By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The Big East was dealt a surprising blow to the stability of the conference when Pittsburgh and Syracuse applied and was accepted as a member of the ACC. Although both schools would like to join the ACC sooner rather than later, the Big East plans on holding them to the league’s withdrawal policy and in the conference until 2014.
Although the Big East isn’t on its deathbed, there are concerns about its future and long-term stability. With the departure of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, seven teams remain in the conference – West Virginia, South Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Rutgers, Louisville and TCU (joining next year).
Rutgers and Connecticut are reportedly very interested in joining the ACC and after adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh, it seems to be only a matter of time before the conference expands to 16. Additionally, West Virginia, Louisville, Cincinnati and TCU are rumored targets of Big 12 expansion.
Although there are concerns about the future of the league, the Big East can’t continue as a seven-team conference forever. Expect the conference to pursue expansion over the next couple of months to get back to a 10 or 12-team league.
With the Big East needing to invite teams to secure its future, which teams could be targets of expansion?
Air Force: The conference is reportedly considering inviting the Falcons as a football-only member. Air Force has a national following and would be a solid addition to the conference. However, it’s an odd geographic fit and doesn’t substantially increase the Big East’s standing nationally.
Army: The Black Knights tried conference membership before and it didn’t go so well. Army was a dreadful 13-67 in Conference USA from 1998-2004. If Navy and Air Force joined, perhaps the Black Knights could be enticed. Also, coach Rich Ellerson has upgraded the football program during his tenure and it’s very likely Army would be a lot more competitive in a conference this time around.
East Carolina: The Pirates have already expressed their interest in making a conference shift, applying to join the Big East on Tuesday. Although some reports have already nixed East Carolina as an expansion candidate, the Pirates should be high on the priority list. East Carolina ranked No. 50 in attendance last year, which is higher than Rutgers, Cincinnati, Connecticut, South Florida and Syracuse. With BCS conference money flowing into the program, the Pirates could be a solid long-term solution.
Houston: The Cougars are under consideration for Big 12 expansion, but the Big East may end up being the more likely destination. Houston would be an attractive market for the conference to tap into and would give TCU a Big East rival. Very few cons for the conference to invite the Cougars and would be a good pick to help rebuild the Big East.
Memphis: The Tigers have long been interested in joining the Big East. This would be an invite to strengthen the conference for basketball purposes, as the football team is currently one of the worst in college football and the facilities are in need of repair.
Navy: Similar to Air Force, the Big East may invite the Midshipmen as a football-only member. Navy would be a good geographic fit and has a national following. The Midshipmen have been very competitive in recent years, winning at least eight games a season since 2003. Would the Midshipmen want to give up their football independence? If Air Force and Army say no to the Big East, Navy might not be interested.
Notre Dame: An extreme longshot. The Irish aren’t giving up independence, but the Big East can at least try. Would be a huge upset if Notre Dame joined the Big East for football.
SMU: If the Big 12 doesn’t call, would the Mustangs be interested in a spot in the Big East? If the conference has to turn outside of the BCS conferences for expansion candidates, a team in the Dallas market makes a lot of sense.
Temple: The Big East kicked out the Owls after the 2004 season, but Temple has improved its football product in recent years. The Owls would get the Big East into the Philadelphia market, but has struggled to fill Lincoln Financial Field on Saturdays.
UCF: Unless the Big East invites Boise State or BYU, the Knights are probably the most competitive and capable team for contending Big East title right now. Would South Florida block UCF from joining? Although the Bulls may not like the idea of having another Florida school in the conference, the Big East could run out of options.
Villanova: The Wildcats appeared close to joining the Big East earlier this year and are already a member in basketball. The football program is competing at the FCS level, but would help the conference get into the Philadelphia market. Villanova would likely need some time to build its program if it makes the move from the FCS level, and would not help the Big East from a national perspective much right now.