Get ready for continued offseason conference expansion and realignment rumors this offseason, because the Sun Belt Conference still wants to do what they can to reach a football membership of 12 members. Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson addressed the topic in a Q&A with AL.com Friday in Mobile during a luncheon for the GoDaddy.com Bowl before hopping on a plane for Pasadena. In it Benson reflected on a successful year for the Sun Belt and confirmed the conference is still hoping to get to 12 football members in the near future.
“There are schools who want to be the 12th member,” Benson said to AL.com, suggesting discussions of some sort have been ongoing, although Benson did not specify which schools may have been showing interest. One of the draws for a conference getting to 12 football members is the ability to hold a conference championship game. Benson noted the Sun Belt is the left out of the championship mix between Conference USA, the MAC, Mountain West Conference and, soon, the American. The American Athletic Conference is expected to play a championship game following upcoming realignment changes that will see Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) leave but Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina join and Navy on the way in 2015.
“I know that this past December 7th when the MAC and Conference USA and the Mountain West had their championship games and next year the American will have their championship game and the Sun Belt will be the one in our peer group that doesn’t have a championship game,” Benson said. “We miss out not having that type of exposure on that championship Saturday.”
Asked about a timeline for finding a 12th conference member, Benson said in order to make it official for 2015 the conference will have to have a deal done by June 1 of this year, although he says it is too early to speculate on the confidence level of having a school confirmed by then.
Western Kentucky will leave the Sun Belt for Conference USA officially on June 1. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will join the conference in their transition from FCS to FBS at that time. Idaho and New Mexico, left abandoned following the crumbling of the WAC’s football operations and unwanted by the Mountain West Conference, will also join the conference as affiliate members. Those changes leave the conference with 11 members for 2014.
The Sun Belt will not be likely to pry a school away from any of the other FBS conferences, so the most likely route for the Sun Belt may be to add another FCS program. Benson suggested finding a school situated within the current footprint of the conference may be ideal, suggesting it would be nice if Appalachian State could have a travel partner. That would seem to suggest another school in or nearby North Carolina would be the ideal addition for the Sun Belt. Charlotte and Old Dominion are each heading to Conference USA, so those options are off the table for the Sun Belt.
Two schools to keep an eye on might be Coastal Carolina and Liberty. Both have been improving their football programs in recent years and would be in a good location as a traveling partner for Appalachian State.