Boise State's legal fight with the conference soon to be called the American Athletic Conference could hinge on the definition of an automatic-qualifying conference.
The Broncos' agreement to join the conference then known as the Big East included provisions that would lower their buyout from the maximum of $5 million.
Most notably, the buyout drops to $1 million if the Big East "loses its 'automatic qualifier' status for purposes of the Bowl Championship Series (other than as the result of the elimination of the 'automatic qualifier' generally)."
The BCS announced in November the creation of a new playoff and bowl format beginning in 2014 that removes AQ designations but guarantees high-profile, high-dollar bowl slots to all of the former AQ conferences except the Big East/AAC.
That was one of three key points cited by Boise State on Monday when it announced it was pre-emptively suing the Big East and asking the Fourth Judicial District Court in Boise to absolve the school of any buyout penalty.
Boise State and the court were unable to provide a copy of the lawsuit to the Idaho Statesman on Monday.
"Boise State entered into that agreement in good faith and with a great degree of optimism, but the conference we agreed to join simply no longer exists," President Bob Kustra said in the press release.
Boise State's release states that representatives of the AAC - the league will be rebranded at the end of this school year when the seven Catholic schools separate and take the Big East name - told the school it intended to sue for the $5 million buyout.
Big East Commissioner Michael Aresco said in a statement that he had not seen Boise State's lawsuit.
"We are disappointed that Boise State has gone to court to try to avoid the contractual obligation that it made to the conference to pay $5 million for refusing to join after committing to do so," Aresco said. "We are confident that, in the end, Boise State will be required to make the cancelation payment called for by our agreement."
The Big East has been involved in legal actions with several other departing members in recent years. TCU, which like Boise State never actually joined the league, reportedly paid the $5 million. Rutgers, like Boise State, sued the league first.
By filing first, Boise State could be hoping to dictate where the lawsuit is conducted.
The Broncos have $3 million set aside to pay exit fees as part of their Dec. 31 decision to stay in the Mountain West and scrap agreements with the Big East for football and the Big West for most other sports. The first $2.5 million is the Mountain West revenue the school would have forfeited to go to the Big East anyway. The other $500,000 was pledged by the Mountain West to help Boise State.
Boise State owes $1.5 million to the Big West. Kustra indicated he would pay that when he chose to return to the Mountain West.
He took a different track with the Big East, which led to Monday's lawsuit.
Boise State's release points out that:
The Big East lost more than three-quarters of its members from Dec. 6, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2012.
The Big East failed to add football schools west of the Mississippi River, beyond those already contracted.
The Big East lost AQ status.
However, the only one of those factors that affects Boise State's buyout in its membership agreement is the BCS. Other factors that could have lowered the buyout include a 25 percent decrease in league revenue (buyout drops to $1 million) or assigning less than 70 percent of TV revenue to football ($2.5 million).
The Big East's only obligation to have members west of the Mississippi was satisfied by San Diego State, which didn't renege until after Boise State did. It also agreed to "in good faith" consider adding more members west of the Mississippi after July 1, 2013.
San Diego State does not owe a buyout because the Big East no longer had a second team west of the Rocky Mountains when it left.
Existing Big East schools face a $10 million buyout. Boise State's penalty is less because it never joined.
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat