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Expansion Apocalypse: Next Steps

(Updated) It is a mad dash for the door for the Big East. With Pittsburgh and Syracuse on their way to the ACC, the remaining Big East schools are all trying to figure out the roadmaps to their futures. For most Big East members, that map is very difficult to read. Who will want Louisville or Cincinnati? What will become of the Catholic schools that don't play football?
Where will Notre Dame end up?

West Virginia would like to leave the conference to join the SEC, but the SEC isn't prepared to make a move yet. Connecticut has it's heart set on the ACC and is aggressively pursuing membership in that conference. Villanova is exploring it's options too, though they may not be as vast.

Some of the Big East and Big XII leftover schools might merge into a single conference. Most likely that means the departures of Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida and TCU to the Big XII, which would retain it's much-larger television contract. Rutgers, UConn and West Virginia have their sights set elsewhere, but could also be included if those plans fall through.

Rutgers would like to join the Big Ten and has been "keeping in touch" with both that conference and the ACC in hopes of landing safely in one of those conferences.

Of course, it all depends on what Texas does (as usual). The university regents at Oklahoma and Texas granted their President the power to make decisions regarding conference affiliation this afternoon. The move signals an intention to explore and negotiate opportunities with other conferences — likely the Pac-12. If those two schools departed, they would each potentially bring along an instate rival, leaving just Missouri, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State.

Missouri is very rumored to be a top target of the SEC, who would like to add the Tigers to their conference, which means that the Big XII could be down to just four members before basketball season tips off.

Mergers and Acquisitions

The combination of Big East and Big XII teams could be as many as 12 or as few as 8 schools, meaning that to match other conferences, the addition of some schools from outside the two collapsing football leagues might also be necessary. It also isn't clear if those Big East football schools would bring any basketball schools with them, but according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Villanova "would consider" moving up in football and joining that merged conference.

Villanova is reportedly approaching that merged conference with a certain level of caution, and any decision to join would depend on the ultimate membership and potential it presented. In effect, they won't upgrade football to a league that won't have the revenue streams needed to operate the athletics department. Not that that should be a problem, since a merged-league would potentially keep the Big XII television contract, at least until it expires.

Those discussions have the Mountain West Conference and Conference-USA worried, and there is now talk that those two conferences could merge as well. That would create a geographically and numerically massive league that could perhaps demand an automatic BCS bid. The combination would only exist in football, and their other sports would remain separate.

In the meantime, the Mountain West has also made a bid to reel TCU back in. The Horned Frogs, sensing weakness in the Big East ranks may not have the stomach for risking a jump to the flailing conference at this point. The MWC is also looking at the prospects of courting the potential Big XII remnants to form a league that might challege for a BCS bid on it's own.

The BCS board of directors prefers to have a minimum of six automatic qualifier conferences, so if one or more BCS leagues collapse, new seats will open at the table in the next-best conferences down the line.

Irish Atlantic?

In the meantime, Notre Dame is still hoping that the Big East will hold together as a hybrid conference, allowing them to have their independence and eat it too. Retaining that status is the clear preference of the Irish, but the inevitable scramble to find life boat off the Titanic might force their hand. If it does, multiple sources are reporting that the ACC could be their preferred option.

Notre Dame has a geographic and traditional fit with the Big Ten in football, but they are an eastward-looking institution in almost every other regard. They have large east coast alumni bases, and the growing populations of the mid-atlantic and southern states in the ACC makes its markets more viable for growing the Notre Dame brand.

Notre Dame is the clear preference of the ACC for one of their next two slots. If not them, then UConn and Rutgers will get a look, but Boston College apparently still has bad blood with UConn over a lawsuit filed when they left the Big East. It is unknown if they have enough support to block UConn's entry, however.

John Marinatto spoke to the New York Times, exclaiming his confidence in the Big East's ability to weather this storm. He also noted that he planned to hold Syracuse and Pitt to the terms of the conference withdrawal clause: 27 months notice and a $5 million penalty. That means that, unless an alternate arrangement is negotiated, the departing schools will not join the ACC until July 2014.

On the conference's ability to recover, Marinatto told the Times, "obviously, the dynamics that are taking place within the college landscape today may create even greater opportunities for the conference to not only survive, but thrive."

That changes the scenario for a school like Villanova that would take at least that long to get it's football program in order. Villanova's outside chance of stealing one of the last remaining ACC memberships (assuming expansion will continue to 16 members) seems just slightly more realistic. There is no "right now" for the moment.

Tagging Along

Villanova is still among the longest odds of the Big East schools that could join the ACC.

Those odds could be made much better if Villanova were to make a strong ally out of the Irish. Much like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, Villanova could find it's athletic future saved by becoming a package deal with a "big fish" like Notre Dame. The ACC would be interested enough in Notre Dame that their demand to bring Villanova along for the ride would hardly be a deal-breaker.

For the Irish, teaming up with Villanova has a few advantages: (1) it is another Catholic institution to affiliate with in a conference that already features Boston College; (2) it brings access to the Philadelphia market, which has a large number of Irish fans and is centrally located for their New York and D.C.-based fans; and (3) Villanova's need to transition in football means that the Irish could maintain their independence long enough to finish out their NBC contract and meet most of their outstanding scheduling contracts.

Then again, maybe none of those things ultimately matter, or maybe none matter as much. We don't know the strength of the relationship between administrators of the two Catholic universities that were founded in 1842. For all we know, Notre Dame could prefer to drag Georgetown along with them, or to play in a conference with UConn or Rutgers.

For Villanova, then, it's all a crapshoot. Football is the key to avoiding a downgrade to mid-major status, but even that makes little sense if the football program is upgrading to join a conference that will not generate enough revenue to sustain a high-level program in the sport.

The CYO League and Survival

If a suitable all-sports option cannot be found, the Wildcats will have to hope that ESPN will be willing to shell out big money for a basketball-centric conference composed primarily of smaller Catholic schools — some of whom have struggled at high levels of competition recently.

OR, they could join the CAA in all-sports.

Finally, there is always the possibility that the Big East somehow survives this loss, mostly intact. Notre Dame's Jack Swarbrick was quoted saying that the Big East had good "core assets," and that he felt the league could survive but, "had some work to do."

Marinatto sat in on two separate conference calls on Monday morning with the presidents of the football schools and non-football schools to discuss the conference's future. He felt that there was a "unity" among them and no momentum toward their breaking apart.

Who knows if that is just lip service, however? Every school is scrambling internally to secure its future right now. If a brighter future is available outside the Big East, expect those schools to pursue it, regardless of what they might say.

UPDATE (1:00pm): According to Brett McMurphy's sources, both the ACC and SEC have told West Virginia that they are not currently interested in the school. Unless that situation changes (and who knows), it can be assumed that WVU would join the Big East and Big XII combination league.

That would bring at least one of Villanova's three major football-upgrade opponents into the merged league. It remains unclear whether that merged league would ultimately be interested in bringing Villanova along for the ride since the Big XII schools have not ultimately been asked to consider that option.

UPDATE (2:00pm): The Kansas City Star is now reporting that Missouri has an "offer on the table" from the SEC.

Another report from the DelcoTimes has a headline suggesting that Villanova was "rejected" by the ACC. The body of the article contains no such claim, but it is clear that any discussions Villanova had with the ACC prior to the Pitt and Syracuse moves did not result in an invitation to join. VUhoops does not believe that Villanova ever formally applied to the ACC.

UPDATE (2:30pm): Big East football school AD's and presidents will meet tonight to discuss the future of the conference.