It's no secret that the Big East has greatly struggled in OOC play to this point in the 2008 season, and that's traditionally how the strength of each conference is measured.
That doesn't mean that there is cause for immediate panic. After strong seasons in 2006 and 2007, the Big East has enough slack to survive into the near future. But just as writing off the conference completely is the wrong approach, so is complacency. There are deep structural problems that need to be addressed if the Big East football conference is going to have long term security and stability.
The current 16-team Big East is bound together until the end of the 2009 season at minimum, in order to maintain its BCS bid in football. At that point, the Big East is free to take any action it sees fit. They may just stan pat for one thing. That may work in the near future, but 2008 has exposed the Big East Conference's underlying shaky foundation.
As far as a potential split goes, the Big East has several possible paths. Perhaps Basketball-onlies and football would go their separate ways (presumably sparring about the conference name and the rights to the MSG Tournament). This option could include a potential expansion on the football side, which would be easier said than done. The obvious candidates may not want to come along, and there are major questions about the long-term prospects of the top midmajors this season. Of course, attempts should be made to at least gauge the interest of a Penn State or a Notre Dame of joining, but neither is likely to happen.
The Big East does hold one valuable card in that potential access to the Bowl Championship Series is a proverbial golden ticket that most mid-majors desperately crave. After the last round of expansion, Louisville officials and coaches could barely contain their delight. Schools like Memphis, UCF, and East Carolina are scurrying to prepare for the coming beauty contest. Quite frankly, none of the schools look all that appealing (it'd be nice if Temple would run the table in the MAC next year). However, the Big East does have the responsibility to do its due diligence and determine if any of the potential expansion targets bring enough to the table that they would be a net positive addition to the conference.
Regardless of whether a split ends up happening or not, I do think the conference has to add another football team in the near future. Having only eight teams creates scheduling woes, as that's one more game to fill out of conference. It also can open up the conference to more scrutiny, as there's only a small body of OOC work for the BE to hang its hat on. Adding another team or two could be beneficial in the sense that in a year like 2004 or 2008, the newer teams would have a chance to be successful and give the conference a little breathing room. The whole idea behind conferences in the first place is to pool risk, make scheduling a lot easier, and to share in the bounty during the better times (while leaving a little fortune left over for the lean years).
Some sort of split is the most likely scenario, but it isn't written in stone. There could be some form of benign golden parachute wherein the Big Ten, SEC, and ACC decide to further expand and gobble up all eight Big East football schools. More damaging would be a potential nail in the coffin. Imagine that the Big Ten or another conference plucks away another member, the Big East loses its BCS bid, and ends up downgrading to mid-major status.
There are several points I want to touch on here. The Big East's foundation is assuredly the weakest of the six major BCS conferences. Several schools that should be geographic fits are members of other conferences. BE schools lack attendance and fan support compared to other conferences, and they correspondingly have less tradition. BIg East states/regions do not produce as much football talent as other parts of the country. During the past few seasons, BE teams had gotten by with superior coaching, but that advantage has faded with the departures of Rich Rodriguez and Bobby Petrino. After the season, any BE football team that decides to change coaches needs to be proactive in contacting hot candidates like Skip Holtz (hey, I originally wrote this a month ago).
That does not mean that the Big East is necessarily as bad as it looks at the moment. The conference was awful in 2004 and 2005, yet the combination of Diamond Ferri in 2004, and a miracle win by West Virginia the next year managed to buy perhaps another decade. The upperclassmen playing on the field this year were likely recruited immediately following the conference's nadir a few years ago. If on-field play is a function of recruiting, it is likely to improve during the next few seasons for most BE teams, as many of them subsequently started to pull in better classes.
There's an important distinction to draw between problems with the Big East and problems with each individual Big East team. The latter are correctable, but magnified in the absence of a traditional name power to anchor the conference and cover up its flaws. Does the a leadership void at the top exacerbate and necessary trickle down to each team? For the Big East conference as currently configured, basketball is, and always will be, king. As long as the only criteria for employment as BE commissioner is "must be a crony of Dave Gavitt", this will always be the case. The current Big East basketball conference has a lot of good teams. It has too many good teams. It is unwieldy, and its structure forments conflicts and divisions between its two sides.
What the Big East needs to do is to accentuate its strengths. Basketball is a strength, with or without the Catholics, and leveraging its status will make sure that the Big East will keep a seat at the table even if its teams on the field don't play like they deserve it.
Why is Big East basketball so awesome? In short - New York City. Yet, NYC does not produce as much talent on the gridiron as it does on the court. This is largely because football is a very expensive game, and many of NYC's schools are very impoverished. The Big East conference needs to be proactive and partner up with the NFL to promote football in the urban areas of the Northeast as a long-term investment in its future.
The Northeast may not produce as much football talent as the South; but it does have one decided advantage; money. Northeastern states and schools may be facing budget crunches and crises, but their citizens remain relatively affluent, and with all the money that ABC/Disney have spent on college football, it's a market that they would like to do better in. With any potential expansion comes the possibility of holding a conference championship game, which can be rotated between Giants Stadium, Heinz Field, Gillette Stadium, The Linc, and Raymond James. Even with Wall Street in crisis as of October, there are still plenty of opportunities for the Big East conference and its football teams to increase revenue and exposure via properly leveraging their natural demographic advantages into exposure and partnerships with potential corporate sponsors.
Having the right vision is no guarantee of success. I think current Rutgers University president Richard McCormick "gets" where Rutgers need to go in the future, but it will only be so easy with crumbling infrastructure and a major budget crunch. Likewise, having a more proactive, forward-thinking front office will not by itself ensure that the Big East conference keeps its seat at the table. However, at this point, we don't even have that. Mike Tranghese sat idly by while the ACC tried to leave the Big East for dead. Going back even further, a couple Big East schools majorly missed the boat by passing up the opportunity to form an all-sports Eastern Conference decades ago. Never again, I say.
The Big East football schools cannot guarantee that the rest of the country will ever respect them. But they have the opportunity, and I argue, the duty to at least try and get their own house in order. I can only hope that they do not squander yet another opportunity.