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In realignment circus, desperate Big East will likely lose AQ status


As the latest wheels of conference realignment churn, it's become increasingly apparent that we've all been sucked in by another mindless reality show.

Some people get a kick out of watching an intoxicated Snooki spew unintelligible insults on Jersey Shore. College football fans chuckle just as hard when Memphis' athletic director says with a straight face: "Ultimately we'd like to be in the SEC. We think we deserve it."

Really, all you can do at this point is laugh. Last weekend, in explaining his school's interest in becoming a football-only member of the Big East, Air Force AD Hans Mueh told the Denver Post: "I'm so disappointed with my fellow athletic directors. I think we have put the student-athlete in second place while chasing the dollar." So he wants to join a conference where his student-athletes would travel 2,000 miles for most road trips.

It's all fun and games until an entire league's existence is threatened. With the Big East, we've reached that sad twist in the realignment circus.

The Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC expanded to get richer. The ACC expanded ... well, because everyone else was doing it. But the Big East finds itself in a much more dire position: It's just trying to survive, even if that means adding schools with no geographic connection and marginal football relevance.

On Monday, the league announced its intent to expand to 12 teams in football, a lofty goal considering the recent exits of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and not-even-a-member-yet TCU currently leaves the conference with ... six.

Do you have an FBS football program? Have you ever dreamed of playing in East Hartford in November? The Big East will probably take you. Rumored candidates include the service academies, Temple, East Carolina, UCF, SMU, Houston and maybe even Boise State.

The pitch, presumably, is the chance to join a BCS automatic qualifying conference. That is, after all, the sport's golden demarcation line. Join one of the Chosen Six and your existence instantly becomes more credible than if you're in one of the other five. Just ask TCU.

There's only one problem. Barring some unforeseen coup by the Big East, the Chosen Six is about to become the Chosen Five.

The Big East, like the other five AQ conferences, is assured an annual berth through the length of the BCS' current contract, which runs through the 2013 season. After that, there's no guarantee. The BCS will use an evaluation formula to determine whether an additional league like the Mountain West will merit a berth for the next two seasons. After that, however, the BCS becomes whatever the marketplace -- the television networks and the bowls themselves -- deems worthy.

Numerous sources across the sport Monday said they can't imagine the marketplace will smile on a league that will essentially be Conference USA circa 2004.

The Big East has been fortunate to stay part of the BCS cabal for as long it has. Its original mid-90s inclusion was based almost entirely on the presence of regular Orange Bowl participant Miami. Syracuse, Virginia Tech and West Virginia had nationally competitive programs, too. Now, all but West Virginia will be gone by 2014 -- unless of course the Big 12 or SEC swoops up WVU.

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Loyalty to former commissioner Mike Tranghese saved the Big East once already, after it lost Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. In 2007, his BCS comrades granted the league a waiver for the '08 and '09 seasons after falling short in the four-year mathematical review. Strong runs by West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez and Louisville under Bobby Petrino, along with the brief rise of Rutgers under Greg Schiano, eased concerns when the BCS' current contract was negotiated. Since then, however, Cincinnati (twice) and Connecticut got creamed in their bowls -- both on the scoreboard and in the TV ratings. Even before the ACC's latest pillage, there was grumbling among both the bowls and the Big East's fellow conferences about the league's continued inclusion.

"The bottom line is that the Big East's problem has always been that they're just not good enough in football," Tranghese told the Newark Star-Ledger last month. "That made them vulnerable."

Hence, why Pitt and Syracuse jumped at the ACC's offer last month, and why West Virginia, Louisville and Connecticut (which Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo recently bragged about blocking from the ACC) are furiously seeking an escape. In the meantime, they and remaining members Cincinnati, USF and Rutgers are scrambling to salvage the conference. Each school stands to lose untold millions in revenue if the Big East loses its current status.

They're just delaying the inevitable.

Even if whatever conglomeration they come up with still stands mathematically ahead of the Mountain West and Conference USA come 2014, the bowls and the Big East's fellow conferences have had enough. West Virginia is the league's lone remaining school the bowls can count on to travel and draw eyeballs. Just because you give Temple or UCF a Big East label doesn't mean fans are going to carve out four hours on Jan. 2 to watch them. The fact that an unranked 8-4 UConn team went to a BCS bowl last season (where it bought 4,500 tickets) while 11-1 Michigan State and Boise State did not was galling enough.

"You're telling me you're going to put 9-3 East Carolina in the Fiesta Bowl?" said one college football administrator. "Are you kidding me?"

Army, Navy and Air Force would be much more appealing -- they draw well even to the third-tier bowls they play in now -- but what are the chances any would win the league consistently?

And then there's ESPN, which unofficially runs college football at this point (though it vehemently denies DeFilippo's quote to The Boston Globe that the network "told us what to do" during ACC expansion). Four years ago the network was thrilled just to wrestle back the BCS from FOX. This time around you can bet it will be more assertive about preventing more Oklahoma-UConn ratings disasters.

The commissioners with clout -- Mike Slive, Jim Delany and Larry Scott -- will certainly be on board with a slimmed-down BCS. Delany and Slive have already hinted at a likely abolition of the two-teams-per-conference limit in the BCS' next go-round. One less automatic berth would mean one more spot for them. They would be far more forgiving if Tranghese were still in charge of the Big East. But then, if Tranghese were still in charge, the league never would have deteriorated into such a dysfunctional mess to begin with.

The Big East had multiple opportunities to stave off its present predicament. It first disclosed its intention to expand to at least 10 teams more than a year ago, hiring former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a consultant and making a solid, if geographically clunky, move in adding TCU. But then members got bogged down in a plan to allow Villanova to move from FCS to FBS, followed by a now-regrettable decision last spring to pass on a lucrative new ESPN contract in hopes of going to the open market next year.

With that in mind, Sunday's reports that the Big East was at least considering Boise State raised an interesting question: Wouldn't Chris Petersen's program be better off staying put? Yes, Boise desperately craves an AQ bid, but again, there's no guarantee the revamped Big East will get one. In the meantime, the Broncos have a pretty nice path to the BCS as it is. Go undefeated this year and they're all but assured their third berth in six seasons. The BCS title game remains a long shot, but going undefeated in the Big East did Cincinnati no favors in 2009.

It may be a moot issue, because Boise has reportedly gained little traction in the Big East's discussions, which in itself is a bit odd. It may be the only available program that would help the league's BCS credentials. And apparently geography isn't much of issue if the Big East is willing to take Air Force.

Perhaps the league has already resigned itself to the inevitable. Perhaps it's already moved past trying to preserve its favored status. Perhaps it's just looking for a viable way for its remaining programs to keep playing football.

If so, we've reached the part of the reality show where the subjects become too depressing to keep laughing at.