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Big East's seat at BCS table on shaky legs

From Associated Press and staff reports

The Big East filled its football void. Questions remain about whether it will be enough to keep the conference in the Bowl Championship Series — or if the BCS will crack open its door a bit to leagues that have until now been effectively shut out in the cold.

The Big East formally invited Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida of Conference USA to join the conference in football on Tuesday to respond to the defections of football powerhouses Miami and Virginia Tech, as well as Boston College, to the ACC.

C-USA basketball stalwarts Marquette and DePaul also received Big East bids, but the emphasis on this day was clearly on the gridiron sport.

"We will be one of the six best football-playing conferences in the country," commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "I'm confident that we will be sitting at the table with the five other conferences."

C-USA and the Mountain West Conference will be standing at that table ready to argue the point.

After watching five of its members elope to the Big East, C-USA immediately implemented its own renovation plan — adding Marshall and Central Florida of the Mid-American Conference and Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa of the Western Athletic Conference.

The result for formerly hoops-oriented C-USA: A 12-teamed football-centric alignment likely to be split into two geographically logical divisions which would be eligible to stage a lucrative league title game.

The eight-member MWC is also pondering expansion and fully realizes it could enhance its football posture by enticing C-USA powerhouse Texas Christian to switch leagues.

In the meantime, major college football is still split into two groups — schools that are part of the BCS and schools on the outside hoping to get in.

The ACC raided the Big East earlier this year to solidify its place in the group of the biggest conferences. The Big East hopes its response will be enough.

The Big East is locked into the BCS through the 2005 season, but negotiations for a new deal will begin early next year and it was imperative that the conference pick its teams so it could make its case to its partners.

"There's a lot of tradition in this league," Tranghese said. "We have schools who have won national championships, schools whose players have won the Heisman Trophy. We come from one of the most important sectors in this country. ... I'm very confident we'll be there in the next go-around."

The BCS was started five years ago by the six biggest conferences to create a national title game without a playoff. Champions of the conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC — qualify for a BCS game, and two at-large teams are selected to fill out the field in the Sugar, Orange, Rose and Fiesta bowls.

Negotiations for the new BCS deal have been complicated by a push from schools in the five smaller conferences to improve access to the most lucrative games. Schools from the six big conferences will take in about $113 million of the $118 million from the bowls this season unless TCU qualifies for one of those games.

Since the BCS began in 1998, Syracuse is the only school in the new Big East to finish in the top 15 of The Associated poll, prompting other leagues to argue that they are just as worthy of an automatic invite.

"Yes, we think we can make a strong case," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. "Sometimes, parity hurts too much, but in light of not having one or two bell cows, we have eight evenly balanced programs."

A decision about whether the Mountain West will expand should be made by the end of the month and Thompson advocates adding one or two teams. TCU is a top possibility.

The determination about who will be in and who will be out of the BCS will be made by a variety of factors, including quality of teams, television market size and how many fans will travel to bowl games.

When Miami and Virginia Tech were in the conference there was no debate about whether the Big East belonged in that group. Those two schools have played for the national title three of the past four years.

"There's no doubt we lost a lot in Miami, but we feel like we're bringing in schools that will make us a very strong conference," Pitt athletic director Jeff Long said. "We're very confident that we have one of the six conferences that will be part of the BCS."

Much of the success of the Big East's football future rests in three schools with little tradition. Tranghese said he anticipates Rutgers and Connecticut becoming "players" in college football, giving the conference more access into the lucrative New York market.

The Big East also is hoping South Florida, which is an emerging program under coach Jim Leavitt, can take advantage of that state's deep recruiting base to became a big-time school.

But whether that happens won't be known when negotiations start early next year on the new BCS deal. Talks have been delayed ever since the ACC expansion threw the college football landscape into turmoil.

Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen reiterated that a playoff is not an option, and he also said college football won't go back to the system of strict conference tie-ins to bowl games that led to three split titles from 1990-97.

"Obviously at some point we have to make a determination for the next cycle on who the players will be and evaluate the conferences," Hansen said. "We need to know what colleges will be members of which conferences. This will certainly be a step toward evaluating where we are. We couldn't proceed until this was played out."

Scott Cowen, for one, will accept no future BCS arrangement that is not more inclusive. The president of C-USA member Tulane has formed an activist coalition of non-BCS schools and conferences that has brought the imbalances posed by the current BCS setup to the attention of Congress and squarely in the focus of college football fans.

©2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. contributed to this report.

02.23.07 11:02 AM

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