What Does the Sun Belt's Success Mean for Its Future?
Long considered a bottom tier conference, the SBC has asserted its dominance this season
The Sun Belt Conference wrapped up its season yesterday with a heartbreaking overtime loss by SBC Champs Coastal Carolina to long time rival, Liberty, in the Cure Bowl by a score of 37-34. Despite this loss, the conference as a whole finished with a bowl record of 4-1 . These games included an App State beatdown of North Texas 56-28, followed by anther thrashing of a CUSA team, this time Georgia Southern 38-3 vs Louisiana Tech, next came SBC co-Champs #16 Louisiana who defeated UTSA 31-24, and lastly Georgia State defeated Western Kentucky handily 39-21.
The Sun Belt had numerous highlights this season that propelled the conference on to the national stage, most notably Louisiana's week one win over projected Big 12 Champ #23 Iowa State by a shocking 17 points. Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina followed this up with wins over Kansas State and Kansas respectively. As the season progressed these wins looked even better as Iowa State lost by 6 in the Big 12 Championship Game, Kansas State finished at 4-6 but pulled several major upsets themselves, and Kansas....well, they're Kansas. Texas State lost a nail-biter to Boston College by 3 later on before they and Troy would get steamrolled by BYU. Coastal would ultimately avenge the Sun Belt and defeat BYU on a last second goal line stand to take down the 8th ranked Cougars.
The Sun Belt's position as low man on the totem pole has been an uphill climb to overcome. First came overtaking the MAC who enjoyed unprecedented levels of success in the early 2010s with the Jordan Lynch led NIU Huskies and PJ Fleck led WMU Broncos both reaching NY6 Bowls. The Conference has seen a decline since 2015 however, producing only two 10+ win teams (Toledo 2017, Buffalo 2018), neither of which received AP rankings. Booting the lecherous Idaho and New Mexico State programs while adding Coastal Carolina certainly helped improve the Sun Belts image in the meantime. Conference USA which once threatened to pick off Sun Belt teams in order to expand has been on its heels the last several years as the SBC has risen above it. Louisiana Tech AD Tommy McClelland when asked about a SBC/CUSA merger infamously responded,
"Well, let me just be very frank and very direct, there is no conversation at Conference USA, nor is there any interest. And I think that’s about how direct I can be. With that, I think if I were in Lafayette’s position. I’ll be trying to figure out a way to move up to a level like Conference USA. And so, you know, congratulations on that conversation. But I think for us. You know, you know, you’ve got to understand, if we were if we all of a sudden decided there was going to be a membership expansion in Conference USA. I think that would be numerous individuals from that lead that would be interested in joining and paying a premium that we all paid to be in this league.”
Boy have those words come back to bite. CUSA has looked embarrassingly weak against the upper tier Sun Belt programs. The 5-5 record vs the SBC this year is deceiving as the only win over a quality team was Marshall's upset of #23 App State early in the season. Amongst the top half of the Conferences, the SBC took the lion's share of the victories including Louisiana's win over CUSA Champ UAB as well as CUSA West runner up UTSA and Georgia Southern's convincing win over CUSA East runner up FAU. It's fair to say the Sun Belt has one upped CUSA this year and shows no sign of slowing down. Whether it's fair to compare the Sun Belt to the Mountain West or American after one momentous season is debatable but the gap is closing, at least incrementally.
So what does this mean for the conference moving forward? For one, the rather contiguous geography of the conference will serve it well in a cash-strapped covid environment while other conferences will be pinching pennies to cover travel expenses. The likelihood of expansion will also become a front and center topic, one which Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill may have to entertain. The options are intriguing. As of now the SBC sits at 10 football playing members with two I-AAA basketball programs, Little Rock and UT-Arlington. The most obvious candidates for football expansion would be these two as both have commissioned exploratory committees into starting football in recent years. The startup cost could be too much to bare however, at least right now, and the conference may look elsewhere, beyond it's membership to already established programs. One major university that comes to mind is one that Coastal Carolina was just reintroduced to in the cruelest of fashion, the Liberty Flames. A private, Evangelical school of over 100,000 students would be a massive score for the SBC. Liberty would obviously be competitive immediately and help expand the conference into the northernmost of the southern states. It would not stretch the conference beyond its means as Lynchburg, VA is only a 3.5 hour bus ride from Boone, NC. The SBC would also gain an excellent basketball program, both men's and women's in Liberty.
Several desirable programs amongst the FCS ranks exist. These same programs once scoffed at invitations to join the Sun Belt, but now with national recognition, will their attitudes change? The SBC is no stranger to youthful programs, only ULM, Louisiana, and Arkansas State were FBS members prior to 2000. The schools in the FCS ranks most suitable for the Sun Belt range across the conference's footprint. Starting out west, rumors of the resurrection of the WAC through poaching the Southland could leave schools like traditional powers McNeese State, Nicholls State, Central Arkansas, and Southeastern Louisiana looking to jump ship as well. Perhaps the SBC snatches up Sam Houston State for themselves in the realignment, or a Houston Baptist. Taking a program from an area already dominated by a Sun Belt team is highly unlikely thus ruling out the easternmost Southland teams. Moving eastward, Jacksonville state has been pining for a spot in the Sun Belt. The Gamecocks are THE most ready team in all of the south to join as they are a perfect geographic and cultural fit. However, adding a third school in Alabama to the SBC may now be appealing to Keith Gill. A similar situation could be said of Kennesaw State in Georgia. Eastern Kentucky could be an option to replace Western's departure to CUSA but they would be a bit of an outlier. One of the most interesting options may be North Carolina A&T, a program experiencing such unprecedented success that they have decided FBS seems their best option. This would make NC A&T the only Division 1 HBCU and would undoubtedly give them a massive recruiting advantage in the South. Lastly, the crown jewel of the CAA, James Madison. The Dukes have long rebuffed invitations from the Sun Belt in hopes of receiving a CUSA invite, but now may be the time JMU sees the SBC as the better option of the two and accepts their bid.
Regardless, realignment is closing in as P5 TV contracts are set to expire in the next five years so the SBC needs a contingency plan. The Sun Belt's best bet now is to continue their winning and propel themselves into the conversation with the MW and AAC as cream of the G5 crop. The Sun Belt remains the only conference never to have played for a BCS Bowl or NY6 Bowl, if they can manage to secure a spot in one in the next few years, and maybe even win one, then they will have achieved the legitimacy they have so long desired. I'm cautiously optimistic about the conference's odds, a lot is riding on the ability of schools to retain top coaches like Jamey Chadwell of Coastal, Billy Napier of Louisiana, Butch Jones of Arkansas State, and Jake Spavital of Texas State for as long as possible. The massive amount of players entering the 2021 transfer portal will allow for the steady trickle of P5 players to transform into a river of kids finding a place to play immediately in the G5. Hopefully this will create some much needed parity in FBS and help the SBC hang with the big boys.
The future is bright in the Sun Belt so wear your shades.