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Big East preview: Looming TV payday could lead to big changes

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Doug Marrone -- who led Syracuse to a bowl win -- is the second-longest tenured coach. (Getty Images)  
Doug Marrone -- who led Syracuse to a bowl win -- is the second-longest tenured coach. (Getty Images)  

NEWPORT, R.I. -- Before taking a look at what lies ahead this season for the Big East, here's a quick recap of the league.

Last summer when it appeared the Big 12 would lose several teams to the Pac-10, the Big East was ready to take advantage. Sources told CBSSports.com that the Big East presidents had agreed to invite Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Iowa State as full members. A meeting was scheduled in Chicago to make the formal invitations with the four Big 12 schools prepared to make the jump.

However, the Big 12 stayed together and instead the Big East added TCU as its ninth football member beginning in 2012.

This spring, ESPN offered the Big East a nine-year, $1.4 billion media rights deal, sources said. Although there were "no I's dotted or T's crossed," the league was prepared to accept the offer. That was until news broke about the Pac-12's monster media rights deal worth about $21 million annually per school.

That brought the Big East's fast-track expansion plans to a screeching halt: which brings us to now.

Because of the addition of offensive mastermind Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia is the league's heavy favorite. Whether the Mountaineers give the league a top-10 team for the first time since 2009 remains to be seen. If not WVU, then maybe Pittsburgh under first-year coach Todd Graham. Or don't forger USF or Syracuse -- if the Orange has enough healthy players to field a team. If not those two, remember TCU comes on board next year to give the league a much-needed boost.

Until TCU comes to the rescue, the league's biggest storyline is its future: namely expansion and its upcoming media rights deal -- which go hand in hand.

The Big East's current football media rights deal with ESPN expires after the 2013-14 school year, but the basketball contract with ESPN and CBS Sports expires a year earlier after the 2012-13 school year. If the Big East doesn't reach an agreement with ESPN by Nov. 1, 2012, the league can negotiate with other networks, such as NBC/Comcast and Fox Sports.

It was not a coincidence that two weeks ago, Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports, and Fox Sports' chief operating officer Larry Jones each made their first appearance at the Big East's media day festivities. Burke Magnus, ESPN's senior vice president for college sports, also attended.

Jones and Magnus declined comment about the Big East's media rights deal. NBC Sports spokesman Chris McCloskey, speaking for Miller, said: "We're always interested in strong properties."

While the Big East has a 30-year relationship with ESPN, NBC Sports and Fox Sports should certainly make things interesting -- and profitable for the Big East. A new dynamic for NBC Sports is it will have Versus (which will be renamed NBC Sports Network on Jan. 2) and it also has 11 regional channels through Comcast under the NBC umbrella.

NBC has already shown it wants to be a big-time player, paying $4.38 billion for the Olympic games through 2020 and $1.8 billion for a 10-year deal with the NHL. Fox Sports also shelled out $90 million a year for a seven-or-eight year deal with UFC, the Sports Business Journal reported.

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With all this money being tossed around for live sporting events/television inventory and the fact the Big East is the last of the six automatic qualifying BCS conferences up for a new media rights deal, a funny thing has happened to the beleaguered Big East: it is suddenly in a very advantageous position.

"I had a figure in my mind a year ago [what the league could get] when we started the discussions [with ESPN] that we walked away from," Big East commissioner John Marinatto said. "Then I had a figure in my mind as the process unfolded and thought if we could ever get to that figure.

"But as the world keeps changing and when [Pac-12 commissioner] Larry [Scott] did what he did, I don't have a figure anymore because it seems like the goalposts keep changing. Why would I limit myself?"

The biggest question remains what school or schools will the Big East add? With the uncertainty in the Big 12 and the possibility Texas A&M and maybe even another school leaving for the SEC, expect the Big East to patiently wait until the last possible minute (most likely sometime next summer) to see if any Big 12 teams become available.

Another scenario, mentioned by multiple league and college football industry sources, is that the Big East could actually make a run at an ACC school, if that league loses a member to the SEC and becomes vulnerable. That thinking is based on the likelihood that the Big East's new media rights deal should surpass the ACC's current deal. Last year the ACC received a 12-year deal worth about $12.9 million annually per school.

Using the figures the Big East reportedly turned down from ESPN -- $1.4 billion for nine years -- the league's nine football members (including TCU) would have earned between $14.5 million and $16.93 million a year, based on the football schools receiving 65 or 75 percent, respectively, of the media rights deal. The Big East's eight non-football schools would have received between $2.43 million (in a 25-75 percent split) and $3.2 million (35-65 percent split) annually.

And those numbers should only escalate if ESPN, NBC/Comcast and Fox Sports get involved in any kind of bidding war.

Even if an ACC school could earn $5 million, or even $10 million, more a year in the Big East, it's probably unlikely it would leave, especially since the ACC's exit fee, sources said, is between $12 million and $17 million.

However, in college football's current unstable environment, who knows? What if the SEC takes an ACC team and that, coupled with the impending NCAA Death Star now hovering over the Miami program, makes the Big East a more attractive conference than the ACC?

Marinatto steadfastly refuses to comment or speculate on any potential future members.

"We have to make decisions that are in our best interest long term," Marinatto said. "We can't wait for everything to happen to make or not make a decision. If something happens like a TCU scenario -- that is absolutely in our best interest -- we'll move forward."

Two weeks ago in Newport, R.I., Marinatto told me he had been contacted by at least 12 schools "to explain they would be very interested in membership if we were at a point and time and we were expanding."

Marinatto also said the league "continues to have dialogue with Villanova as they continue working on their stadium issue."

So ultimately what will the league do?

Does it make Villanova a full member or land a Big 12 team or three suddenly without a conference home? Does it pluck a team looking to flee the ACC, convince a military school (Navy and/or Army) to join or add a school from Conference USA? Or -- and this is a very real possibility -- maybe the league decides not to expand at all.

The possibilities are endless, but with the expected riches from a new media rights deal on the horizon Marinatto is very optimistic about this season for the Big East -- and also its future. "It's knowing that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in many ways," Marinatto said. "We've seen what the Pac-12 did and I look at what we offer in comparison with 30 percent of the country [and nine of the nation's top 35 television markets] under our umbrella.

"Look at the assets we represent. The number of television households, the marketplaces and you can't help but feel optimistic about what it is we'll be able to deliver when we get to that point and time. Larry has proven that the old model and theory of exclusivity doesn't apply anymore. Larry blew that model out of the water.

"Not only did [the Pac-12] blow it out of the water, but they doubled what their value is. When you look at our inventory, especially with 17 schools, we're in good position."

CBSSports.com's Chip Patterson predicts the Big East order of finish

1. West Virginia

A season ago, West Virginia had the best defense in the Big East and arguably one of the best in the nation. Now the Mountaineers look ready to go on offense while only returning four starters from that standout defensive unit. Luckily, they return starting defensive lineman Julian Miller and standout pass rusher Bruce Irvin (14.0 sacks in 2010), as well as First Team All-Big East cornerback Keith Tandy. Those pieces should be enough of a base for the defense to at least complement a promising offense, led by quarterback Geno Smith. Dana Holgorsen's exciting brand of football puts the responsibility on the quarterback to make good decisions at the line of scrimmage with the spread offense. Smith has shown he's a good decision-maker, tossing 24 touchdowns to only seven interceptions in 2010. Throw in the playmaking abilities of Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey and you've got yourself the Big East favorite for 2011.

2. Pittsburgh

If you have spent any time around new head coach Todd Graham since he arrived in Pittsburgh, you have probably heard the word "high-octane." It's an appropriate word to describe the offense, but the Panthers' marketing staff have turned Graham's slogan into the new motto of PIttsburgh football. Graham likes to run a no-huddle offense that keeps a defense on their heels with an equal split of rushes and passing plays. Luckily, Pittsburgh has a smart quarterback (Tino Sunseri, son of Alabama assistant coach Sal Sunseri) and an athletic running back (Ray Graham) to help create plays on the fly. As exciting as the offense promises to be, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson promises high-octane defense as well. DE Brandon Lindsey had 10 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in 2010, and Patterson says they will utilize Lindsey in many different ways. The Panthers will show different looks on defense, including using Lindsey as a down "Panther linebacker" to put pressure on the opposing quarterback. The Panthers have a challenging non-conference schedule that includes Utah and Notre Dame, but could easily be in contention for the conference title headed into the Backyard Brawl against rival West Virginia on Nov. 25.

3. South Florida

Second-year head coach Skip Holtz feels confident about this football team. He told reporters at Big East Media Day that the strong finish to the 2010 season (which included wins over Miami and Clemson in the Belk Bowl) created a "snowball effect" within the program. Holtz claims the momentum from the 8-5 finish has carried over into the spring, summer, and now fall camp for the Bulls. However, USF has yet to show the kind of consistency it takes to win a conference title in an unforgiving eight-team league. The Bulls' success will likely have a lot to do with quarterback B.J. Daniels, who has been both brilliant and mind-numbingly frustrating -- sometimes in the same game -- across his career. If Daniels plays like he did against Clemson in the bowl game, and Colorado transfer Darrell Scott complements Demetris Murray well at running back; the Bulls could see their sixth straight 8-plus win season. The receivers are well-stocked, and the back seven will be the Bulls' strength on defense. Linebacker DeDe Lattimore has gotten a good amount of preseason hype, and could have a special year for USF.

4. Cincinnati (tie)

Year one under Butch Jones was a rough transition for the Bearcats, as a talented roster posted a 4-8 record just a year after winning back-to-back Big East titles. Reports from camp suggest a new attitude from the team, particularly focusing on turnovers and improving a dreadful defense. With linebacker J.K. Schaffer leading the way, the Bearcats defense returns all 11 starters from last year's unit. Schaffer says the unit is more confident, and defensive tackle Derek Wolfe told reporters that they would be the "best defense in the Big East." Offensively the skill positions are loaded. Seniors Zach Collaros, D.J. Woods, and Isaiah Pead are all coming off impressive statistical seasons in 2010, now just looking to ensure a strong finish to their careers at Cincinnati. Another team that is talented, and should be bowling in December -- they just seem one step below the top two or three in the conference.

4. Syracuse (tie)

Entering his third season at his current post, Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone is the second-longest tenured coach in a very young league. But the experience of coaching his alma mater has rejuvenated the Orange fan base and helped restore some pride in the program. Their thrilling 36-34 Pinstripe Bowl win over Kansas State was the first postseason appearance since 2004 and the first bowl win since 2001. Offensively quarterback Ryan Nassib returns along with four offensive lineman and the top five receivers. Running back Delone Carter was a crucial part of 2010's success, but Antwon Bailey showed promise as a reserve and should carry the load well with speedster Prince-Tyson Gulley to step up in his stead. Defensively the Orange are thin at linebacker, but other players like defensive end Chandler Jones and free safety Phillip Thomas (until he fractured his jaw on day three of camp) have looked ready to lead the unit.

6. Connecticut

After pulling off five straight conference wins to steal the BCS bowl bid, there will be some teams gunning for the Huskies in 2011. In a league like the Big East, getting hot at the right point in your schedule can make or break you in the conference standings. It will just be much more difficult to pull off another run like that without the likes of Jordan Todman in the backfield. USC-transfer D.J. Shoemate enters the season with high hopes, but with question marks at quarterback (they still don't have one), running back, and offensive line (only Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan return) the offense will be the Huskies' weakness for the time being. On the other hand, the defense returns several standout players from last year's unit, most notably defensive tackle Kendall Reyes and linebacker Sio Moore. Both players are among the best at their position in the league, and if the Huskies can get some offensive production they should reach the postseason again.

7. Louisville

After winning a pair of Big East titles, the Cardinals fell into obscurity until Charlie Strong was able to deliver a bowl win to the 27 seniors before they graduated. Inexperience will be an issue for Louisville, particularly replacing their top two quarterbacks, running back, and four starting offensive linemen. To make matters worse Louisville's offensive line got hit with the injury bug this spring, keeping the Cardinals from even being able to fill out two teams for a true scrimmage in the spring game. Strong has things moving in the right direction, particularly on defense, but this will be a reloading and rebuilding year for Louisville.

8. Rutgers

Greg Schiano said that he wants to bring Rutgers back to a hard-nosed brand of football. One way to build towards that was by snagging highly touted (and in-state) running back Savon Huggins. Many in the Scarlet Knights' fan base were disappointed with the first season to not end in a bowl game in five years, and have already knighted (no pun intended) Huggins as the man to turn it around. Schiano is a big-picture guy, and I think he will hesitate to put the ball in his freshman's hands from the get-go. Rutgers will get back to the postseason, but I think a trip in 2012 is much more likely.

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