Panic set in after the departures of Syracuse and Pittsburgh and with the Big XII still potentially out on the prowl, that panic may not have subsided just yet. At least two to four Big East football schools are actively hoping for membership invitations from other conferences, but few have invitations that are certain enough that they no longer need the Big East. That uncertainty is what might save the conference.
According to Big XII interim commissioner Chuck Neinas, the Big XII plans to wait on Missouri before making any more expansion moves. Mizzou will play in the league in 2012 regardless of their decision, and they may not decide what conference to align themselves with until the end of the academic year in May.. The Big XII will have at least 10 teams in any scenario, and if Mizzou leaves they will add at least one more (if they stay, they will discuss whether to expand to 12 or stay at 10).
The Big East, meanwhile, is most-certainly not waiting for Mizzou to decide the fate of college sports
Even Louisville and West Virginia, who are the most immediate and serious candidates to land in another conference, cannot be certain that they have a safe landing spot just yet. Missouri could stay in the Big XII and that conference could then stand pat at 10 members, or Missouri might join the SEC, but the Big XII decides to add Brigham Young only to replace them. As likely or unlikely as those scenarios are, in the trust-nobody world of conference realignment, nothing can be taken as a given until there is a legal obligation binding the parties.
None of the six "core" Big East members can truly spurn the Big East at this point. Until a better option, the Big East is what they have. Call it a "safety school," if you must, but there comes a point when you have to put down a deposit for your safety school if you are still waiting to hear from your reach. The Big East is fast approaching that point.
Conference members know that in order to maintain the Big East as their 'back-up' option, they need to set it up to be a viable league. That means the addition of at least two full football-playing members. They would like to expand to an even greater number as well (as a hedge against legal action if they do decide to leave later and because it might make the league more valuable). You can't rebuild the league, however, without committing to it first.
Though some people could not escape, nobody boarded the Titanic as it sank. The Big East looks like the Titanic to schools like Navy and Villanova, who have asked for exit penalties to be increased before they would commit to bringing football to the league. Though only half of the football schools support adding Boise State (Louisville, Cincinnati and USF oppose), the Broncos have reportedly also noted that they would like to see the six remaining football members commit to the Big East before they would make a move. UCF may even balk at paying a hefty Conference USA exit penalty to join a league that could itself look like Conference USA within 27 months.
The Big East's rebuilding options are limited by their commitment. This leaves the schools with two main options: (1) commit legally and financially to the Big East and add the best schools available, or (2) wait and see if any invitations come for those six members to leave.
A potentially lengthy period of uncertainty, however, could force the football schools' hand. Option 1 is clearly the less risky option at this point, and it seems that a move toward an exit fee in the range of $10 million has gained some traction in the last few days.
Missouri could take months more to decide it's future with the Big XII, and once it does, the Big XII could take a few more months to decide it's own course of action. In the meantime, the rest of the conference expansion options have slowed to a near-halt. This is the window of time where a strong leader would remind the wavering memberships that the cannot bet the farm on an invitation that may never come.
The window for stability is a short one, but it can be achieved. If it is, the Big East could easily retain its status within the BCS system and sign a favorable television deal and move on. If stability is not achieved, the conference's days may be numbered.