Sun Belt sets sights on catching C-USA

The Sun Belt is focused on catching Conference USA and the

Mountain West in the race to be the best of the rest among major

college football conferences.

New Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson believes conference

realignment and an evolving postseason format has widened the gap

between the have and have-not conferences.

The 10-year-old Sun Belt has usually been the have-least league,

but has taken small steps forward while its ”peer conferences” –

as Benson like to call them – have slid back.

”The goal of the Sun Belt right now is to be the best of the

quote, `below the line conferences,”’ Benson said in a recent

interview. ”There’s going to be five (conferences) above the line

and five below the line. The Sun Belt’s goal is going to be to

compete with those other conferences.”

Last year the Sun Belt competed just fine with its peers, going

7-6 against teams from C-USA, the Mountain West, Mid-American

Conference and Western Athletic Conference. That included a 5-2

mark against C-USA, the league the Sun Belt will most directly

compete against for players and attention in the coming years.

”In my estimation the competitive position of the Sun Belt

exceeds its ”brand,”’` Troy University President Jack Hawkins

said in an email to the AP. ”This will change very soon. When its

brand matches reality, the Sun Belt will equal or exceed several

non-AQ (automatic qualifier) conferences it sought to emulate just

a few years ago.”

Benson took over the Sun Belt earlier this year after leading

the WAC through 17 years of constant change.

Conference realignment has whittled the WAC to the brink of

extinction as a football conference, and reshaped the Big East,

Mountain West and Conference USA – not necessarily for the

better.

After the Big East lost West Virginia to the Big 12 and Syracuse

and Pittsburgh to the Atlantic Coast Conference, it grabbed six

schools from C-USA and the Mountain West.

The Mountain West has rebuilt itself mostly by luring away most

of the WAC’s best football programs, while C-USA turned to the Sun

Belt to find some new members when it lost SMU, Houston, Central

Florida and Memphis to the Big East.

North Texas and Florida International will leave the Sun Belt

for C-USA after this season. Conference USA is also adding

Louisiana Tech as well as Texas-San Antonio and its fledgling

football program.

Charlotte, also joining next year, will have its football

program up and running by 2015.

The rest of the C-USA will include East Carolina, Marshall,

Rice, Southern Mississippi, Tulane, Tulsa, Alabama-Birmingham and

UTEP.

Benson moved quickly to replace the Sun Belt schools that left

for C-USA.

Texas State, in San Marcos, Texas, about 30 miles south of

Austin, moves up from FCS to FBS to join the Sun Belt in 2013, as

does Georgia State, which gives the league a team in Atlanta. South

Alabama is making a similar transition this season.

Texas-Arlington, which does not play football and essentially

replaces departing Denver, also will join in 2013. Arkansas-Little

Rock is also a non-football member of the Sun Belt, which spans

from Florida to Texas.

Florida Atlantic, Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Kentucky,

Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee round out the

rest of the conference.

”The population of the Sun Belt, and this has to do with the

overall demographics of the southeast and Texas, the Sun Belt

footprint is growing and I think the Sun Belt is prepared to take

advantage of those changes in demographics,” Benson said.

Despite the progress, the Sun Belt still has plenty of work to

shed its status as the conference most likely to fill a homecoming

date.

Tweaking those schedules is a place to start.

Sun Belt members commonly load up on top-notch opponents as a

way to fund their programs. Top programs from power conferences pay

big bucks, figures often approaching $1 million these days, to get

teams to agree to play in their stadiums with no guarantee of a

return trip.

Benson understands the financial considerations, but would like

to see Sun Belt teams scale back and look to play more

nonconference games against teams from those peer conferences.

”We’ve talked about scheduling philosophy, scheduling strategy.

Ideally we’d like to establish across the board some scheduling

parameters that would limit those guarantee games to one a year,”

Benson said.

Some Sun Belt members are already moving in that direction.

”We’ve adopted the philosophy here we will do one single-game

contract a year,” Western Kentucky President Gary Ransdell

said.

This season, the Hilltoppers play at Alabama. But they open with

I-AA Austin Peay, their own version of a guarantee game, then play

at Kentucky (a rivalry of sorts) and have a home against Southern

Miss of C-USA.

Having led the WAC at a time when Boise State and Hawaii both

secured BCS bids, Benson understands the value of an unbeaten or

even a one-loss season – even if the overall competition is only

so-so.

”My message to the Sun Belt membership is there isn’t any

reason that one of you isn’t the next Boise State,” Benson

said.

Mostly, though, the message Benson wants to send to his members

is this: The grass is not necessarily greener in another

conference.

”What my goal would be is for the Sun Belt to enhance our

assets, our characteristics, so if and when the time comes that

Conference USA comes looking to the Sun Belt for a replacement team

because Conference USA lost school A, B or C, that the Sun Belt

member will look at what the Sun Belt provides and come to the

conclusion that there’s no reason for us to leave the Sun

Belt.”