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
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
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
Benson moved quickly to replace the Sun Belt schools that left
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
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
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,”
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
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
”My message to the Sun Belt membership is there isn’t any
reason that one of you isn’t the next Boise State,” Benson
Mostly, though, the message Benson wants to send to his members
is this: The grass is not necessarily greener in another
”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