As a football entity, the Big East had a good run. It gave us Flutie magic and Donovan McNabb actually understanding a game clock and the first few years of Nevin Shapiro's boats and hoes campaign at Miami. Unfortunately, with the pending defections of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the good times might be over.
The conference is set to drop to seven teams, including a new member - TCU - who has a tenuous connection to the league right now. That won't be enough to retain their automatic bid status in the BCS. As a result, the league will have to add universities to avoid a total collapse. Rumors suggest that Baylor and Iowa State are among the teams that are looking switch allegiances to the embattled conference. However, the addition of two low-level Big 12 schools may not be enough to appease the remaining football members of the Big East.
Pitt and Syracuse could be the first in a series of members to leave what has arguably been the weakest BCS conference of the past decade. Despite the derision many of these teams have faced, several present serious value to a conference thanks to either strong football tradition or large media markets. The SEC, currently working with 13 members thanks to the addition of Texas A&M, will be taking a hard look at a 14th (or even 15th and 16th) team to balance out the SEC East and move closer to "superconference" status.
So is there anyone in the Big East hodgepodge that could fit in the SEC? Schools like Connecticut and Rutgers present new media markets but don't fit stylistically. Other campuses in Louisville and Morgantown better fit the southern profile, but may not lack the drawing power that the league is looking for in expansion compared to a high-profile addition like A&M.
Today, we'll look at the seven stranded members of the Big East and how they could fit into the SEC as a balancing member of the country's premiere football conference. Some are decent fits that might fall victim to intra-league politics. Others won't get more than a cursory glance from SEC admins. And then there's Rutgers...
The In-State Rivals:
Louisville: Like UConn, Louisville's basketball is currently streets ahead of their football program. They're a program firmly inside SEC territory and they wouldn't add much as far as new fanbases and television markets (Kentucky and Louisville share both similar markets and program weaknesses, leading to little fluctuation). Culturally, they'd be able to transition well to the SEC, but their inability to add much to the conference won't make them a top choice for expansion.
The Wildcats would likely also protest the addition of an in-state rival that could drain some of their local revenue sources. Louisville isn't an ideal candidate to join the SEC, but could see some interest from the league depending on how some of the stronger fits across the southeast react to the idea of realignment.
South Florida: The program Jim Leavitt built rose from nothing to a #2 ranking in just 10 years, but has fallen off the national radar a bit despite three straight 8-5 seasons. The Bulls have qualified for a bowl game in every year they've been in the Big East and are developing a football culture in Tampa that could eventually rise to SEC levels. The 47,000-student school could be a strong addition as the university grows, though they would not be able to match the instant impact that A&M will bring the league.
The University of Florida's concerns over adding Florida State would apply here as well. While the Bulls don't have the cultural currency that the Seminoles bring with them, the addition of an in-state rival, especially in a state with a school as established as UF, could sink a South Florida transition. USF would bolster the SEC's presence in the state and pay off both media and recruiting dividends if the school can continue to grow. While the fates may not align in the Bulls' favor, a gamble on them could work in the conference's favor.
Texas Christian: TCU's stay in the Big East could be a brief one. The Texas school who joined an eastern conference just for an automatic BCS bid now may be forced to watch the Big East lose theirs thanks to Pitt and Syracuse's defection. The Horned Frogs are a wild card who could help the SEC's expansion into Texas thanks to their Fort Worth connection. Their top 100 academic ranking would also put the school ahead of SEC members like Tennessee, South Carolina, and Kentucky and boost the league's profile more than almost any other Big East school.
TCU is still considered a major prize in college football's realignment thanks to the combination of a strong market, solid academics, and a great football program. That's good news for the SEC, but it also means that the Frogs will be in demand from other restructuring conferences - particularly whatever the Big 12 turns into. The Southeastern Conference would be a much higher profile move for TCU, but whether or not that league would extend an invitation to the school is unknown. So far, the Horned Frogs have stayed under the radar in SEC rumors.
The Wild Cards:
The Morgantown television market would bring a small but dedicated fan base and move the league's focus closer to a lucrative northeast audience. The Mountaineers also bring the added benefit of not clashing with any existing members as an in-state rival. While West Virginia doesn't fit the SEC mold to a T, they appear to be the best fit of the orphaned schools that the Big East may be leaving behind.
Cincinnati: Ohio presents a new challenge for the SEC, and the school's athletic programs are consistently becoming a presence in the upper levels of the NCAA. Cincinnati, a campus slowly growing out of its commuter base, would likely jump at the chance to join the SEC and push their ability to provide a better college experience and draw more students. The Bearcats would be fodder for most of the SEC's upper-level football teams (see: 2009 Sugar Bowl) and don't have the dedicated following that could capitalize on the campus's big-city location.
Stylistically, Cincinnati isn't a great fit for the league. However, they're still growing, and while their football program is dealing with recent setbacks, they have the room to develop into a moderately productive SEC member. They won't be the first team that the conference looks at, and probably only get a bid as a last-ditch scenario, but the conference could do worse than adding the Bearcats.