Senior College Football Columnist

As Big East crumbles, race begins to be power conference No. 6


Don't think of it as Big East football.

Think of it as the latest iteration of this cutthroat business, the same stuff we've been experiencing since the ACC ripped off the Big East nine years ago. And away we went with conference realignment.

Think of it more as a lump of clay to be shaped. This isn't a Big East thing anymore. The football conference, as we know it, is gone as we wait 2½ agonizing years for the basketball schools' breakaway in 2015.

This is not even a college football thing. What, you forgot? The same entity that created the Big East in 1979 has killed it 33 years later.

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Cable TV.

Big East basketball was a perfect fit for the new medium back in '79. That was before college football had zoomed through the TV stratosphere, right up to No. 2 behind the NFL.

Big East football, though, didn't measure up. For the most part, there was no there there. Miami won two of its national championships as a conference member, but so much for that. Three years after its second title as a Big East member, Miami was snatched up by the ACC.

Cincinnati has won at least a share of four of the past five Big East titles. Look where that has gotten the Bearcats. Butch Jones became the team's second coach in four years to leave for a job in a better conference.

The race has commenced, then, to be college football's No. 6 conference. At this point it doesn't really matter what it is called. Its existence is more important than its name. The five power conferences (SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, Big Ten) are guaranteed lucrative contract bowls beginning in 2014. That No. 6 conference champion will get the guaranteed playoff bowl berth in most years beginning in 2014 -- legitimizing and financing itself. That conference was the Big East until the basketball schools broke away. Now that No. 6 designation is up for grabs.

The five power conferences have molded the coming playoff to their advantage. Surprise. Even the ACC -- whose champion has finished in the AP top 10 twice in the last decade -- is cashing in on $91 million per year. The rest of college football, the so-called Group of Five (MAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Big East, for now)? About $19 million each.

Their only distinguishing characteristic will be getting that one automatic playoff bowl berth in one of the "host" -- or open -- bowls. Those bowls are yet to be determined, but favorite sites include Phoenix, Atlanta and Dallas. The berth will be awarded to the highest ranked champion of the Group of Five.

Therefore, the best combination of schools making up the No. 6 conference is an unknown depending on ...

 Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany deciding if his league is done raiding.

 Boise State to make up its mind. Big East? Mountain West? Someplace else? The silence coming out of Boise is deafening.

 The intentions of Cincinnati, Connecticut, the ACC and possibly more. So far, the two schools have not been thrown lifelines to BCS leagues, but are on record as being willing to jump. Cincinnati has a surprising amount of juice at this point. It has been to a BCS bowl. It draws surprisingly good TV ratings in basketball. Call it the best player left on the board.

"Cincinnati is more valuable than what is being let on," an industry source said.

 A direction, a leader. The week starts with 12 Big East football schools for 2013 not knowing for sure if they have a BCS bid.

College football is paralyzed at the moment. Anyone who knows which way it is headed is guessing. But there is an old idea being discussed.

"If I were one of the other five commissioners, I would get on the phone and band together," said one source close to the situation. "I would become an über-conference. Forget superconference. Let our current [TV] contracts lapse. That's the only way to take this one."

There are some advantages to this socialist approach. It's also scary. This might be exactly what the power conferences want. If those in the Group of Five are successful banding together, that might just be what the BCS conferences need to break away themselves -- from the Group of Five.

That's how Division I-AA (now FCS) was created in 1978, when the bottom half of Division I complained about revenue and exposure. I-AA was given its own playoff and not much else in terms of TV and money. The latest evolution may be upon us. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick spoke openly last week about establishing a "Division 5." Currently, there are four football-playing divisions (FBS, FCS, Division II, Division III). "The [power conferences] don't give a [damn] about" the Group of Five, the same source added. "Fine -- be bigger and go."

These are no original thoughts. In fact, 14 months ago we were calling such a conference "Big Country." Conference USA and the Mountain West had been talking about it since 2010, the champions of the two leagues meeting in a play-in game for a BCS berth. As late as October 2011, the conferences had announced that had combined into "one large association."

A few days later a document surfaced that detailed a 28- to 32-team grouping that would combine the Mountain West, Conference USA and the Big East. The idea fell part as playoff talk grew. Still, you can see the proposed divisional lineups here.

If that sounds a lot like what the Big East attempted/is attempting to do, it should. The idea is there, to be populated by a new, bigger, unlabeled set of teams. In the future those schools will be chasing an automatic playoff bowl berth. If not in the national semifinals, the highest-rated champion from those -- as of now -- 64 Group of Five teams gets a spot in one of those access bowls. This time there is no BCS standard to achieve. Those outraged by Northern Illinois in the Orange will have to live with this future reality: If that champion is No. 37 Marshall, so be it.

There are few TV draws in the Group of Five. once described a core of Air Force, Boise, SMU and Houston -- in a Big East model that spanned four time zones. One conference commissioner said he preferred his "autonomy."

Here's the other side: Aggregate the TV rights of some combination of those 64 schools into one. Add value to the package. Let's say there are four divisions of eight teams, all in the same "conference." The last couple of weeks of the season could be reserved for play-in games for that winner-take-all game to get to a playoff bowl.

It's been discussed -- 10 regular season games with the last two TBA for the Big Country playoffs. No extra games, no intrusion on finals, better content. And if there is one thing TV likes, it is more and better content. Look at the stir Northern Illinois created by merely qualifying for the Orange Bowl.

The labels, then, as we know them would be gone. No Big East. No real conferences below that Mendoza Line, just a lot of football socialism where the many would serve the one.

That one being No. 6. For now, that's all the name it needs.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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