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Big East vs. Mountain West: Which has better long-term prospects?


In a sign of just how precipitously the once-powerful Big East has plummeted in two years' time, the conference will soon finalize new television deals worth less than $30 million annually, SportsBusiness Journal reported. To put that in perspective, the ACC -- for years considered the Big East's relative equal in football -- earned more than eight times that much ($240 million annually) from its latest ESPN deal announced last year.

The Big East still has a BCS automatic qualifying berth for one more year, but after that it will no longer exist in the same stratosphere as its five former power-conference colleagues. Starting with the 2014 playoff system, it will be among the so-called Group of Five conferences -- along with the Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC -- that will share a guaranteed berth in one of the six premium bowls.

When the Group of Five agreement was announced last November, it was considered a victory for the Big East, since that league would likely boast the group's highest-ranked team most years. But later that month, Rutgers and Louisville announced their departures, and then, most notably, Boise State opted to remain in the Mountain West. Now, there's reason to ask the question: Will the Big East remain the sport's No. 6 conference? Or will the newly emboldened Mountain West pass it up?

On the one hand, Boise's reversal alone could seal the latter perception. Using the two leagues' expected 2014 memberships, the Mountain West would have produced the highest-ranked Group of Five champion in six of the past seven years, with Boise responsible for all but one of those hypothetical berths. However, a conference should be measured by the strength of its entire membership, not just its champion. After all, few would have considered the WAC the best non-AQ conference back when the Broncos (2006 and '09) and Hawaii (2007) represented that league in BCS bowl games.

Before the BCS commissioners blew up their own system, they'd created a formula to determine whether one of the then non-AQ leagues had played itself into a guaranteed a spot. It consisted of three criteria, measured over a four-year period: 1) each league's highest-ranked team in the season's final BCS standings; 2) the average BCS ranking of all league members; and 3) the number and placement of Top 25 teams, using a complicated points system and expressed as a percentage of the highest conference's total.

Back then, the Mountain West had begun making a case for inclusion based on the annual strength of its teams at the top (TCU, Utah and BYU), but it lagged behind the Big Six in overall depth. Annual bottom feeders like New Mexico and UNLV dragged down its average ranking. Meanwhile, the Big East, with just eight teams, was fairly competitive throughout. Here's how the top eight conferences stacked up in 2010, halfway through the 2008-11 review period.

Mass realignment subsequently rendered that data moot, but let's use the same criteria to determine how the Big East and Mountain West stack up in 2013.

First, let's review the 2012 performances of both leagues' lineups for this coming season, when the Big East will get one more year out of Louisville and Rutgers. Last season, the Mountain West claimed the higher conference champion in the BCS standings; Boise State, which finished the regular season ranked 19th, checked in ahead of eventual Sugar Bowl champion Louisville, which ranked 21st. Also, 25 percent of the MWC's 2013 teams (three of 12) finished in the Top 25 as opposed to 10 percent (one of 10) for the Big East.

As for average ranking ...

The two leagues are fairly comparable at the top, and both experience a hefty drop-off in the middle. But once again, the Mountain West was beset by too many low-quality teams at the bottom. While the gap isn't as wide as it was in 2010, the Big East still finished with a slightly better BCS average.

But even if the Big East is in stronger position for next year, what should we make of the two leagues' long-term prospects? Beginning in 2014, the Big East loses its top two performers from last year, Louisville and Rutgers, while adding longtime doormat Tulane. In 2015, it adds Navy, a regular bowl team but not one that generally cracks the Top 25. Surely this will be when the Mountain West moves ahead, right?

If you're going to look two years (or more) down the road, it's best to first look two years (or more) into the past. Teams and leagues' experience ebbs and flows. As was intended in the original formula, let's evaluate the two leagues' future lineups over a four-year period (2009-12).

Once again, Boise State helped the Mountain West notch the highest team ranking in three of the four years (Big East champ Cincinnati was No. 3 in 2009) and a higher percentage of Top 25 teams (16.7 percent compared with 6.8 percent for the Big East). As for average BCS ranking ...

As suspected, once you take Louisville and Rutgers out of the equation, the Mountain West's future lineup had a better 2012 than the Big East's. But that was not the case in any of the three years before that, or in the four-year average. Interestingly, whereas the Mountain West had an expected up-and-down pattern, the Big East's new membership has gotten progressively worse since peaking in 2009.

And that's precisely why the Big East will probably remain ahead of the Mountain West going forward.

The Big East had a better four-year average despite significant regression by onetime regular bowl participants USF, UConn and Houston. Meanwhile, it took historic years from Nevada (in 2010) and San Jose State and Utah State (in 2012) for the Mountain West to attain its peaks; all may come back to earth in the near future after losing their respective savior coaches. And remember, the Big East may eventually add a 12th team, which, if it's a respectable mid-major like Tulsa (four-year average: 49.5), will improve the league's depth.

But "depth" is a relative term here. Back in 2008-09, the sixth-deepest conference (the Big Ten) had an average ranking of 50.91. The Big East of 2014 will have just one team (Cincinnati) that averaged a ranking that high over the past four seasons.

Here is the average BCS ranking for the top eight conferences from 2009-12, based on their expected 2014 membership.

So in all likelihood, the Big East will still be regarded as the sixth-best conference. But, tellingly, a TV network is only willing to pay one-eighth as much as for the fifth-best conference for you to see it.

BCS data comes from Jerry Palm of and