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Will the Big East and T.C.U. Live Happily Ever After?

On Monday, the Big East Conference and Texas Christian University entered into a shotgun wedding. Beginning with the 2012 season, T.C.U. will join the conference in all sports, including football, where their team has just completed an undefeated regular season.

On paper, the marriage would seem to have been hastily arranged. The Big East was founded as a basketball-focused conference in 1979, consisting of teams in urban climes in New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and New England. It found success almost immediately, qualifying exactly half of its teams for the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament during its first six seasons, during which time two of its schools, Georgetown and Villanova, won national championships.

T.C.U. is not a basketball school — the last time it won an N.C.A.A. tournament game was in 1987. And, last we checked, Fort Worth in Texas, where the school is based, it is not anywhere in the direction of the Northeast, unless you’re navigating there from Guadalajara.

But the Big East, which began sponsoring football in 1991, has long been indiscriminate about adding new members: from large state universities like Rutgers to smaller, religiously-affiliated ones like Marquette; from elite academic schools like Pittsburgh to marginal ones like the University of South Florida; from colleges with strong football traditions like Miami of Florida (which left the conference in 2004) to others which do not compete in football at all.

It has also taken an abstract view toward geography: once T.C.U. joins, its 17 members (including those that don’t participate in football) will be spread between 13 states — stretching from Rhode Island to Texas — and the District of Columbia. In an era in which most major conferences have vociferously protected their brands — erring on the side of preserving their academic, geographical, and competitive integrity — the Big East has gravitated toward the other equilibria, having collected a set of square-peg schools that don’t quite fit in elsewhere.

The Big East, however, has not lately been any sort of superconference, at least when it comes to football. None of its current members have played in the B.C.S. championship game (although the since-departed Miami had done so twice). Only one, West Virginia, is currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. The University of Connecticut, which just began sponsoring Division I-A football in 2000 and which computer rankings have as only about the 60th best team in the country, will represent the conference in a B.C.S. bowl game if it beats South Florida on Saturday.

Enter T.C.U., which has won 10 or more football games 8 times in the last 11 seasons as it has migrated through three different conferences, and which could still play in the national championship game this year if Oregon or Auburn should falter.

Before that, however, football success had been fleeting for T.C.U. Prior to the 2000 season, the last time it had been ranked in the A.P. Top 25 at the end of the season was in 1959. For most of the intervening years, the Horned Frogs were the doormats of the now-defunct Southwest Conference: during the 40 seasons between 1960 through 1999, T.C.U. lost more football games than all but 8 other Division I-A schools, and finished with a winning record only 9 times.

How likely is it, then, that T.C.U. will be able to maintain something resembling its current level of football success? The team shouldn’t necessarily have to be a national championship contender to be an asset to the Big East. But will it be one that plays in a bowl game in most seasons, and a high-prestige bowl with some regularity? Without that, T.C.U. isn’t worth much to the Big East. (It does open up the Dallas-Fort Worth television market — the fifth-largest in the country — to Big East football, but it is competing for attention with five other schools there.)

The answer, it turns out, is fairly intuitive — although it involves a bit of nuance. To project how well a college football team is liable to perform in the short-term — that is, over the next 3-5 seasons — look toward how well it has performed in the recent past. To project how well it can be expected to perform over the longer run, on the other hand, you’ll want to reach further back into the past to track its prior performance.

I discovered this by downloading power ratings for all Division I-A college football teams since 1960, as calculated by James Howell. The Howell ratings run on a scale from 0 (the worst possible team) to 1 (the best possible one) and are reasonably easy to interpret. A score of .5 reflects an average college football team — although keep in mind that the average includes teams from minor conferences like the Mid-American and the Sun Belt. The average rating for a team in a so-called automatic-qualifier (AQ) conference, on the other hand — one of the six powerful conferences, including the Big East, that are guaranteed placement into a B.C.S. bowl game — is a bit over .6. The average team that appears in a post-season bowl game has a rating slightly over .7. The average rating for one of the 10 teams that appears in one of the five B.C.S.-sponsored bowl game is a little over .8. Finally, the national champion typically has a Howell rating on the order of .9.

So far this year, T.C.U. has a Howell rating of .88: this is, in fact, the best rating in the country, and suggests that it is close to national championship caliber (unfortunately for T.C.U., the Howell ratings are not used by the B.C.S. computers since they account for margin of victory, which the B.C.S.’s arcane rules forbid.) And overall since 2000, T.C.U.’s Howell rating is .71, which is quite a bit better than the average for a team from a typical AQ conference. It has performed better than any current Big East member over this period, the closest being West Virginia, whose average rating is a .68.

In the 10 years between 1990 and 1999, on the other hand, T.C.U.’s Howell rating was just .45, which is below average over all, and quite a bit below average for a team from an AQ conference. And its rating was slightly worse still — .42 — during the 1980s.

Although I won’t go into detail on the particulars of the procedure, I used a form of regression analysis to analyze the data, and project T.C.U.’s performance out over the next 20 years.

Next year, for instance, T.C.U. is projected to have a Howell rating of .75. This is quite strong — and although there is a lot of uncertainty in the projection, there is somewhere on the order of a 35 or 40 percent chance that T.C.U. will play in a B.C.S. bowl game again next season.

T.C.U.’s projection begins to fade fairly quickly, however. In 2012, the first year they will play in the Big East, it drops to .71. By 2015, it falls to .64 — barely above average for a team from an AQ conference — and by 2020, it is .59, slightly below the typical AQ conference team. Looking further out still, T.C.U.’s projection evolves into a steady state of about .53. For a major conference team, that translates into a school that might go 5-7 in a typical year, perhaps making a bowl game every second or third season.

Several qualifications apply. Almost certainly, T.C.U.’s performance will not be quite that steady: they’ll have some stronger years and some weaker ones. And there is a chance, meanwhile, that they’ll build on their momentum from recent seasons and consistently overperform their forecast. Also, my model is based solely on T.C.U.’s past power ratings. It does not account for the fact that T.C.U. could get a recruiting boost from having joined a major conference.

Still, the basic rule-of-thumb that I suggested above is fairly powerful: to project how well a college team is likely to perform over the long-run, look at its past performance over the long-run. And there, T.C.U.’s track record is a mixed bag: as strong as they’ve been over the past decade or so, they were bogeying most seasons before that.

As a relatively small school without the pedigree of a University of Texas or a Texas A & M, T.C.U. has to work its tail off for every recruit. Under their coach, Gary Patterson, they’ve been a remarkably well-run program — and they’ll have little trouble signing talent so long as they’re appearing in elite bowl games. But should they have a couple of 4-8 seasons, blue-chip prospects from Tyler or Plano or Abeline aren’t likely to be excited by the prospect of playing Rutgers and Connecticut and will go to Texas, or A & M, instead.

With that said, if the benefits to the Big East in attaching themselves to T.C.U. will come mostly in the short-run, that is also probably where the conference’s focus is. As The Times’ Pete Thamel points out, there were two nightmare scenarios for the Big East: first, if it were to lose its automatic qualifier status after 2011 — when the B.C.S. will review its procedures — and second, if it were raided by a conference like the Big Ten, which has been linked with Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Rutgers.

Adding T.C.U. makes either of those scenarios significantly less likely. T.C.U.’s recent performance will count toward the B.C.S.’s assessment of the Big East, which means that they’ll almost certainly retain AQ status. And the conference — which will also add a 10th football member, possibly Villanova, by the time T.C.U. joins — would remain viable even if two teams like Pittsburgh and Rutgers were lost.

And who knows what the conference landscape will look like after 2014, when the B.C.S.’s contact expires and a playoff system may finally be installed. It probably won’t look very much like it does now. T.C.U., which will have played in five conferences over the span of twenty seasons — the Big East, the Southwest, the Mountain West, the Western Athletic, and Conference U.S.A. — may be on the move yet again.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.