My mailbag for the past week has been full of panicky Big East fans (and, frankly, Big East critics) who are asking me if the league is in danger of losing its automatic BCS bid.
I can understand the confusion and concern. After all, the conference has performed terribly so far this season and currently has no teams in the Top 25. It ranks eighth, behind the Mountain West and WAC, in ESPN Stats & Info's latest conference rankings. When the first BCS standings are released later this month, the Big East may not appear at all.
None of that, however, means the league is any immediate danger of losing its automatic bid. In fact, it's as safe right now as the other five automatic-qualifying leagues.
"The Big East and the other five conferences have their AQ spots in the BCS for this season and three more," said Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS. "No one knows what the BCS will look like beginning with 2014-15 season."
The six BCS bids have been guaranteed until the 2013 season (and through the January 2014 BCS games). There is currently no process for determining BCS qualification beyond then or even what format the BCS will take after that season. Hancock said the conference commissioners will probably decide that in 2012.
Here is where things get confusing for some. The BCS is currently in a four-year evaluation period for determining whether a seventh conference could gain an automatic bid. That cycle covers the years from 2008-2011, so we are now in the third season of that process. But again, this has nothing to do with the Big East or the other five current AQ conferences and is more about finding out whether the Mountain West can achieve AQ status.
But let's just say that this four-year cycle would determine the Big East's fate. Even then, the league would be in decent shape.
There are three standards for determining automatic bid inclusion:
Average rank of the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings every year;
Average conference ranking, which is the final regular-season rankings of all conference teams in the computer rankings used by the BCS each year; and
Top 25 performance ranking, or the number of teams in the Top 25 of the final BCS standings each year, with adjustments to account for differences in the number of members of each conference.
In the last evaluation cycle, from 2004-07, the Big East ranked sixth in all three categories. While this year may be a down year, the results from 2008 and 2009 would help out. Cincinnati finished 12th in the final BCS standings in 2008 and third last year for a two-year average of 7.5. Compare that to the ACC, whose highest ranked team was Georgia Tech both years. The Yellow Jackets were 14th in '08 and ninth last year for a two-year score of 11.5. The Mountain West's score is better than both, at 5.0.
The Big East may have a hard time cracking the Top 15 of the BCS final standings this year unless West Virginia or someone else wins out. Still, the league should rank no lower than sixth among conferences in the first category.
Average conference rankings by the BCS computers are not readily available. But as for Top 25 performance ranking, the Big East had three teams in the Top 17 of last years's final BCS standings (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia) and two in the Top 25 in '08 (Cincinnati and Pitt). The ACC had three teams in the Top 25 both years, but remember that the Big East gets bonus points for having four fewer teams overall than the ACC. The Mountain West had three Top 25 teams both years (TCU, Utah and BYU). And the bottom of the Big East would be ranked much higher than the bottom of the Mountain West, bringing up the overall computer scores.
Again, that was just a hypothetical look at the Big East's performance. It's also important to remember that one bad year does not mean everything.
"That's why it's a four-year process instead of a four-week process," Hancock said.
Now, if you want to worry about what happens after 2012, that's understandable. Nobody can even be sure what conference alignments will look like by then.
These decisions will revolve heavily around what TV wants. While the Big East doesn't necessarily draw the most eyeballs to broadcasts, the league's best attribute is its location among some of the largest media markets in the country. That's why the league is playing up that fact often, and why it may be looking to expand with Villanova (Philadelphia) and TCU (Dallas-Fort Worth). If the conference survives in its current form or even adds teams in large markets, it's hard to imagine the Big East being shut out of a future BCS alignment.
There are plenty of issues to iron out in the near future. But for right now, even as low as the Big East's perception has sunk this season, there's no need to worry about losing the automatic bid due to on-field performance.