Will the Big East Expand?

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So, the Big East is going to expand, huh?

Presidents of the conference’s member institutions decided this week to expand from eight to ten teams in football. Presumably, this means that Big East basketball will go from an already bloated 16 teams to 18.

Traditionalists would be hard pressed the Big East for doing so, because the behavior of the Big Ten, Pac 10, and SEC laid the groundwork this past spring and summer for the sort of attitude of Manifest Destiny that conferences seem to need to adopt in order to survive.

The Big East, in football at least, finds itself behind the eight ball with respect to the other BCS conferences, being that it has the fewest members of any of the six BCS leagues. In fact, with the recent additions by the Big 10 and Pac 10, only the Big 12 and Big East are left with fewer than 10 schools in football. Power conferences in football have engaged in a tit for tat battle that feels a bit like a nuclear arms race, where the conferences with the fewest members are in an unquestioned position of weakness.

Specifically, the Big East lacks the “arsenal” in two main areas: (1) with fewer than 12 teams, it cannot hold a conference championship game; (2) with just eight teams, BE schools are forced to shell out the money to play one more out of conference game to get to a 12 game regular season.

The first point is one that the Big East is not trying to rectify, at least in this round of expansion. The second, however, most certainly is the main goal on the horizon. Add to that the fact that expansion could bring the Big East a quality football program or two to better the on field product the conference offers, as well as the potential for opening new recruiting territories, and you have a bit of a no brainer.

The funny part of this news to me is that the directive to expand comes without really any specific instructions. The presidents are basically saying that we want to get to 10 teams by any means necessary: “we don’t care how it happens and who you bring, but get it done” is the underlying tone.

The three schools that are most often brought up are TCU, Houston, and UCF. Houston and UCF said in statements today that they have not been contacted by the BE, which is most certainly not to say that they will not be contacted in the future. When you see these names, you quickly wonder “how do they fit in the BE?” Outside of UCF (and even that’s a stretch, though USF gives them a natural partner), they don’t fit geographically and they don’t play consistently good basketball, a hallmark of the Big East. These facts are very revealing: this is about football and football along, the rest will be figured out at a later date.

In the long run, I really have no idea which schools will be invited and whether they will accept, but this is clearly a story to watch. The Big East is fighting for its long term viability as a conference. It survived this past round of expansion, thanks to the Big 10 going with just 12 schools and these moves are an attempt to survive the next round of expansion, because its probably an inevitability.

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We’ll have plenty of time to sort through all of this expansion nonsense, so let’s get down to business and talk some football, even though half the conference has the weekend off and two teams have already played this week.

South Florida 28, Rutgers 27 (Wednesday night)

Perhaps the most telling sign about the state of Big East football is when some of the conference’s games are played. Sure, every major conference suits up for a couple Thursday night games throughout the year and even an occasional Friday night game is defensible, but Wednesday night? The Big East has to do everything it can to get on television, and without a ranked team, ESPN is not exactly chomping at the bit to put a BE matchup in a prime time Saturday slot.

This Wednesday, two middling Big East teams suited up on Wednesday night on ESPN2. I haven’t seen TV ratings for the USF-Rutgers game, but I can’t imagine America went crazy for it. The two teams combined for under 550 yards of total offense and, frankly, this was one of the most unwatchable games with seven lead changes and three ties that I can imagine. The best passer on the field was not a QB, it was Rutgers WR Mohammed Sanu who tossed a 21 yard TD in his only passing attempt.

Sixth year senior RB Moise Plancher of USF rushed for 135 yards on 21 attempts to pace the offense. Rutgers best shot came on a drive that started in USF territory with under six minutes remaining, but they could not convert on the good field position.

The win is USF’s second in a row in conference and puts them in third place behind Syracuse and Pitt with a 2-2 record. The rest of the conference, including Rutgers, is now 1-2.

Louisville @ Syracuse – Saturday 12 PM, Big East Network/ESPN3.com

Syracuse will have a shot at pulling a game ahead of Pitt in the win column with a W on Saturday, even though Pitt is still up a game in the loss column and has the tie breaker in hand. Nonetheless, Syracuse will want to keep the pressure on the Panthers in their quest for a BCS bid with a win over Louisville.

Louisville, when healthy, most certainly has the weapons to win a game in the Carrier Dome. Unfortunately for the Cards, health is an issue at this point. Both star RB Bilal Powell and starting QB Adam Froman are question marks thanks to injuries suffered last week against Pitt. Coach Charlie Strong called Powell both “day to day” and “week to week” in his Monday presser with swelling in his knee, which I’m not sure totally how to comprehend. Froman is dealing with a thigh bruise. On the plus side, injured RB Victor Anderson is looking like he will be able to return, which would help out quite a bit if Powell is out or limited.

The coaching matchup here may be the most interesting story line. ‘Cuse coach Doug Marrone is the overwhelming favorite for BE coaching honors (I don’t know if Vegas handicaps BE COY races, but if they did, he would be be a bigger favorite than Zenyatta on Saturday). However, Marrone said this week that Charlie Strong has done the best job in the Big East this season. That’s a nice (and modest) compliment, though totally wrong. Strong has been superb in his first year, breathing life into a program that Steve Kragthorpe applied the Jaws of Death to for three seasons (I’m trademarking that phrase by the way), but Marrone has the Orange relevant against all odds and expectations.

This is a familiar tune in Big East matchups, but these are two teams that need to run the ball to be effective. Whether its with Powell, Anderson, or whomever else, UofL is going to need to be more effective on the ground than Syracuse with Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey to win this one. Also, Justin Burke looked maybe even more horrendous than Adam Froman in relief this week, so if he’s playing, it will be even more of an uphill battle. ‘Cuse QB Ryan Nassib isn’t exactly making NFL scouts drool with his playmaking ability, but he takes care of the ball pretty effectively. I anticipate a battle.


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