Ah, the holidays. A time when families across America will spend at least a few minutes arguing over how the Christmas bird is carved and divvied up among those around the table, knife and fork in hand.
That brings us to the Big East.
On Sunday, the oft-reported news that seven non-football members of the Big East were leaving to start a new hoops league became official. Though people affiliated with the waning conference continue to act like Frank Drebin in front of the fireworks store ("All right, nothing to see here..."), the schools that are still on board are looking for a new place to land in the not-so-distant future. And potential landing spots are looking into the benefits of potentially bringing some of these programs aboard.
"There's a public face on this where we all act like this is just a bump in the road for the conference," said an administrator from a recently-added Big East school. "But the reality is that behind the scenes we're all scrambling our butts off."
So, who among the schools that are currently in the Big East or who live in the realm of non-Automatic Qualifiers have the most curb appeal? Which five are the most attractive as potential future members of the five big BCS conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC -- as they inevitably push toward 16-team futures? (Keep in mind, Notre Dame's future ACC affiliation keeps it off this list.)
With that in mind, here's our ranking of the top five "free agent conference schools," as compiled via conversations with people in the business.
5. Temple Owls
Current affiliation: Big East
10-year record: 43-76, two bowls, 0 conference titles
TV market: Philadelphia (fourth)
No, I didn't expect to see the Owls on this list, either. But as soon as I started making calls, they came up early and often. "They are Rutgers not so long ago," one East Coast AD explained. "If they could ever get their act together in football they could be a giant. They sit in the middle of all that tri-state talent."
They also sit in the middle of that tri-state media market, which nearly everyone I contacted pointed to as the school's biggest strength. "Do I think that Phillies and Eagles fans are suddenly going to start watching Temple football? No. But that doesn't matter," the East Coast AD said. "The Big Ten wanted Maryland for the media market. It's about the households you can deliver for a cable network and the subscriber fees that come with it, or more importantly the households you can bring to the table during TV negotiations."
A charter member of Big East football two decades ago, the Owls were shed for a while, only to return in time for the current march to extinction. "I'm not saying this will happen," the East Coast AD continued. "But this would sure fill in that gap left in the ACC's map when they lost Maryland and couldn't get Rutgers."
Current affiliation: Mountain West (Big East '13)
10-year record: 116-14, 10 bowls (two BCS), eight conference titles (seven WAC, one Mountain West, three shared)
TV market: Boise (112th)
Temple's strength is Boise's weakness. If winning was all that mattered then the Broncos would have had BCS conferences knocking down their door for the past decade. Instead, they've had to watch as fellow BCS busters Utah and TCU moved on to better places while they had to settle on a convoluted union with the Big East that seems doomed. But to the TV-centric commissioners, the Idaho media market is an anchor weighing down Boise State's appeal.
However, interest in adding Boise seems to have quietly been kindled out west. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott's comments last week have been painted as a negative concerning Boise and San Diego State (which barely missed this list), but they were also framed within a lot of "if we were to expand" talk. He says they aren't into expanding right now. But if you believe any conference commissioner when he says he isn't looking to expand then you probably also believe the world will end when the Mayan calendar resets this Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Big 12 waits to see what Clemson & Co. might do about the ACC, but chatter persists that when that conference inevitably expands it will do so quickly and with an eye on Boise and another school we'll talk about shortly (hint: it's No. 1).
"The people at Boise have been very patient for a long time," said a West Coast AD. "Now they just need to stick it out just a little longer. There is a move coming. But they have to wait on a few other things to go down first. This Maryland versus the ACC lawsuit concerning the [$50 million] exit fee is the domino that all of us are waiting on. Those dominos will end up determining where Boise lands. But most believe they'll land somewhere."
Current affiliation: Big East
10-year record: 80-45, seven bowls (two BCS), four conference titles (Big East, two shared)
TV market: Cincinnati (34th)
The Bearcats seemingly made all the right moves over the past decade. The hoops school joined the Big East to rub elbows with the giants of college basketball, but also invested more than $120 million in football facilities, showing a real dedication to competing on the gridiron. It worked. Just ask Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. But no one was burned more from the recent Big East-to-ACC defections than Cincinnati. The Bearcats have never been shy about coveting a spot in the Big Ten, but were told repeatedly that the B1G wasn't expanding ... and then they were passed over by fellow Big East member Rutgers, supposedly because of TV market size.
However, the Cincy media market is not exactly tiny. That's a fact that conference power brokers, at least those outside of the Big Ten, are taking notice of.
"The Big 12 wanted Louisville because it delivered that same area of the country," said an athletic administrator in the Midwest. "Now the ACC has that market, so adding another school in the same area isn't as attractive, though they do fit the ACC's academic profile better than Louisville. But the window is still open for the Big 12 to stake a claim. Or the Big Ten could just cement that whole area and box out the ACC."
The point of all that is this -- Cincinnati, like Boise, will have to wait. That's no fun. But that doesn't mean that the Bearcats aren't wanted.
Current affiliation: Conference USA (Big East '13)
10-year record: 75-53, six bowls, one conference title (C-USA)
TV market: Houston (10th)
Here's another school that I wouldn't have expected to appear this high on the list, if at all. But the administrators I talked to hinted back to Temple -- the sleeping giant sitting in a massive TV market. The main difference is that their market actually pays attention.
"When they win, the city really gets behind them," said an SEC administrator, directly referencing Houston's Southwest Conference membership from 1971 through its disbanding in '95. "They've always been caught in between the Texas and Texas A&M crowds, but if they were ever to get back to a top-level conference, where they really have a shot at competing for big championships, the potential there is through the roof."
Sadly, that potential has always worked against them when lobbying for a slot in the Texas-driven Big 12. But as that conference grows, the Cougars might be too hard to ignore, especially having just lost Texas A&M to the SEC.
Current affiliation: Independent
10-year record: 82-43, eight bowls, two conference titles (Mountain West)
TV market: Salt Lake City (33rd)
The Cougars wisely broke off their chats with the Big East not too long before the conference started its 2012 implosion. Its two-year run as a Notre Dame-ish independent has been a success, but without the TV and BCS safety nets that the Irish enjoy, BYU officials know that they must continue shopping for a conference football home.
The Big 12 has quietly poked around Provo. People within BYU tell me that the Pac-12 has also made stealthy inquiries, though the folks at archrival Utah don't want to hear of it. There is also talk of a new "remnants conference" that would essentially reunite the Mountain West and add in Big East refugees. But is a cobbled-together league really a better option than independence, or waiting on one of these inquiring conferences to make a move?
"We talk a lot about media markets driving all of this," said a West Coast AD. "Salt Lake is a solid market. But really, BYU transcends that. They are one of the few schools with a national following. Really, it's global. BYU TV is already in 50 million households on its own. It's a giant brand with a passionate fan base. Otherwise, they couldn't have gone independent in the first place. There's a lot to like there. We may try to downplay it, but we all know that."
The next five: SMU, San Diego State, Navy, USF, UConn