Back Sun Belt Vision Taking Shape

Sun Belt Vision Taking Shape

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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While the implementation of the recent news remains over a year away, the Sun Belt is solidifying.

We did make the announcement a year ago, but over the course of the last twelve months we have been trying to put some of the particulars together and it's a big step for the Sun Belt.
~Karl Benson

Literally and figuratively, the future of the Sun Belt Conference continued to take shape on Tuesday when it was announced that the league will split into two five-team football divisions, with a corresponding conference championship game, starting in 2018. Founded in 2001, the youngest FBS league in the country has emerged from waves of conference realignment with a clear plan and progressive vision. An appealing mix of energy and experience, the Sun Belt has positioned itself for stabilization.

Furthermore, the league is developing one of sports' most valuable assets: momentum. 

The Sun Belt's new infrastructure, set to debut next season, is a basic format that has both a geographical and practical application: Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Troy in the East; Arkansas State, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Texas State in the West. From streamlining logistics and travel, to enhancing natural rivalries and history, the new league layout is poised to strengthen the still-developing fibers of the conference.  

A championship game will stand as the Sun Belt's new marketing arm; one more national platform for the league's premier teams. Set for the same date as the title bouts of the major conferences, the contest will pair division-winners in the home stadium of the team with the higher ranking in the College Football Playoff poll. In addition to determining a champion on the field, the showcase will elevate the profile of a league with an emerging upside.  

"We did make the announcement a year ago, but over the course of the last twelve months we have been trying to put some of the particulars together and it's a big step for the Sun Belt," Commissioner Karl Benson explained on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "We are really pleased to now be able to have a football championship game that allows us to be on that big stage that first Saturday in December."

Transition has been a Sun Belt theme for some time, change that will continue for another season. The departures of Idaho and New Mexico State, combined with the addition of Coastal Carolina, will give the conference a more focused football footprint. Regionalization is part of the new league structure. With all affiliated programs within a specific area, the idea is that a more-centralized base will result in a more cohesive product.

While the implementation of the recent news remains over a year away, the Sun Belt is solidifying.      

"It was part of our master plan to get to ten teams," Benson continued, "so 2018 really culminates our model to get  to ten teams."

Finding an intra-divisional equilibrium was a priority during the decision-making process. With schools divided by an imaginary line of demarcation south down Alabama's Interstate-65, the divisions have a very logical feel. There seems be a fair balance in competition and comfortability. The importance of historical series were also protected. The Sun Belt appears to have found a happy medium.    

"You look at the divisions that we have and they do make geographic sense, the only real decision we had to make was South Alabama or Troy, one to the East and one to the West. When you look at the map, Troy is only 175 miles from Atlanta and Georgia State, so it makes the most sense that Troy go into the Eastern division. South Alabama is just a couple hundred miles away from the two Louisiana schools," Benson detailed. "So I think we are putting teams in the right geographic location."

Though Idaho and New Mexico State will be lost after this season, expansion efforts have been a major boost for the conference. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern have already won league titles, while Georgia State, like the Mountaineers and Eagles, has also made a bowl game. Coastal Carolina, fresh off of a national championship in baseball, enters the Sun Belt having gone 43-10 the past four years. In 2012, the Mountaineers, Eagles and Chanticleers were all in the second round of the FCS playoffs; they are now key Sun Belt members.    

Since 2014, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern rank one-two in the league in percentage of home seats filled, slotting first and fourth, with Arkansas State and Louisiana, in overall attendance. 

Future reconfiguration will follow a philosophical consistency, the ideas being multi-faceted. The roots are in place for an emerging conference camaraderie.  

"Not only have we strengthened the league with additions, the strategy was to build a league that, if it was going to be in Texas with Texas state and UT-Arlington and be in Georgia with Georgia Southern and Georgia State, needed to create some geography within those boundaries and that footprint," Benson added. "It was done with a purpose to reduce travel, reduce missed class time of the student-athletes and to try and take advantage of the rivalries that already exist."

A Sun Belt title game has been a long time in the making and will come with more big-picture relevancy. The league, quite deliberately, will ease into championship week by utilizing the passion of on-campus competition to augment initial pairings. The American Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference all do the same. While likely creating a more intense environment, the home team, via the College Football Playoff poll, will receive an added bonus for regular season success.     

Furthermore, home-site hosting can help display the facility upgrades of many Sun Belt schools, accentuating the opportunities a program can offer. It's a pragmatic approach to conference growth and positioning. Early traction is the early goal.    

"I think it's important for a championship game to get off to a good start," Benson acknowledged. "Putting the game in the stadium of one of the champions pretty much guarantees a sellout. We have some great football stadiums within the Sun Belt. Throughout the league, we have some really, really nice campus sites and we think that that will guarantee a big crowd, great promotion and a great atmosphere for our first championship game.

Just a conceptualization mere years ago, an extra week of league play will soon be a reality. 

"We still have a few details, our television partner has yet to be finalized. We are expecting that it will be part of the ESPN Championship Saturday series, but we hope to make that announcement early this summer or later this fall," Benson stated.

As has been the case as college football has shuffled its deck, Sun Belt leadership is remaining focused while keeping options open. Today's landscape requires innovation and insight, patience and planning, concepts the conference has fully committed to. Staying pro-active, at least in thought, is a must for any league. Current and future operations are laid out with an awareness of what is and, also, the possibility of what could be.  

Regarding its title game, the future has plenty of potential.   

"Not to say that somewhere down the road there couldn't be a neutral site. I think we have a luxury in being in such a great football region, whether it's Montgomery or Mobile, or if you go into the eastern seaboard, some of the neutral site locations, perhaps a Charleston, I think we are going to have options down the road," Benson considered. "At least for the first four years, '18, '19, '20, and '21, we are committed to the campus sites."

The Sun Belt is settling in, all with a new vision on the horizon. This past season, the conference set a new record by sending six teams to bowl games, with Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Idaho and Troy all winning;  the league had more postseason victories than the Big Ten and Pac-12. For the first time ever, a Sun Belt member, Troy, ranked inside the AP Top 25. On the schedule for this fall, power five programs Miami, Oklahoma State and Wake Forest will play on the road at conference teams.      

Recent developments, with still-emerging prospects, will help build on the foundation that has been laid. A realistic outline is in place. In an era with great instability, there is currently less uncertainty surrounding the conference's future and the unknowns that do exist largely come with more potential than problems. This is a league with plenty of room to grow.  

"Five years ago, we were part of that membership shakeup that kind of started with the ACC and its additions that impacted the Big East and Conference USA. Yet five years later, we have been able to add Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina, along with Texas State, to go with a sound core of members from the beginning," Benson concluded. "We have great balance now as we have some of the 'older, established' programs and some of the programs that have come up through the FCS."

Plan in place, the Sun Belt is appreciative of its past while remaining forward thinking. The league is now intertwining its progress with proximity. Looking ahead, there will be a champion to be crowned, an identity to form and a path to take.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports