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Football expansion is officially on Big East agenda

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / November 3, 2010

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In the first step of a process that could take three years, the Big East announced yesterday it would explore the expansion of its football conference to as many as 10 teams, which would be an increase of two.

“The Big East presidents agreed that the interests of each of the conference’s 16 member institutions would be served by increasing the number of Bowl Subdivision football-playing members to 10,’’ said a statement released by the league. “They unanimously approved the process to evaluate the terms and conditions for potential expansion candidates.’’

Although no one would say specifically what that meant, Big East sources said that Villanova, which is a member in all sports but football — it plays in the Colonial Athletic Association, an FCS conference — is ready to move up. Villanova, the defending FCS national champion, would be the Big East’s ninth football team.

There are a variety of options for a 10th team. The move the Big East would like to make is enticing Notre Dame, a member in most of its other sports, to join in football. But that possibility is remote.

The next option would be getting a team to join in football only. The Big East has talked to TCU, but the chance of TCU taking its nationally ranked football program into the Big East while remaining in the Mountain West in other sports is also remote.

TCU could choose to join the Big East in football and find a place such as the West Coast Conference for its other sports. But that would be a complicated and costly process.

The third option would be to ask Central Florida to leave Conference USA in football only, although UCF could search for a non-FBS football conference for its other sports. Again, costly and complicated.

Which leaves the most logical solution, which will require some internal selling: Add Villanova and Central Florida as the ninth and 10th teams in football and increase the 16-team basketball conference to 17. Some members are concerned that 16 teams are already too many and that adding Central Florida in basketball would not help.

The compromise for the schools that play basketball but not FBS football — such as St. John’s, Providence, and Georgetown — is that such an expansion would cause minimum disruption and have maximum benefit in football.

The Big East could also just move to nine teams in football by adding Villanova. But that creates problems. One of the reasons the presidents are considering expansion is the fear of another raid like the one in which they lost Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Membership as an FBS league requires a minimum of eight teams.

Adding Villanova would require some patience, since NCAA regulations require a two-year transition period for schools moving from the FCS to the FBS level.

If Villanova makes the move, it would end any hopes that the University of Massachusetts had of being in the discussion; UMass has explored the possibility of moving to the FBS level and has made no secret of its desire to be part of the Big East. The Big East would take Villanova as an FBS school since it is already a member, but there is no inclination to look anywhere else at that level.

Having 10 football teams also would give the Big East the option of sponsoring a petition to lower the requirement for holding a league championship game from a minimum of 12 to 10 teams. Such a change would be supported by the Big 12, which will soon have only 10 teams, with Colorado going to the Pac-10 and Nebraska to the Big Ten.

There is also a possibility — again, remote — that this is the first step in a process in which the Big East schools that do not play FBS football break off into their own basketball league and let the football members fend for themselves.

While Big East commissioner John Marinatto gave no timetable for any moves, the clock is now ticking, and it seems very likely that the Big East will move quickly to target the schools it wants, beginning with Villanova.

If the Wildcats decide they don’t want to go that route, the Big East, which needs football inventory, could make a “big market’’ move and go after Central Florida and TCU in all sports.

Such a move would bring Orlando and Dallas-Fort Worth into the Big East picture and increase the league to 18 schools.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.