The Big East is divided over whether to pursue Air Force or BYU as its 14th football member, while another option the conference is considering is creating a 16-team football league by adding Army, Air Force and BYU, industry and league sources told ESPN.
On Thursday, recently hired Big East commissioner Mike Aresco reiterated in Tampa, Fla., that the conference will add a 14th football member, echoing comments that former commissioner John Marinatto made months ago that it would add another member from out West to get to 14 teams.
In 2015, Navy will become the Big East's 13th football member.
Whether Air Force, BYU or Army ultimately join the Big East could be determined by how much the Big East's new media rights deal, expected to be completed in the coming months, brings the league. At least one Big East source remains confident.
"They'll crawl back once the TV deal is done," the source said.
On Sept. 1, the Big East began a 60-day exclusive negotiating window with ESPN. If a deal isn't reached before Nov. 1, the league will negotiate with other networks such as NBC/Comcast and Fox Sports.
The amount the Big East receives for its new media deal could be a huge factor in attracting BYU, Air Force or Army, sources said. Media estimates have projected the Big East's deal annually will be worth between $60 million to $130 million. Those figures would translate to between $3 million to $6.5 million for each football-only member and $4 million to $8.7 million for each full member.
BYU, Air Force and Army are being sought as football-only members.
The Big East's current six-year media rights deal is worth $3.125 million for each full member.
Air Force, BYU and Army all have been approached by the Big East in the past about membership, but didn't join for various reasons.
Among the holdups for Air Force has been the Falcons' loyalty to the Mountain West, especially Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould. However, Gould is scheduled to retire next year. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun also said he wasn't in favor of joining the Big East.
"You feel an affiliation, not just in terms of proximity but in terms of mutual respect among the institutions that are part of this league," Calhoun told the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Gazette in July. "You take guys out of school, leave on Thursday and miss all day Thursday and Friday -- sure, the revenue part of it, you might say maybe or maybe not -- I just think there's more to it."
BYU was close to joining the Big East last November, until the deal blew up essentially at the last minute when the Cougars refused to relinquish their home television rights. This issue would have to be resolved for BYU to have a chance to join the Big East.
BYU and ESPN also have an eight-year television deal worth nearly $4 million a year through 2018 with an option for 2019, sources said. The deal also allows BYUtv, which reaches 55 million homes, to broadcast one home game and rebroadcast every home game and every game ESPN has the rights for.
The Big East obviously would want BYU before its ESPN deal expires, and the Cougars may get out of the contract by joining a "BCS AQ conference." However, after the 2013 season, there technically will no longer be any "BCS AQ" and non-AQ conferences.
But until Navy and a 14th member are on board, Aresco said Thursday that the league would be split into two six-team divisions, most likely East and West. The Big East will hold a conference championship game next season at the site of the league's top team based on best record or highest BCS ranking.
When the Big East grows to 14, league officials already have had discussions how to split the divisions. The most popular 14-team model, sources said, would be "Red" and "Blue" divisions that are non-geographic.
The Red Division would consist of Louisville, South Florida, Connecticut, San Diego State, SMU, Navy and Memphis. The Blue Division: Cincinnati, Central Florida, Rutgers, Boise State, Houston, Temple and the 14th team.
Each team would play six league games within its division and two games against the other division, including one permanent cross-division rival game. Those annual cross-division matchups would be: Louisville-Cincinnati, USF-UCF, UConn-Rutgers, San Diego State-Boise State, SMU-Houston, Navy-Temple and Memphis versus the 14th team.
Those division lineups also could be tweaked, if necessary, to appease the Big East's future TV partners and increase the worth of the media rights deal.
While a 14-team model appears the most likely, the league is open to a 16-team league with BYU, Air Force and Army, placing the three service academies in the Big East.
"Having all three academies is pretty big with their national following," a source said. "If Army says yes, maybe it makes sense to have 16."
Army was in Conference USA from 1998-2004, but wasn't competitive. The Big East has approached Army in the past but it hasn't been interested.
Could that change when the Big East signs its new media rights deal or the new playoff format revenue distribution is determined? Possibly. This year, Army and BYU will only receive $100,000 each from BCS revenue because they're independents, while the Big East schools split $23.6 million.
Brett McMurphy covers college football for ESPN.