The Sun Belt Conference has “downsized” this season from 12 teams to 10 in football, but commissioner Karl Benson said Monday the league is comfortable with that number.
The Sun Belt added Idaho and New Mexico State as football-only members in 2014, then Coastal Carolina as an all-sports member in 2016, in an effort to get to 12 teams for football. At the time, the NCAA mandated that leagues have 12 teams in order to hold conference championship games, but has since abolished that rule.
No longer needing 12 teams, the Sun Belt two years ago declined to renew membership agreements with Idaho and New Mexico State, which were a bad fit geographically with the rest of the conference, which extends from Texas to North Carolina. Though there are a number of FBS teams currently playing as independents that might fit the Sun Belt from a geographic standpoint — notably Liberty, based in Virginia — Benson said the conference is not currently looking to expand.
“It’s off the table,” Benson said in his annual “State of the Conference” address at Monday’s Sun Belt Media Day in New Orleans. “It’s never been on the agenda for the last two years. You never say never, but right now, we’re focusing on 10 teams. Our other sports are under the 12-team model that makes sense for men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, softball, soccer, etc. We think we have the right number for all our other sports, and 10 right now for football is the right number.”
As Benson noted, the Sun Belt has 12 teams in most other sports besides football. Sun Belt members Texas-Arlington and Little Rock do not currently field football teams, though there has some discussion about Little Rock reviving its long-dormant program.
Benson called the Idaho-New Mexico State experiment, a “little left turn” in the conference’s history. He said that the addition of a conference championship game this year, along with the split into divisions, makes for a more stable league.
“Our goal from the outset in the spring of 2012 was that we need to be able to do a championship game, to build the conference based on that,” Benson said. “That resulted in the addition of New Mexico State and Idaho, strictly to get us to 12 teams. The NCAA changed that rule, that only requires 10. We were able to re-evaluate. The decision that our presidents and chancellors made — a very, very difficult decision — to not extend the agreement with New Mexico State and Idaho, that was a tough one, probably one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever been part. … That was a big change, but it was the right change. … It was the right decision when we added them, and it was the right decision when we decided to no longer continue with them.”
For football, the Sun Belt East Division is comprised of Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Troy. The West will be made up of Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Texas State.
The two division winners will meet for the league championship on Dec. 1, at the site of the division winner with the better conference record. Benson said an on-campus championship game — rather than a neutral-site game — is a better model for a “Group of 5” league such as the Sun Belt.
“The Mid-American Conference, they elected to do a neutral site in Detroit,” Benson said. “I think the geography of the Mid-American Conference lends itself to a neutral site. If you look at the other four conferences, it may not be the case. Right now, we want to be successful in Year 1 and Year 2, and we’ll probably examine after the second year if the home site is the way to go. … You look at the geography of the Sun Belt and you look at places where it could be centrally located in the neutral site, whether it’s New Orleans or Montgomery or Mobile, either site has a great football opportunity for us. I think we would have some options some time down the road.”
Of course, playing the Sun Belt championship game at a campus site makes for some challenges. The division champions might not be known until the final week of the regular season, which makes for a quick turnaround for the teams, fan bases and conference office.
Unlike with neutral site games, conference championship game tickets couldn’t go on sale until the host team was known. But Benson said he’s willing to trade that for the on-campus atmosphere that would come with a true “host” team.
“Yes, it’s possible we may not know in some cases until seven days in advance what campus we’re on,” Benson said. “I’ve likened it to the ESPN traveling ‘Game Day,’ some of those decisions aren’t until made the Monday before. What they’ve been to do to create that type of environment for a pre-game, is exactly what we’re going to try to do. We will set up our own ‘ESPN Game Day’ outside the stadium, dependent on the home team. We hope to create that type of a game day experience similar to ‘Game Day.'”