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Big East: Not for AFA, period

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As we have known all along, this should be a tremendous month for the Air Force Academy's football program, and it's already off to a memorable start.

After all, the Falcons are 3-1 coming off that remarkable victory last Saturday at Navy, dominating the Midshipmen for three quarters and then pulling out a 35-34 overtime conquest televised nationally by CBS. Now, for an encore, Air Force merely goes to Notre Dame and switches to NBC this Saturday (1:30 p.m. our time) against the Fighting Irish.

Oh, and then the Falcons come home next Thursday, Oct. 13, for yet another coast-to-coast TV game, this one against San Diego State on CBS Sports Network, followed by a trip to No. 5 Boise State on Oct. 21 (that one on Versus).

Four games, four bowl-caliber opponents, all for the entire country to see. And yet, the hot story this week hasn't focused on Air Force vs. Notre Dame.

Instead, we've heard about the faltering Big East Conference, still superb in basketball but threatened in football, authorizing commissioner John Marinotto to "aggressively" pursue new members. Those same reports put Air Force and Navy high on, if not atop, the Big East's list, which also may include Army.

Clearly, this has become a battle for survival for the Big East and possibly the Mountain West. Their main goal is simple — retaining (for the Big East) or securing (for the Mountain West) an automatic berth for their football champions in the Bowl Championship Series, still the best hope for national prominence until/unless a playoff tournament becomes reality.

For the Big East, which is losing Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the Atlantic Coast Conference, there is no time to wait. Nobody cares about creating a huge distraction and trampling on the most challenging month Air Force has ever faced. Several weeks ago, the same rumor mill was suggesting Air Force as a prime target for the similarly wounded Big 12 Conference. It was wrong then for Air Force, and it's wrong now.

Troy Calhoun, in his fifth season as AFA head football coach, has been emphatically clear in public responses to questions about perhaps leaving the Mountain West for greener (as in bigger-money) pastures. He has spoken of having allegiance only for the Mountain West, which is more in line with the Falcons' capability. It's a mixture of programs at different levels, with Air Force considered always a capable challenger. Likewise, AFA superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould has talked about the academy's strong feelings for the league it helped form as a charter member in 1999.

In other words, it's OK to face Boise State and San Diego State (with TCU about to leave, after Brigham Young and Utah already departed) along with the likes of Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico and (starting next year) Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii. If that's good enough to make it into the BCS, great. If not, so be it.

Going to the Big East would mean tougher battles and longer trips, facing West Virginia, Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers, South Florida and perhaps others such as Central Florida, Temple or Houston.

We won't even go into the geographical aspect of Air Force being in the Big East, with conference offices in Providence, R.I., instead of here in Colorado Springs. There's also the matter of other sports, and whether they would also compete against the Big East or another league.

No matter what any Air Force people say now, the uncertainty will continue. And rest assured, the Big East has to be salivating after seeing how worthy the AFA-Navy game was of its national coverage.

This is not like 1998, when Air Force and others were unhappy with the Western Athletic Conference after it mushroomed to 16 members, many fractious, leading to the split that gave us the Mountain West. This is 2011, the craziest of times in college athletics and football in particular. Decisions made now, perhaps even in the next few weeks, could set the course for years to come.

For some, the Big East might sound like a step up. But that isn't a certainty, and it's not the solution for the Falcons. Now or ever.

routon@csindy.com

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