LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The struggling Big East Conference came up short again in the latest round of expansion.
The conference lost its fifth member in the past 18 months with Rutgers bolting for the Big Ten Tuesday. Now the league could lose one of its two most prominent remaining football programs.
Louisville or Connecticut could join the Atlantic Coast Conference — which is seeking a replacement for Big Ten-bound Maryland.
Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Boise State and San Diego State are due to make the big East a 12-team league next season, with Navy football arriving in 2015. But this week's news was another blow to the league's fight to remain relevant with the other five major BCS conferences — Big Ten, ACC, PAC-12, Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference.
Still, Commissioner Mike Aresco remains confident he can keep the Big East intact and complete his own expansion plans.
He said the league will move quickly to replace Rutgers. The West coast appears to be the target region with BYU, Air Force and UNLV as possible candidates.
"There are schools that want to join the Big East," Aresco said. "And why wouldn't they? We have a model that works."
The model didn't work for TCU, at least from a geographical standpoint. The Horned Frogs were slated to join the Big East this season but opted out and joined the Big 12 instead.
Aresco is undeterred. He said he has been in contact with the other newcomers and they are still on board to join the league. He wouldn't s discuss on else might be leaving.
But the likely candidates seem to be Louisville or Connecticut.
The No. 19 Cardinals (9-1, 4-1) and the Huskies (4-6, 1-4) just happen to play Saturday in a pivotal conference showdown. But their commitment to the Big East comes down to how the model of the league that Aresco trumpets — including financial payouts, exposure and competitive balance — work out.
On the field, it's been good and bad for Louisville.
The Cardinals won a share of the Big East last year and are title contenders again this year. Before suffering their first loss at Syracuse on Nov. 10, they were as high as ninth in the BCS championship standings. But they were never received any consideration for the national title.
Even if Louisville had remained unbeaten through last weekend's upheaval that saw top-ranked Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon fall, it's doubtful that the Cardinals could've gotten into the discussion.
It's an uphill battle for recognition for Big East teams.
"I think the perception is that the Big East is a step or two beneath the other conferences," ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said in a conference call last month. No. 21 Rutgers is the only other ranked team in the conference.
Aside from the lack of respect, there are the financial considerations.
The Big East paid its members $6 million each last season, about $18 million less than what the Big Ten paid out to its teams. Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti cited that as a major reason in joining the Big Ten, which gets the top-rated New York television market in return.
The ACC also has a bigger bankroll than the Big East — two years ago the conference paid its members an average of $12-$13 million each and the league just recently signed a new TV contract that will increase that payout.
Connecticut has made it clear that it would welcome interest from the ACC. The same goes for Louisville, which had talked with the Big 12 about joining before the league admitted West Virginia this season.
But until the school is contacted, Cardinals coach Charlie Strong remains committed to the Big East.
"I try not to get caught up in that because my focus right now is just preparing this team for these next two games," Strong said Monday. "Our (athletic director Tom Jurich) and our President (James R. Ramsey) are going to put us in the best position.
"With those teams leaving, hopefully we can keep this conference together and whoever leaves, someone else will come in."
Strong pointed out that Louisville would be an asset to any conference.
"The question is what are they looking for," said Strong, referring to possible suitors. "We have a lot to offer."
What Louisville can't offer is a TV market comparable to Connecticut. Nielsen ranks the city 48th with 670,800 sets — 18 spots lower than the Hartford/New Haven market (996,550).
But there seems to be no rhyme or reason to this process.
Realignment talks appeared to be on hold until reports of Maryland's talks with the Big Ten surfaced this weekend. It's difficult to tell what the ACC would covet and there seems to be no geographical limits to the Big East's replacement search.
"The only thing in life that is for sure is change," Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "I think we all go through that. I think it's just part of life."
Especially when it comes to college sports.
AP Sports Writers Ralph Russo in New York and Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Conn., contributed to this report.