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Where College Football is Now and Where it Goes in the Future: Sun Belt

The Sun Belt is expanding at the expense of mostly CUSA and still hasn’t settled its imbalance issues. The changes are happening faster than expected, and the lawyers might dominate the conference this season. Take the poll, they are adding JMU and ODU - does that make them more interesting this season? GO HOKIES!!!

NCAA Football: Sun Belt Conference Championship
The Sun Belt Championship Game
Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

The Final Review of Another Non-Championship Conference

We were fully aware of the chance that things would change in the middle of the series, and it looks like that impression has come true. The change isn’t in the configuration of the conferences circa 2023 and beyond, it’s more related to timing.

That’s what the Sun Belt Conference seems to be throwing to us. Which means the Conference USA configuration is going to change, earlier than anticipated. And all of that is IF lawsuits, counter filings with settlement and potential court intervention don’t have effects one way or the other.

That will severely limit this trip through the final conference review in this series. The Sun Belt teams are all “step up” programs where successful coaches are poached up to FBS status. A prime example is the Napier move from G5 power Louisiana to Florida. Predictions for the Cajuns’ 2022 season get thrown out the window.

The Old Sun Belt was “Football” Small

Currently the Sun Belt Conference, as of 2021, consisted of 10 football teams in two divisions separated East and West. As the name suggests these are southeastern and central teams with the farthest west being the Texas State Bobcats in San Marcos, Texas. The conference is actually relatively new, and most of the teams that are currently playing and those anticipated are very similar in capabilities to Virginia Tech in the transitional Dooley and Beamer eras.

There are ups and downs, but the reality is that the Sun Belt Conference is definitely a territorial mimic of the SEC with teams that are operating at a lower altitude of performance. That presents some serious problems in the growth and performance promise of the league.

As a serious point of interest, though, the conference started off as non-football in mid-1976. It has been sort of a revolving door, new member, ODU is actually returning to the fold for full membership. The “Affiliate” memberships are also flowing in as some surprising programs move their non-football sports to the Sun Belt. Kentucky and South Carolina are joining the non-revenue sport parade to the Belt, as well as West Virginia. This sort of half-in half-out configuration doesn’t tend to last long, however. We’ll see how those pressures and counter pressures push full participation somewhere, but it is interesting to see how the SEC programs navigate their way given the conference realignment scramble going on in the dominant money programs of football and men’s basketball.

It’s All About the Benjamins and Lawyers, Too

The current league configuration is moving quickly, though. It seems the hits to CUSA and the FCS CAA are about to happen as soon as the lawyers and the money men can work out a deal.

Sun Belt expansion ahead of schedule, realignment set for summer of 2022 | Sports | wataugademocrat.com

So, we’ll use the 2021 chart as a base reference and concentrate on looking at how the league might perform in the 2022 season and beyond.

The Sun Belt Conference as It Ended 2021

Team Grade Comment
Team Grade Comment
East
Appalachian State Mountaineers A- Conference 2021 runner-up - FCS Division I champs step up to G5 FBS and continue the excellence after a season or two of adjustment
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers B+ Myrtle Beach has to be a distracting environment for football but Coastal has been putting up winners of late
Georgia State Panthers B- This is a team with an exposure and a decent recruiting footprint- It rememinds me of Virginia Tech in the Dooley era.
Georgia Southern Eagles C Fired their coach at the beginning of the season and replaced him with former USC Head Coach Clay Helton- Don't look for miracles
Troy Trojans C No one knows where they are -Alabama BTW - Lots of growth from FCS Div II to FBS - Program needs everything
West
Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns A- Won the Conference in 2021 and then promptly lost their head coach to Florida - Tech was fishing there as well
Texas State Bobcats C Sun Belt West is struggling - Texas State is still learning to play FBS football - there have been several coaching changes over the decade
South Alabama Jaguars C In the Struggle Pile for the Conference
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks C Lots of work to be done
Arkansas State Red Wolves C More work to be done than Louisiana-Monroe
The East dominates most everything Gobbler Country

The new published schedule seems to be very indicative of where the conference thinks the negotiations will be ending.

We’ve seen the big churn in the P5 as the BIG XII gets drained of upper-level programs to populate the upper tier SEC league in anticipation of huge media renegotiations. We are seeing the same sort of activity here, in the Sun Belt. The mid-majors are attracting larger media pools, and the conferences are realigning to grab as much revenue from the TV ratings game as they can.

The Expanded 2022 Sun Belt Conference

Team Potential Tier Observation
Team Potential Tier Observation
East
Appalachian State Mountaineers 1 This program is relatively intact without being poached or disrupted too much- It is still a league top tier program
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers 1 This is a quality program attacting some talent -with some stability they will remain in the top tier
Georgia Southern Eagles 3 The program is struggling for top tier recruits in prime SEC territory
Georgia State Panthers 2 Ditto - but had an 8-5 overall record winning out on a tear
James Madison Dukes (Added from FCS) 2 We shall see if there is a drop off as they hit majority FBS competition - JMU has the potential of vaulting to Tier 1
Marshall Thundering Herd (Added from CUSA) 2 If they can maintain their consistency this is probably a parallel move
Old Dominion Monarchs (Added from CUSA) 2 ODU is operating in fits and starts- if it can recruit it can bubble up over time
West
Arkansas State Red Wolves 3 More recruting and coaching talent issues - going to have to work to get out of the basement
Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns 1 With Napier gone we will have to refrain from predictions for 2022- It is a guessing game right now
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks 3 Sub-.500 struggles with everything
South Alabama Jaguars 3 Ditto for the Jags - this is prime SEC recruiting territory and finding talent is difficult
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (Added from CUSA) 3 Once a CUSA winner dropped off the charts in the teens and now moving- not expecting much
Texas State Bobcats 3 Texas - Texas A&M - Oklahoma - Texas San Antonio - etc. Competing for talent again an issue
Troy Trojans 3 Another Alabama team with an SEC recruiting ceiling
Adds 4 teams - 3 from the depleting CUSA Gobbler Country

Note: There is a change in the future chart. We are listing three Tiers instead of grades. The main issue in this one is that all of the Tier 2 programs are in the East. The West has serious recruiting and coaching retention problems that might be best described as the “SEC Ceiling”. That is the domination of the major FBS P5 programs in the area the dominate both staff and player quality. The upper-level recruiting and coaching talent just isn’t there.

The East division is now featuring two relatively big markets in Virginia. Hampton Roads is still growing, and Old Dominion University (ODU) sits at the rim of the university track in the area. It also is serving as a Tier one drain on 2 and 3-star talent from Tech’s recruiting pool. Virginia is flush with college football programs, FCS programs abound (Division I, Division III, and HBCU) but Tech and UVA pretty much had the state in the high-dollar and prestige FBS (Division 1) programs. Now, with ODU’s reconstituted program stepping up to FBS play, the James Madison Dukes (JMU) are making the jump from the FCS Division I Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and repeated runs at the FCS Championship. JMU is located in Harrisonburg at the bottom of the top third of the Shenandoah Valley. I-81 cuts right through the middle of the campus, and nearly every Northern Virginia Hokie drives through it on trips to Blacksburg. Which also gives you an idea of the potential market appeal. JMU is growing, and knocking at the door of top tier state universities in Virginia. Its fan base is growing in the DC Metro Area and that market is booming fast enough to attract an increasing amount of media attention.

After Virginia’s addition, the Marshall Thundering Herd shows up. Marshall isn’t a newish program like ODU. It has a rich tradition and a special legend all of its own -which also intimately ties it with Virginia Tech. Marshall has always been a 1-AA/mid-major Division 1 team (much like Tech was for a generation between 1960 and 1980). Their big jump up was CUSA but as we have seen in the recent past CUSA failed to attract the big media money. Marshall’s fan base is scattered around their Ohio River basin home town of Huntington West Virginia. It is very much like many of the Rust Belt industrial towns that grow football programs that appeal to local fan bases and play good hard football but without the fancy fanfare of the upper tier schools of the area, like Ohio State, Pitt, Louisville, etc.

The Troy (Alabama) Trojans get moved to the West division, and another CUSA team, Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles get added to the West division to balance things out. Either way, the Sun Belt East is still going to represent the major power concentration in the conference. It is going to be a nearly impossible situation to predict, accurately, where this conference is going to balance out.

There are some major questions regarding both the alignment of teams (more than geography) and the potential for recruiting talent into each program to form some sort of basis for continual improvement. The potential for league parity is still pretty low at this point in time. Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, and Louisiana are still the dominant teams in this mix. That seems to be the reason for the addition of he Herd and the Monarchs. We’ll see if Southern Miss can make a dent in the current Western domination by the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Lots of Questions to be Answered

Right now, though, the biggest “competition” could be in the courts and legal offices of the CUSA and Sun Belt lawyers’ league. There is a pile of interesting questions to ask, though.

  • Does the Conference stay at 14 teams or does it push to fill out a 16-team setup?
  • How fast do the James Madison Dukes go from the “no-idea” category to some form of winning football record?
  • Is the East still overbalanced against the West and will it still dominate the W/L category?
  • Do the Cajuns recover from their loss of Billy Napier just as they were getting to the point of domination?
  • Can the programs generate enough “buzz” to improve recruiting and beef up their 1 and 2-star bases?
  • Will the new league with its poaching of critical teams from C-USA actually get any TV revenue benefit from the moves?

Those are some things to chew on, how about you? Does the Sun Belt conference suddenly interest you more, now that it’s expanded – especially with Virginia family programs? (Lots of JMU and VT stickers driving around the Commonwealth.)

Poll

Does the expanded Sun Belt Conference look like a TV time interest?

  • 23%
    No. The action is in the P5 Conferences and other than being bored on a Saturday afternoon/evening I am unlikely to watch.
    (10 votes)
  • 44%
    Yes. It’s going to be an interesting conference now that family rooting ties are there from ODU and JMU.
    (19 votes)
  • 13%
    Yes, it might be fun to see something new for a change.
    (6 votes)
  • 13%
    Why is this Conference even a topic of conversation? Its fan appeal doesn’t go beyond its programs limited alumni bases.
    (6 votes)
  • 4%
    The Sun Belt isn’t the only program suffering from the "SEC Ceiling". There’s a "B1G Ceiling" killing everyone, too.
    (2 votes)
43 votes total Vote Now

Wrapping the Reviews and Prepping the Conclusion

There is little doubt, or tremendous doubt (take your pick) about the Sun Belt and the relative health of the programs that are feeding it. The entire Group of Five (Mid-Major) FBS configuration makes little rational football sense... (IMHO anyway). The teams/programs are relegated to a second and third tier status and the Sun Belt really shows how much. It covers almost all of the SEC’s geographical territory and has no hope of competing with even the most average SEC program for talent. The eastern most programs seem to have the best edge on that issue. Talent for both staff and players is a critical factor in winning both media and on-field competitions. We’ll address more of that issue in the two concluding articles that will cover the overall health of the conference structure, and one more shot at convincing people that it’s time for a complete realignment and rethink of FBS football.

For now, the confusion persists. Conference USA and the BIG XII are both the victims of the money and prestige chase. Polls and opinions still dominate the great college football quality peloton, and the giants in the Power conferences still dominate everything from money to training assistants on the sidelines.

The Sun Belt Conference seems to be a microcosm of that tension and imbalance. It remains to be seen if the league is going to benefit or it’s going to be a big wash.

See you for the Conference Wrap-up.

GO HOKIES!!!