TAMPA – The future of USF and its football program is hanging in the balance as the landscape of the Big East Conference continues to change on seemingly a daily basis.
USF fans want to know where their school will be when all the dust settles, but in the always evolving world of college football, it is tough to tell.
“This is the biggest round of changes that we’ve seen in a long time and the problem is you don’t know when it’s going to stop,” said Greg Auman, who covers the Bulls for the St. Petersburg Times.
Unfortunately USF finds itself in a difficult position. The Big East is the most unstable of the Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying conferences. That is due in large part to the unexpected departures from two of the league’s founding institutions, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, who decided to leave for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The latest news that Texas Christian University, who agreed to join the conference in November of last year, has accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 instead, also dealt a big blow to the conference.
Due to all these factors, Bulls’ fans are becoming more worried as the process of conference expansion evolves.
“I’m very worried, this is the one thing that could very well hinder our university’s future growth,” said USF senior and dedicated football fan Anthony Adduci. “Our football program is what brings in students and a good portion of money to the university, and if we aren’t in an (automatic qualifying) major conference we are going to lose more and more each year.”
It is worth noting that most of the money made from football is put back into athletics to support the non-revenue sports such as tennis, cross country and golf, among others.
What is a Bowl Championship Series Automatic Qualifying conference?
There are six BCS AQ conferences in college football. They are the six major conferences that allow one or two teams the opportunity to receive an automatic bid to one of the five major bowl games at the end of the year. The five major bowls include the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl and the BCS National Championship game. Teams can earn a spot in one of these games by either winning one of the six conferences or placing in the top 12 of the BCS rankings at the end of the regular season.
The six conferences that currently qualify for an automatic bid are the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Pacific 12 (Pac 12), Big Ten, Big 12, and the Big East. Each of these conferences is reevaluated every four seasons to determine if they still meet certain qualifications to be considered an AQ conference. One of the major problems the Big East now faces is whether they will be strong enough to meet the qualifications to keep AQ status during the next review after the 2013 season.
What is the Big East and how did it start?
The Big East was started in 1979 and is currently the largest Division I-A conference, with 16 full-time members. The Big East is unique in that it is the only major conference in which half of its members do not play football. This is because the Big East started as a basketball conference with non-football playing schools like Providence College, St. John’s, Georgetown and Seton Hall being the driving force behind the conference’s inception.
Why are schools leaving the Big East?
There are multiple reasons why schools are leaving the Big East, such as a lack of cohesion between football and non-football playing members and a lack of future stability.
Many people believe that the reason the Big East is struggling as a football conference is due to the lack of cohesion between the football playing members and the non-football playing members. Unlike most conferences, where football is the driving force, the Big East is driven by both football and basketball. It makes it much harder to negotiate and move the conference forward as a whole when you have to please two groups instead of one.
But the driving force behind all of these changes ultimately comes down to money and future stability.
“It’s about the money and everyone knows it. Everyone is fighting for themselves, trying to stay one step ahead of each other, not caring who they have to jump over or trample to get to where they want to be,” said Adduci.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh jumped ship to the ACC partially because they knew they would make a lot more money under the conference’s new TV deal with ESPN. The deal is believed to be worth about $1.86 billion over the next 12 years with $155 million distributed annually to ACC teams, according to the Sports Business Journal.
Experts from sporting news outlets like ESPN have cited a lack of conference stability as another main cause for Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving for the ACC, which boasts high profile schools such as Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech.
“The problem with the Big East is that there are very few people that don’t feel like they might have a shot at something better somewhere else,” said Auman.
A major contributing factor to the Big East’s lack of stability was its failure to negotiate a new TV deal when every other conference did. All of the other BCS AQ conferences recently negotiated new TV contracts that will increase the revenue each school will earn.
Big East Commissioner John Marinatto decided that he wanted to wait to negotiate a new deal and has since been much maligned for that decision. So not only will Syracuse and Pittsburgh have more stability in the ACC, but they will make more money. Because of this, other current Big East members are looking to follow the lead of Pittsburgh and Syracuse by finding more stable conferences.
While some fans want to fault Marinatto for the trouble the Big East is in, there are also those who believe that the performance on the field has played a role.
“Maybe it’s the conference as a whole that hasn’t proven itself over the past few years that really started to paint the big picture and handed the brush off to Pitt and Syracuse,” said Casey Colliflower, a student intern for USF athletics.
It is no secret that the Big East has been one of the weakest major conferences in football throughout the past couple of years. This year has been no different as the Big East ranks last among the six major conferences and falls behind the non-AQ Mountain West Conference in terms of overall strength according to the Conference Power Rankings on ESPN.com.
What effect will this have on USF?
The big question USF fans are asking themselves is how all of this is going to affect the future of the Bulls?
At this stage the fate of the Bulls and the Big East may very well lie in the hands of the University of Missouri, which seems a little strange considering they aren’t even in the eastern part of the United States. They lie in the Midwest and are a member of the Big 12.
As ESPN Big East blogger Andrea Adelson said, “Who ever would have thought the future of the Big East now hinges on Missouri?”
Since the Tigers are rumored to be moving to the SEC, Big East schools such as Louisville, West Virginia and Cincinnati are some of the schools that the Big 12 has expressed interest in. And they would almost certainly accept an invitation if extended one.
If that happened the remaining members of the Big East would seemingly be left to fend for themselves when it comes to rebuilding or finding a new conference. The Big East would have to try and add enough schools to get back to the minimum required for a football conference.
Service academies like Navy and Air Force would be the top options, along with recent college football power Boise State. But they may not join if they feel the conference is unstable and could be in jeopardy of losing its AQ status.
Then the Big East would have to turn to inviting Conference USA schools such as Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist. These schools have shown promise in the lower-tier Conference USA, but would most likely do little to strengthen the Big East.
What’s the worst that could happen?
The worst-case scenario would be the Big East dismantling as a football conference all together. This situation would present the biggest problems for USF. Without any offers from the other major conferences, the Bulls would be forced to go back down to Conference USA or another non-AQ conference, with all the progress they’ve made over the years basically amounting to nothing.
Even if the league was able to add enough teams to fill the required quota, the ability of the Big East to keep its AQ status, which will be reevaluated in 2013, would be in question.
This would not only deal a major blow to the athletics programs but the university as a whole. The university would not earn nearly as much money as a member of a non-AQ conference. Not to mention that attendance at sporting events would likely decrease due to a lack of interest from fans because of playing lesser competition.
What is the best case scenario for USF?
At this point in time the best thing that could happen for USF and the Big East is for Missouri to stay put in the Big 12. This would allow the Big East to keep its six remaining football members intact and give it some leverage to add teams like Navy, Air Force and Boise State, who have expressed interest in joining but are reluctant at this point due to the unknown future stability of the league.
“The schools that would be eager to join the Big East aren’t willing to do so because they don’t know what they’re committing to,” said Auman. “If all the member schools that are in the league right now were truly committed to being in the league and were willing to raise the exit fee to a more prohibitive buyout, then I think you’d see Air Force and Navy and Temple and these kind of schools accepting invitations, and I think you’d see the league back in solid footing.”
If the Big East were able to build on the schools it already has and expand, it would likely keep its AQ status. In turn, USF would keep benefiting from being a member of a major BCS conference.
Only one thing is for sure at this point, and that is that change is imminent. The landscape of college football is changing and will keep changing as long as there is more money to be made.
It is impossible to know for sure where USF fits in this puzzle that is conference realignment. Only time will tell.