somewhere else. No offense, but when the existence of the league is threatened, shouldn't a school be all-in or all-out? (Yes, this could drive Notre Dame to the ACC, but if it does, it could salvage Rutgers or UConn.)

Second, I would invite Boise State, blue field and all.

Third, I would copy the ACC and jack up the cost of defection.

Fourth, I would call the SEC and say this: "Missouri? Really?"

Fifth, I would mail footballs to Georgetown, Providence and the rest of the nonmajor football teams in the conference. Rulebooks, too.

Finally, and I would say this as often and as loudly as possible, who decided that 64 was the magic number? For crying out loud, not even the NCAA basketball tournament stops at 64 anymore. Why not five conferences of 16 each for a total of 80 teams?

In the meantime, all USF can do is wait. And win. And cram about five decades of tradition into the next five weeks.

After all, no matter how well it worked out for Kal-El, no football team wants to be an orphan.

USF Bulls could soon become America's most embraceable orphans 09/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 1:23am]

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