Why the Sun Belt feels it is among best Group of Five conferences amid realignment moves

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

The Sun Belt Conference has made its realignment moves, cherry picking what little was left of Conference USA after the American Athletic Conference claimed six for itself from C-USA.

Adding Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall last month was a strategic decision the Sun Belt made with geographic proximity in mind. So too is SBC’s anticipated addition of two-time FCS national champion James Madison.

Including all four would push the count of Sun Belt football members to 14, an increase prompted largely by the desire of powers Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina to have more affordable road trips for programs in all sports.

“When we took a look at it and discovered ODU, James Madison and Marshall would be very interested in being in a league together, that was certainly a driver for us,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said.

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Where that leaves the Sun Belt is subject to debate.

But there’s a case to be made that the conference — a frequent subject of ridicule in years gone by — is ready to challenge the AAC's position atop the Group of Five pecking order.

If it isn’t already.

“I really believe we’ve got the top G5 league in the country,” Troy coach Chip Lindsey said.

“Some like-minded schools coming into this league will make (it) even stronger.”

Maggard seemed to be laying groundwork for Lindsey’s assertion even before the recent additions were made official. UL Monroe athletic director Scott McDonald, too.

“The 10 (current) member football schools in the Sun Belt feel very, very good about where we are, who we’re with and the success we’re having, and the continued success of this league,” Maggard said. “When you look at where we’re positioned right now in the Group of Five, we like where we’re at.”

The Sun Belt has one program, No. 21 Coastal Carolina, ranked in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and two, No. 21 Coastal Carolina and No. 24 UL, in the Associated Press Top 25.

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“We know what works, because our conference continues to improve,” McDonald said. “We’ve clearly moved ahead of many conferences, in football in particular.

“We sent four softball teams to the (last) NCAA Tournament. … I would argue that our baseball league is as good as anybody’s outside of maybe the SEC and the ACC. And it’s going to continue to get better.”

However, it's football pushing realignment.

Sun Belt schools receive significant income, reportedly around $18 million in 2019, from their share of College Football Playoff money, plus football-driven ESPN multimedia rights payouts.  

“All of this landscape discussion, and how we are ‘measured’ as conferences – it’s all football-success predicated,” Maggard said.

“If you look over the past few years, with the improvement of our football program, App State’s long-going and Coastal’s recent success, I think that’s when the leap occurred.”

The Sun Belt Conference is planning to expand from 10 football playing members to 14.

Sun Belt delivers ESPN networks

That emergence as a Group of Five football power – arguably ahead of C-USA, the Mountain West and the MAC – may be the biggest reason Southern Miss is jumping.

Beyond that, though, it allows the Eagles, Old Dominion and Marshall to escape C-USA’s contract with CBS Sports and join a league that recently extended its agreement with ESPN.

The platform allows exposure not only on linear networks including ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU – UL’s game Thursday (6:30 p.m. CT) against Georgia State is on ESPN – but also via streaming for football and other sports including basketball, baseball and softball on ESPN3 and ESPN+.

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“This move will allow Southern Miss student-athletes to compete in what is fast-becoming the best Group of Five conference in the country and will provide greater visibility for the university’s championship athletics programs,” Southern Miss president Rodney D. Bennett said in a statement.

Adding four new programs could reduce the size of media-revenue pie slices current members receive.

But Maggard is optimistic additional inventory means the Sun Belt deal with ESPN, which runs through 2031, can be renegotiated.

“Hopefully we can improve our television contract,” he said, “but that all remains to be determined.”

So too do other details including how much in buyouts must be paid for leaving Conference USA, when new members start Sun Belt play, new divisions - Troy may move from the East to the West - and the fate of current non-football-playing members Texas-Arlington and Little Rock. UTA already is exploring its options.

The Sun Belt’s current football-playing members are UL, ULM, Texas State, Arkansas State and South Alabama in the West and Troy, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina in the East.

Moving Troy to the West would put the Trojans within less than 250 miles of Southern Miss as opposed to almost 500 miles from App State, and adding Marshall and Old Dominion to the East gives the Mountaineers two new opponents within less than 300 miles from its campus.

Trickledown effect

All the movement is a trickledown effect of Oklahoma’s and Texas’ summertime decision to soon leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

The Big 12 responded by adding independent BYU and poaching Cincinnati, Houston Central from The American, which is turned added Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA from C-USA.

The American, whose existing programs mostly have much-higher operating budgets than those in the Sun Belt, opted to primarily pursue programs from big media markets.

It is a risky move, considering C-USA unsuccessfully made a similar play when it nabbed five Sun Belt schools less than 10 years ago.

Now C-USA is left with just five programs.

One is UTEP. Three are former Sun Belt members – FIU, Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky.

The fifth is Louisiana Tech, whose former athletic director, Tommy McClelland, famously boasted in 2020 about Conference USA superiority over the Sun Belt, saying, “If their league expanded, I don’t think there would be anybody in our league that would be interested in that.”

But with MTSU and Western Kentucky in line for a potential move to the MAC, C-USA reportedly has extended invitations to FCS Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State and FBS independents Liberty and New Mexico State.

Its future is full of questions.

The Sun Belt, though, seems as solid as ever. It’s not just because of geographic footprint.

“Most importantly,” Maggard said, “all four schools, we felt, as the consensus, strengthened our conference both competitively and regionally.”