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THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Musical chairs also has UMass on edge

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / October 11, 2011

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With speculation swirling about the future of the Big East Conference, potential suitors wait anxiously for the phone to ring.

But perhaps no school is more nervous about the outcome than the University of Massachusetts, which is set to join the Mid-American Conference as a football-only member next fall.

UMass, which is transitioning from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision, has a large stake in the outcome. According to sources at UMass, the agreement that puts the Minutemen into the MAC is directly linked to Temple, another football-only member.

According to the agreement, if Temple, which is high on the list of candidates to move into the Big East, leaves the MAC, the conference then can use an option that could put a two-year limit on UMass’s membership. Other options include honoring the existing arrangement, or taking UMass as a full member.

Of the scenarios, the two-year limit seems most likely and would cause the greatest uncertainty for UMass, which is trying to morph from an FCS-level program into the more desirable FBS competition, which includes bowl games and potential affiliation with higher-paying BCS conferences.

But it seems more and more probable that Temple, which was asked to leave the Big East in 2004 (when it was a football-only member) for both nonperformance and poor attendance, has had enough of a football revival to generate interest as a member in all sports.

If Temple leaves, UMass’s future as an FBS program for any length of time would appear to be in serious jeopardy.

While UMass waits, the Big East, after a conference call among university presidents yesterday, was formulating a plan to expand to 12 teams in football.

TCU, which had been expected to join the Big East next year, instead accepted an invitation yesterday to join the Big 12. That decision, along with Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference, has thrust the Big East into scramble mode.

According to sources in the Big East, the expansion targets would include football-only schools from Boise State, Navy, and Air Force, as well as potential full members in Central Florida, Temple, SMU, and Houston, plus Villanova, which is already a Big East member in all sports but football.

Last night, Big East sources confirmed that the conference had contacted Conference USA (of which UCF is a member) to express interest in talking to UCF officials, which then occurred.

Of the candidates, Central Florida and Temple seem the most likely to immediately accept full membership, while Boise State, Air Force, and Navy have some obstacles to overcome.

Houston or SMU also would be part of the package, and if Louisville - a rumored target if the Big 12 adds more - leaves, both Texas schools would join the conference. Such a move would give the Big East a Western-dominated division consisting of Boise State, Air Force, and the two Texas schools.

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