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Expansion Apocalypse: Memphis or Air Force?

On Wednesday, Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal dropped a 122-character bombshell on Twitter: the Big East, he claimed, was "looking hard" at adding Memphis. He went on to say that "talks are hot and heavy." No story or follow-up was ever produced by the journalist noted for his strong connections with the Big East.

"Nothing's changed on our end," athletic director R.C. Johnson told the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

The newspaper also claimed that the Big East's interest could be for basketball-only, which would likely be an unfavorable situation for Memphis. The Tiger's football program might have a difficult time finding a new home if it were not invited to come along.

Things became less clear when Jon Wilner of the Mercury News reported that his sources have suggested that Air Force is now likely to join Navy in the Big East. If the Big East plans to halt this round of expansion with a 12-team league, these rumors would certainly conflict. Then again, the Big East could be talking to multiple schools about becoming the 12th football member.

Memphis does provide benefits to the Big East, however. As an all-sports member, they would bring one of the best basketball brands from outside the power conferences and a program that runs and is funded just like the top programs of the Big East. They'd also provide an all-sports buffer to soften the blow of any potential future departures. Memphis also happens to be an easy sell to the basketball interests in the conference and a great ticket to bring into town for everyone.

The Air Force Academy would bring a notable national brand in football-only, they'd bring their long-time rivalry with the Naval Academy into conference play (and ease up Navy's non-conference scheduling). They'd also add another football team in the west to help fill out that division geographically.

Didn't Air Force already decline?

It was previously reported that Air Force had decided not to join the Big East conference and to remain in the Mountain West and/or its amalgamation with Conference-USA. Things have changed since then, however, and the Conference-USA talk went from a football-only combination to a potential all-sports merger.

Furthermore, Navy finally pulled the trigger on joining the Big East (as of the 2015 football season). When they did, it created a tough situation for their non-conference scheduling — Navy would have 8 conference games, Notre Dame, Army and Air Force on their schedule every season, leaving just one slot. Navy head coach Ken Niumtalolo suggested that if push game to shove, they might be willing to drop their rivalry with Air Force.

Changing scenarios might leave Air Force more bullish on the Big East or bearish on staying put.

Which rumor is wrong?

It's tough to guess at this point. Both reporters have some level of credibility, but neither has named their sources. Either option would make some degree of sense, however.

It is also possible that both schools could be on their way to joining the league. The Big East isn't afraid of adding basketball schools and was set to have 17 members in that sport when they invited TCU (now joining the Big XII). Plus, with Navy putting off membership until 2015, the Big East might not be able to host a potentially-lucrative football championship game in 2013 or 2014 unless they add two more members (than currently expected) in 2013.

The Big East hadn't ruled out a 14-member football conference, and may even be likely to go to that configuration (or bigger) in the future. If both Memphis and Air Force joined, expect that both would play football in a "west" division while Memphis would participate with the rest of the league in other sports. One additional school would have to be added, but Memphis' location would allow some flexibility in the selection. A 14th member could theoretically come from anywhere in the country, and the Big East would have plenty of time to choose, since they wouldn't need that member to join until 2015.

2015... that sounds familiar...

Of course, 2015 is also the football season that has been pegged by Villanova administrators as the soonest that they would or could join the Big East conference after a transition to FBS. That is based on a three-year transition period that is preferred by Villanova over the minimum two-year period that the NCAA has set as a minimum.

The longer Villanova waits, however, the further that period will have to be pushed back. Though, if invited soon, it still seems plausible that Villanova could plan to be ready for Big East football in 2015 and they could plausibly join alongside Navy at that time.

The Big East kind of left Villanova hanging when the expansion drama heated up this fall. There hasn't been much action on that end, as the football schools and Big East office scramble to realign at lightning speed. Villanova has internally been working on some plans related to the football program and would still like to sit down with the Big East and hammer out a plan for football.

As of the writing of this post, VUhoops is not aware of any news regarding Villanova and Big East football.

Can Boise State be West Virginia?

The other cog to this story is that there are now reports, coming from the same reporter who suggested that Air Force might be close to joining the Big East, that the Big East is "pressuring" Boise State to join in the fall. Having Boise come in for the 2012 football season would allow the Big East to avoid the scheduling horrors of trying to fill an extra open date on every school's schedule when WVU ultimately joins the Big 12.

It does appear that WVU will not be a part of the Big East in fall at this point, and the major matter of contention will be over what the school will owe to the conference for their trouble.

It is believed that Boise State can withdraw from the Mountain West on short notice under their bylaws by paying a significantly-larger fee to the conference. The Big East would likely ask that West Virginia or the Big 12 would pay that amount in addition to any other damages, so the lawsuit seems to make an early exit for Boise State more feasible.

It is also rumored that the Conference USA bylaws have special provisions for the withdrawal of founding members. Houston is considered a founding member, but may or may not be able to take advantage of the bylaws protection now that their withdrawal papers have already been submitted. One such consideration in those bylaws is that founding members have a decreased exit penalty when giving a year's notice to the conference.

Another (and this is completely unconfirmed) is that they may be able to withdraw with less than a year's notice, for an increased, but still manageable, fee. If that provision exists and Houston isn't able to take advantage to join in the fall under that provision due to some technicality, all hope would not be lost, however.

Another founding member of Conference-USA? Memphis.

UPDATE 2/7: CBS Sports' Brett McMurphy has now confirmed that talks were in progress and reports that an announcement adding Memphis to the Big East could come as soon as this week. Adam Zagoria also tweeted about the rumor shortly beforehand. Memphis would give the conference 11 football teams in the 2013 season, with Navy planning to join the conference in football-only in 2015. The Big East would hold a football championship game as soon as they have 12 members in that sport.