New Mexico State to join Sun Belt for football

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico State announced Wednesday that it will join the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member, pending approval from the school’s board of regents, beginning in the fall of 2014.

Idaho as well as Football Championship Subdivision teams Georgia Southern and Appalachian State also announced in separate press conferences on their campuses Wednesday that they will be joining the Sun Belt in 2014.

The addition of the four new members gives the Sun Belt 12 football

members in 2015. They join Arkansas State, Georgia State,

Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy

and Western Kentucky.

Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington help make up the 12 teams participating in basketball beginning in 2014.

There

are some sports teams that won’t participate in the Sun Belt Conference

from those schools. The Mountaineers’ field hockey team will continue

to compete in the NorPac Field Hockey Conference and men’s soccer and

wrestling will stay in the Southern Conference. Georgia Southern

officials say it’s unclear in which conference its men’s soccer team

will participate.

NMSU and Idaho had been members of the Western Athletic

Conference, which has lost most of its football-playing members. The

Aggies and Vandals will play next season as independents but had been searching

for a conference to join.

“We

were delighted to receive the official invitation and we will be proud

to join,” said Manuel Pacheco, New Mexico State’s interim president.

“This is a well-respected conference.”

New Mexico State went 1-11 last season and hasn’t appeared in a bowl game since 1960.

Idaho was a football-only member of the

Sun Belt from 2001-2005 before joining the WAC. Idaho’s other sports

are moving to the Big Sky Conference.

Georgia Southern’s football team has won 10 Southern Conference titles and six national championships since 1985. Appalachian State has won 10 conference titles and three national championships.

Both schools are slated to begin playing Sun Belt games and will be revenue-sharing members of the conference in 2014 and eligible for the Sun Belt conference title, but will not be eligible to play in a bowl game until 2015.

Georgia Southern President Brooks Keel called it a “milestone” day for the school.

“This decision was made with the long-term interest of our University in mind,” Keel said. “The Sun Belt will provide our student athletes with an outstanding opportunity to compete at a highest level, and we are excited to contribute to the conference’s success both on and off the field. I am equally excited about the opportunity that it will provide Georgia Southern and the more than 75,000 alumni that make up the Eagle Nation.”

Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson visited Georgia Southern on Wednesday morning to welcome Keel, who formally accepted the invitation.

“We have built our reputation around a focus on the student, and this move will allow us to partner to provide our student athletes with the opportunity to compete on a national stage,” Georgia Southern athletic director Tom Kleinlein said.

For Georgia Southern, the move to FBS comes after 65 percent of school’s students voted to pay $75 a semester to support the move.

That fee will be collected starting in the fall. Ground will also be broken in a few weeks to add 6,300 additional seats to Allen E. Paulson Stadium and build a new Football Operations Center in the east end zone.

Appalachian State joined NCAA Division I in 1970 and has been a member of the Southern Conference since 1971.

The Mountaineers have competed at the FCS level since 1982 and won an unprecedented three consecutive national championships from 2005-07.

Appalachian State’s most memorable win came in 2007 when it pulled off a historic 34-32 upset over No. 5 Michigan, marking the first time that an FCS program ever toppled a nationally ranked FBS opponent.

“I am proud that Appalachian has this opportunity to compete in the Sun Belt Conference,” Appalachian State Chancellor Kenneth Peacock said. “Our student-athletes have earned the opportunity to participate at this level of collegiate athletics and we welcome the new academic and athletic relationships that will develop as a result of this partnership.”

The football schedule for Georgia Southern and Appalachian State for 2013 will not change. However, neither team will be eligible to win the Southern Conference championship or participate in the FCS playoffs this season.