The good news for lovers of the Big East? Last week's announcement that the conference is adding five new football schools -- the Boise State Broncos, San Diego State Aztecs, SMU Mustangs, Houston Cougars and UCF Knights -- is the first sign in quite a while that the league is willing to be aggressive in its fight for football survival.
The bad news? It still might not be enough to keep a grip on its long-shaky status as a top-tier BCS conference. The crystal ball is clouded by an imperfect storm of opportunities missed, work that remains to be done and more unknowns than not.
Here are five reasons why the Big East is still walking a very tenuous tightrope, one for each of the new members:
1. The map
During last week's expansion announcement, Big East commissioner John Marinatto talked very matter-of-factly about how future conference football schedules would work. There will be two six-team divisions with eight conference games on every team's schedule, five within one's own division and three against the other.
Let's hope everyone's got their frequent flier accounts up to date.
"That's the single biggest challenge if you're going to be part of a national conference," says a former athletic administrator who experienced those headaches firsthand when the WAC ballooned to 16 teams in 1996. "We stretched from Hawaii to Texas, across four time zones. On paper that sounds great. But when you have to start paying for airplanes to get everywhere, then it's an issue."
For example, let's take a look at Connecticut. In 2014, let's say the Huskies would play eastern division road games at Cincinnati, Louisville and Central Florida, and we'll give them two western division road games against San Diego State and Houston.
Those five games alone represent more than 13,000 miles of travel, the shortest being the 1,338-mile roundtrip jump over to Cincinnati. And keep in mind this does not include any other non-conference road games. In 2011, the Huskies played five road games for a total of 5,500 miles, the longest trip being a 1,744-mile roundtrip to Nashville to play Vanderbilt.
In other words, a trip to San Diego State -- estimated at 5,038 miles -- is only 462 short of the entire distance of the 2011 season.
"The strain it puts on your budget starts to alter how you approach other decisions," the former AD added. "Now you might not take a marquis home-and-home with a big non-conference school because you just can't take on that cost any longer. You end up playing it safe with a less attractive home game just to save some to the bottom line."
The phrase "stretching one's self too thin" becomes very literal here. San Diego State and SMU know all about it. They were involved in the WAC expansion of '96.
"That's why I am stunned they are both involved here," the former AD adds. "Especially San Diego State. They were one of the schools so unhappy with the bloated WAC they left to start the Mountain West."
2. Its greatest single asset is going away
So why have these western schools, even those with WAC wackiness experience, signed on? The lure of BCS automatic qualifier status. The potential for a bowl berth on the big stage is higher, even if you are an unranked 8-4 team, and the money is decidedly better. Like double-digit millions better.
"Simply put, it's a seat at the grownups' table over the holidays," East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland explained to me earlier this year as he openly courted the Big East.
For Boise State, a one-loss top-6 team that was jobbed out of a BCS bowl berth because it belonged to the lowly Mountain West, becoming a member of the Big East marks the end of a long, winding, painful quest to achieve AQ status.
Problem is, if last week was any real indicator, the whole idea of AQ status may have vanished by the time Boise starts Big East play in 2013. At the most it looks like they might be able to enjoy the AQ life for all of one year.
Last Thursday at an IMG forum, a panel of FCS commissioners and athletic directors participated in a panel discussion that was dominated by BCS talk. The takeaway of that discussion, even among the most stalwart BCS backers, is that the system will receive an extreme makeover when the contract on the current BCS agreement expires after the '13 season.
Said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany: "Some of the people that don't have (AQ status) say they don't want it. Some of the people that do have it don't really care about it. Maybe it needs to be reconsidered. I'm not wed to it. I'm wed to the one-two game, and I'm wed to the Rose Bowl. I'm not wed to the (AQ) selection process or its limitations."
Thus far the Big East's AQ status has been its greatest leverage, the biggest carrot to dangle out there in front of potential schools and media partners. Forget that it has never produced an at-large BCS team or that its 6-7 BCS bowl record includes three wins by Miami, who bolted the conference seven years ago.
Now even that seems certain to vanish. With the looming merge of Conference-USA and the Mountain West, the Big East could instantly slip even further down the power ladder.
3. Lack of tent pole teams
Even when they struggle, and they have plenty, there is still a lot of football star status in the Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia and Boston College brands. Yet, along with Miami and Virginia Tech, they have all bolted or will bolt for greener gridiron pastures. The newly announced expansion will replace those brands with five non-AQ programs, albeit in a handful of very nice media markets.
Of the current and future Big East schools, only four -- Louisville, Connecticut, Cincy and Boise -- have ever made it to a BCS bowl. Only two -- Louisville and Boise -- have won on college football's biggest stage.
The conference had a chance to add Penn State decades ago and did not. They have repeatedly tried to lure Notre Dame into the football fold but have never even come close. This most recent expansion is likely the biggest card the Big East had to play.
Once WVU, Pitt and Syracuse leave in 2013, they will be down to 10 schools, still needing to expand to 12 to stage a conference championship game (though Marinatto says they will petition the NCAA to have a title game with 10, if need be). The top prospects would seem to be Navy, Temple, East Carolina and Memphis. All proud schools, but not exactly top-of-the-movie poster draws.
My love for Boise is well-documented, but at the end of the day it can't be the only pole holding up the tent.
4. The poachers are still circling
All of the above makes the Big East a still-vulnerable target for other conferences looking to expand. (Yes, I know the commissioners continue to say they aren't going to 16 schools. No, I don't believe them.) The ACC has practically made a living off cherry-picking Big East schools.
It is widely believed that the Big 12 still covets Louisville, at least. And during last week's Big East press conferences, Boise president Bob Kustra was hit immediately with a question about fellow Mountain West refugee TCU and how it leveraged its faux-Big East membership into a Big 12 invite. Would the Broncos do the same if they received their own call from the Big 12 or even the Pac-12?
"We've made the commitment to the Big East," Kustra said. "I particularly like the idea of introducing Boise State University's brand of football east of the Mississippi and across this nation. I think (Marinatto) made an excellent point when he talked about the fact that this is indeed a conference, the only conference in America, in four time zones. A coast-to-coast conference. That is appealing to us. That is just as appealing to us as the opportunities we may have had in the past. Certainly it's the reason why we're in the conference now and where we intend to stay."
5. There's still no TV deal
When it comes to piles of cash, even the ATM machine that is the BCS is ultimately dependent on TV money. They become a TV free agent in November 2012. And while the Big East basketball lineup is still among the nation's best, hoops is not what brings in the big media coin. Football does. And our previous four points could greatly hinder the Big East's ability to coax the most cash out any future TV partner, whether it is ESPN, which has been in business with the conference since the day it was born or a new arrival to the negotiating table.
Marinatto believes that his four time zones, giving the Big East the ability to play conference games all day long, NFL style, gives his conference an advantage. "We think that's a very powerful model as we move forward in our upcoming TV negotiations, initially with ESPN eight months from now, because it provides something that no other conference in the country can represent," Marinatto said. "So we're excited about that prospect."