An agreement announced Tuesday between the Big East Conference and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl could add up to bad news for ECU and its Conference USA rivals.
The Big East has moved in as an option for the Memphis game, which will be played on Dec. 31 this year.
The league will have the option of sending a team to the Liberty Bowl or to the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
Both games will choose from a pool of teams that includes the SEC, Big East and Conference USA. Previously, the Conference USA champ faced an SEC foe in the Liberty Bowl. The Big East will place a team in the Liberty Bowl at least once, but perhaps more often than that, during the next four years.
The C-USA champion Pirates played in the past two Liberty games, losing by close outcomes to Arkansas last season and to Kentucky in 2008.
There was no immediate reaction from Conference USA, which is headquartered in Irving, Texas. The league had six bowl berths in 2009.
With the Liberty, the Big East now has seven possible games -- the BCS, the Champs Sports Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the New Era Pinstripe (Yankee Stadium) and the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl (St. Petersburg, Fla.) in addition to the Liberty and Papajohns.com games.
Last season, Conference USA had six spots, but none more prestigious than the Liberty.
The good news for the 12 Conference USA teams is that the Liberty opening will fall to sixth in the Big East's pecking order. And with only eight football members, the Big East may not be able to qualify six teams. In 2009, Louisville and Syracuse both finished 4-8 overall and failed to gain postseason eligibility.
With a new coach, Ruffin McNeill, and heavy personnel losses from last season's 9-5 team, the Pirates will be a long shot to repeat as C-USA champ. The likely preseason favorites will be Southern Miss and Marshall in the East Division and Houston and Southern Methodist in the West.
ECU's nonleague schedule features Virginia Tech, North Carolina, N.C. State and Navy; the Pirates will be fortunate just to finish 6-6 overall. In league play, however, the Pirates have a chance for a smooth start under McNeill, a former defensive back star for the school.
His first two games will be in Dowdy-Ficklen against league foes Tulsa (Sunday Sept. 5, 2 p.m., ESPN2) and Memphis (Sept. 11, time to be announced later).
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