The Sun Belt Conference continues to rise within the ‘Group of Five’

Published 7:19 pm Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Sun Belt Conference Football Media Day was held Monday in New Orleans. The event began early in the day with Commissioner Karl Benson giving his “State of the Conference” address to the assembled media.

There is a lot of excitement swirling around the conference as teams prepare for the upcoming football season, and rightfully so.

The new-look conference has never been stronger as the 2018 season approaches.

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“In every key indicator that can be used to evaluate the strength of a conference, the Sun Belt has risen in recent years,” Benson said. “In contrast to some leagues, our attendance is up and we’ve provided record end-of-year distribution to our schools that is 10 times greater that it was in 2014.”

In 2013, the Sun Belt Conference – along with a few other conferences – were forced to make drastic changes in their alignment. The Sun Belt lost Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State, Western Kentucky and North Texas.

In 2014, the Sun Belt went into action, bringing in five new teams including Georgia Southern, Texas State, Appalachian State and Georgia State to fill the void.

Over the next few seasons, the Sun Belt was widely believed to be towards the bottom of the “group of five” Conferences, which includes the Conference USA, American, Mid-American and Mountain West conferences in addition to the Sun Belt. That is no longer the case. Benson believes the conference has quickly climbed the ranks within the Group of Five.

“The Sun Belt was labeled so long at the bottom of the 10 conferences and that is no longer the case,” Benson said. “We’ve established the brand, established the credibility. As we compete with our four peer conferences, our goal remains the same: to be the highest-rated league in the group of five and send our team to one of the New Year’s Day games. There’s no reason we can’t do that and do it this year.”

The conference seems to be on the verge of making that a reality in the upcoming seasons. Troy became the first team in the conference to be ranked within the top-25 two seasons and this year there is widespread speculation that Arkansas State could be the next one. For a Sun Belt team to crack a New Year’s Day bowl, they would have to finish as the top-rated team within the group of five. Central Florida stole the headlines a season ago after finishing the season undefeated by knocking off Auburn in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

Benson and the conference took another step towards credibility when they announced that the conference will be split into two five-team divisions. At the end of the season, the two division winners will clash in the first-ever conference championship game. The Sun belt became the fifth and final conference within the group of five to adapt to having a championship game.

The game will be hosted by the division winner with the highest College Football Playoff ranking.

“We expect to have a great showcase for the Sun Belt,” Benson said. “I liken it to ESPN’s GameDay … they’ve created an environment, and that’s what we’re going to try to do with our gameday experience for our championship game.”

The Sun Belt has a reputation of being very formidable in the postseason. Last season, the conference finished 4-1 in bowl games and the Sun Belt has a winning percentage of .611 over the past four postseasons, good enough for the top spot in the nation.

The Sun Belt has also changed their ways with scheduling over the past few years. The Sun Belt Conference will play a total of just 12 games against Power 5 Schools, opening up a window for more games against fellow Group of Five schools.

“Our smart scheduling model is one game against the Power 5, two versus our peer conferences and versus the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision),” Benson said. “A tribute to the chancellors and athletic directors. While sacrificing perhaps as much as $1.5 million for a second game versus a P5 opponent, the decision has been made to give our coaches and student athletes a much more reasonable chance of having a winning season and advancing to a bowl game.”

Following the aftermath of conference realignment in 2014, Benson along with the conference coined the slogan “Together We Rise.” Four years later they have changed it to read “Rise Above.” I think they are well on their way to achieving that goal as well.