Is Air Force, Big 12 Bound?

Bumped to the front page...

Most of us here have been busy pondering over which schools the Mountain West may invite to get to the magical number of 12, and its not just us, conference expansion seems to being heating up again all over.  While some here (myself included) have focused on the recent the expansion plans of the Sun Belt and the re-re-re-reexpansion of the WAC, most others have been focusing on the possible expansion of the only AQ conferences that will not host a conference championship game next year, the Big East and Big 12.  Now it seems their futures and the MWC may be intertwined.  Over the last couple of days a few newsstories have intrigued me, many of which revolve around the Big East.

We all know the Big East (like everybody else) is expanding, but there is a great disagreement between the basketball schools that want to stop expanding to keep their league as small as possible, and the football schools that want to expand to 12 a stage a CCG.  While this is obvious to even the average college football/basketball fan, the fact that both have began publicly stating their positions is making this lover’s quarrel all the more interesting.

Now while the basketball schools may approve another full member like Houston or Central Florida to appease the football schools and avoid an outright split, they may only do so if the football schools promise to stop expanding the already massive basketball league.  This would only leave the option of adding Villanova (who plays FCS football and is already in the Big East) and/or football only members, if the conference was to have a CCG. 

This much rumored debate has reemerged the option of the Big East extending football only memberships to Army and Navy.  While both play in the Patriot League in all other sports, these service academies are currently Division I-A (FBS) football independents.  Now neither of these would be slam dunk options for the Big East football schools, but they are in the core footprint of its memberships and their additions would benefit the conference as a whole and allow its Frankenstein hybrid experiment to continue on for a few more years.  What the academies lack in football strength (mainly Army, Navy has been good as of late), they more than make up with national appeal and name recognition.  There are more living members of these two military branches than the entire alumni of the Big East football schools combined. 

While this move appears to be unpopular to the Big East fans, most of them fail to realize that not every addition needs to be a TCU caliber school.  Besides their dreadful BCS record since the ACC’s raid of 2005, the Big East also suffers from a perception issue.  At one time or another every school but West Virginia have been in the bottom three of the conference  over the last 5 years, without a perennial punching bag or two, the conference members consistently look like one hit wonders.  For example more people complained about an undefeated non-AQ TCU not playing for a MNC in 2011 than they did for an undefeated AQ Cinncy in 2010.  And while I get not watering down a league -- like the Mountain West who already has a few punching bag members -- the Big East needs to model itsself after the three best football conferences (SEC, Big Ten and Big 12) who all have their designated whipping boys (Vanderbilt, Indiana and Iowa St).  The addition of Army (currently) virtually guarantees that each school will have a win on its schedule, and Navy would actually add depth to the middle of the league.

Also in the news this week, it was reported that the Big 12 will keep its conference moniker despite only having 10 teams.  While the Big 12 claims this is to preserve the existing branding efforts that the conference has established over its short 15 year tenure, many see this as a sign that the Big 12 may expand again, especially if the Big East expands and the Big 12 is the only AQ without a CCG.

But what does any of this have to do with the Mountain West?  It’s all about Air Force. 

While the Big 12 will go after Notre Dame and Arkansas as long shot options, ultimately most agree that BYU has a good shot at getting an invite, and though they may be tempted to grab those big markets most think that they’ll want to better define the conference’s footprint by bridging BYU to the existing members by reestablishing its presence in the biggest market they lost, Colorado.  That basically narrows it down to Colorado State and Air Force, and most agree that Air Force would be the best candidate since it has a stronger football program and for the same reasons I listed above for the other service academies.  Adding Air Force and BYU to the old Big 12 North brings back their conference championship game and puts them right back in the state of Colorado, adds the Utah and Salt Lake City market, plus the additional national following that comes with having BYU and Air Force.

But would they join?  That’s the big question.  The service academies don’t worry about money like other schools, instead their main goal is to increase enlistment numbers, which is why they play games all over the states.  By joining an AQ conference, the academies would immediately see an increase in national attention and would benefit by having more of their games televised on major networks, however by playing a 12 team conference schedule it would greatly reduce their ability to travel around the country acting as a live advertisement for the service.  This especially applies to Air Force who would play 8 Big 12 games and 2 OOC games against the other academies leaving it only 2 open games each year.  With no public statements likely from these academies most can only theorize, but I will make a "bold statement" here and now. 

If Army and Navy end up joining the Big East for football and become AQ’s, not only will Air Force be invited to join the Big 12 but they will also accept, assuming the MWC does not receive an AQ and no other major conference shifts (i.e. PAC16). 

Air Force would benefit from Army and Navy getting the AQ bump and their athletic programs would in turn be perceived as more valuable of a commodity that the Big 12 could take advantage of.  Air Force would also be compelled to join since I doubt that they would like being considered as an athletically inferior non-AQ or miss out the extra publicity that Army/Navy would getting with the increase visibility on the major networks.  It seems pretty straight forward to me, I can already imagine a Navy recruiter telling a 17 year old kid that how he could come to Navy and play on ESPN and in a BCS bowl or go to Air Force and play on the Mtn. and hope for the Las Vegas Bowl.  The point is that the MWC has be ready, with the possibility that the Big 12 (and possibly even the Big East) may poach a member or two they need to have a back up plan.  We can all debate (as we have) on whether that means staying pat and working out a joint AQ deal with CUSA or grabbing a combination of Utah St, San Jose St, Houston, Rice, SMU, or UTEP to get to 12; but we all can agree that the MWC should be prepared for these worst case scenarios.