Big East presidents agreed in a meeting on Tuesday that it would be in their best interests to increase Big East football membership from eight to 10 members, the conference said.
"Today, our Board of Directors affirmed a set of key strategic initiatives, including expansion, designed to enhance membership stability and maximize our value," Big East commissioner John Marinatto said in a statement.
Marinatto said the conference will refrain from commenting further on the expansion process.
League sources indicated to ESPN.com Big East reporter Brian Bennett that TCU and Central Florida are the top possible outside candidates, along with Villanova. The Big East would prefer to bring in schools as football-only members so as to not add to the 16-team basketball alignment. The question for TCU is whether the Horned Frogs would be willing to join only for football, since the Mountain West likely would not allow them to stay in that conference for other sports. The issue for UCF is possible opposition from potential rival South Florida.
A source told ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad on Wednesday that Villanova is leaning toward accepting football membership. The Big East wants an answer by the end of the year.
TCU also is a real possibility for the Big East as there is mutual interest, multiple sources said.
The Big East would be interested in exploring if it could stage a conference championship game with 10 teams, which would require appeal to the NCAA, a source close to the Big East discussions told Schad. Currently conferences must have 12 teams to stage a league title game.
The Big East is interested in if the Big 12 would like to co-sponsor an appeal, though many Big 12 coaches prefer a season without it.
The conference informed Villanova shortly before Labor Day that it wanted to add the Wildcats for football. Villanova currently plays in the Colonial Athletic Association in FCS and is ranked third in the FCS coaches' poll. Villanova won a national championship last year and is considering a move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. If it does, that will fill one of the Big East's spots.
"Our football evaluation is ongoing," Villanova AD Vince Nicastro told The Associated Press. "We are moving forward as quickly as we can, but not at the expense of being absolutely thorough. We still don't have a specific decision date, but it is likely to be resolved some time during this academic year."
Villanova, which made the Final Four in 2009, has been part of the Big East basketball conference since 1980.
The Wildcats have played at the second-tier level since 1985 and rejected an earlier offer to join the Big East in 1997. Connecticut accepted an invitation that season to start the process to move up to what was known as Division I-A.
Sources told Bennett that "all the usual suspects" were discussed at Tuesday's meeting, and that the league has been researching potential new members for months. Former Big East member Temple is a possible backup plan if Villanova decides not to move up because the Owls play in an NFL stadium (Lincoln Financial Field) and have a home for their other teams in the Atlantic 10. Houston is further down the list, while Memphis is not being seriously considered at this time.
While Texas schools like Houston and TCU seem like an odd fit geographically, their inclusion would allow the Big East to tap into huge television markets, as well as fertile recruiting territory.
The Big East is currently the smallest BCS football conference. Officials did not say how expansion would affect the 16-team basketball alignment.
The move raises the idea that expansion could lead to a split between basketball-only schools and the football members. Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers, Louisville, West Virginia, USF, Connecticut and Cincinnati all play football.
Non-football members such as Villanova also include St. John's, Seton Hall, Marquette, DePaul, Providence and Notre Dame, which is a football independent.
ESPN.com Big East reporter Brian Bennett, ESPN national college football reporter Joe Schad and The Associated Press contributed to this report.