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Next Step For Sun Belt

Paulson Stadium has seen plenty of great football.  Now its time to see some FBS home games

Next Step for Sun Belt
When the Sun Belt Conference opened its doors for football in 2001 it originally appeared to be the "Island of Misfit Toys" for College Football. A conference that originally was filled with Homecoming opponents for the SEC, ACC, and Big XII schools has started to prove itself over the last decade. The next step for this improving conference to grow will be to add FCS powers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.

The Sun Belt Conference has a history of dysfuntion. For its first 25 years, the league did not sponsor football and none of the teams that started playing football in the Sun Belt in 2001 were among the original members of the SBC. New Orleans, South Alabama, Jacksonville, South Florida, Georgia State, and UNC Charlotte were the founding members of the Sun Belt Conference. It wasn't until the old American South Conference merged with the Sun Belt in 1990 that two of the original football members(Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette) would appear in the conference. In its first 25 years the league would see schools like Old Dominion, Central Florida, UAB, Virginia Commonwealth, Louisiana Tech, and Lamar join and leave the non football conference. It was a league that lacked an image to the casual college sports fan.

The league originally started playing football in 2001 with struggling FBS programs Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, North Texas, New Mexico State, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Middle Tennessee State. It certainly made sense that schools from Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas would join together to form a football conference, but the inclusion of Idaho and New Mexico State didn't help the league form a true identity. The conference stuggled early on and its first Conference Champion was a 5-7 North Texas team that lost by 25 points to a 7-5 Colorado State team in the New Orleans Bowl. North Texas would dominate the SBC in the first few years, something that didn't help the league's image since UNT had never had a winning season in the FBS prior to joining the conference.

By 2005 the conference started to form an image for itself. New Mexico State, Idaho, and Utah State(added in 2003) would leave the conference and Florida International, Florida Atlantic, and Troy would join. The league now could identify itself as football conference consisting of schools in the South. The league also added two older, but very good coaches to bring some legitimacy to the SBC. Larry Blakeney and Howard Schnellenberger entered the league as two coaches with 100+ victories in their career. Schnellenberger was the big name coach the conference needed to attract some national attention. The well dressed coach built the Miami Hurricanes Football Program into contenders and was a name all College Football fans were familiar with. Blakeney didn't have the name recognition, but had won multiple conference championships at the 1-AA level.

With the addition of FIU, FAU and Troy the league started to grow on the playing field. In 2007 the league posted an overall record of 9-31(.223 win pct) in out of conference games, 5 years later that record improved to 12-24(.333 win pct). The SBC has seen its schools defeat BCS Conference teams like Alabama, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Louisville, and Minnesota. The SBC has a 6-5 bowl record since 2007. While no one is saying this conference is better than the SEC or even ACC, it has been able to catch up to the MAC and appears to have outlasted the WAC.

The league was once known as a place for coaches to go and commit career suicide, but now has become a place for young coaches to build their name. Hugh Freeze went 10-2 in one season at Arkansas State and landed the Ole Miss job. The Red Wolves replaced him with the hottest offensive coordinator in the country, Gus Malzahn. Mark Hudspeth's name has come up for several "name" jobs in the last few months, including the current opening at Arkansas. Mario Cristobal's name has come up for openings at Pitt, Miami, and some other BCS Conference schools over the last 2-3 years and is considered by most to be one of the hottest young coaches in the industry. Willie Taggart's tranformation of Western Kentucky's football program is starting to get noticed. Florida Atlantic hired Carl Pelini, a big name defensive coordinator to replace Howard Schnellenberger. These young coaches join veterans Larry Blakeney and Rick Stockstill in a conference filled with solid coaches across the board.

The Sun Belt has also benefited from stadium improvements over the last few years. Florida Atlantic and North Texas both opened new stadiums a season ago, showing the conferences commitment to better facilities. Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana added a ProPlay Field turf to give the Warhawks and Rajin' Cajuns two of the best playing surfaces in the country. Western Kentucky expanded L.T. Smith Stadium in 2008 to now seat 22,000 fans. Troy's Veteran Memorial Stadium has seen improvements in the last 10 years and the football facilities now include a new press box, sports medicine facilitiy, strength & conditioning area, and 27 new sky boxes, and a new Trojan Stadium Club that can host 1,000 guests. Middle Tennessee will add a new stadium club to Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium in 2012. The commitment to facility upgrades is there for the Sun Belt Conference and this is certain to help in recruiting and attracting better coaches in the future.

In a time when attendance figures are down nationally due to the economy and more College Football games being on TV, there were actually 4 Sun Belt schools who posted higher attendance numbers in 2011 than they did in 2010. FAU, Louisiana, Arkansas State, and Western Kentucky all improved their attendance numbers. The Ragin Cajuns actually increased their average attendance by 11,788, the single largest attendance improvement in 2011.

In September the conference agreed to a new contract with ESPN to televise more football games. The new agreement will give Sun Belt Conference football a minimum of two games on either ESPN or ESPN2 and also a minimum of five games on ESPNU that will be scheduled for Thursday or Friday nights. Additionally, ESPN Regional Television will have the right to produced, distribute and syndicate up to five football games each year. ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU, the 24-hour college sports network, will also be granted additional opportunities to select games to air.

Karl Benson joining the conference in 2011 was a positive for the league. Benson has 20 years of experience as a commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference and Mid American Conference. He has worked in conferences that have lost members in the past, as well as expanded. He seems to have an aggressive approach to adding members to the Sun Belt.

Some fans are going to see the losses of Florida International and North Texas to Conference USA as big setbacks for the Sun Belt. Personally, I don't see the loss of Florida International hurting the league all that much. FIU is under great leadership with Cristobal and has 30,000 students, but Florida Atlantic should be able to carry the league's presence in South Florida. On paper there really isn't anything that FIU offers that FAU doesn't. FAU has 30,000 students, a new football stadium, and a head coach that people are familiar with nationally. There really isn't a need for two South Florida football programs in this league. Losing North Texas does sting a bit, since UNT has shown a commitment to football with the building of the new Apogee Football Stadium and is located in the talent rich Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Still, with some good additions the league can recover from these losses.
Adding Georgia State, an original member of the Sun Belt Conference, was a good move for the conference.. Georgia State has only had a football program for two seasons, but fans have already proven they will come out to support Georgia State Football. GSU has averaged over 15,000 fans a game in its first two seasons of football despite a lackluster home football schedule. With an enrollment of over 30,000 students and being in football rabid Atlanta, GA there is the potential for this program to grow a large fan base once some FBS schools start visiting the Georgia Dome. GSU's endowment of $166 million is far higher than that of departing member North Texas($100 Million) and any current member(Middle Tennessee being closest at $58 Million). The Panthers certainly aren't a big name in College Football yet, but there is potential. Bill Curry being the coach of Georgia State, brings some immediate name recognition to the program in the South.

Texas State will be the program the Sun Belt tries to replace North Texas with. Texas State is not a school with rich tradition in football and was a NAIA program 40 years ago. It has seen some image changes over the last few decades though. In 2003 the school dropped the name Southwest Texas State in favor of the more marketable Texas State University. The school has become the largest school in the Texas State University system and is currently the 5th largest school in Texas. In many ways this school reminds me of the growth The University of Central Florida. Both schools started in the lower levels of the NCAA and grew as universities in large, talent rich states. Just like Georgia State, the Bobcats have the potential to become a very good football program. The commitment to the sport was shown when Texas State announced they would expand Bobcat Stadium to 30,000 seats. Dennis Franchione as head coach brings a proven builder of Non BCS programs.

South Alabama joining the league is also a nice addition. Alabama is probably the most rabid college football state in America and Mobile has for years been an important part of college football. Not only is the Mobile/Gulf Coast area loaded with talent, but for years the area has played host to numerous bowl games and college allstar games . For many years USA has fielded very solid college baseball teams, and could certainly do the same in football.

A population shift in the United States has made it possible for the Sun Belt to grow as a Southern football conference. The states that the Sun Belt are in continue to grow in population and the football talent in each state is growing too. The development of passing leagues in the South have made it possible for large numbers of big time QBs to be available for SEC, CUSA, and Sun Belt schools. In many states in the Northeast and Midwest, the high schools don't even have spring practice. This kind of change in population and overall football culture in the U.S. is only going to allow the Sun Belt and other conferences in the South to grow in football. Its much easier to convince a kid in Akron, Ohio to move to Mobile, Alabama than it is to convince a kid in Monroe, LA to move to a cold Rustbelt town.

With the two new additions and losses of North Texas and Florida International, that leaves the Sun Belt with 10 teams. It is well known that Karl Benson wants this league to expand to 12 teams. Where does the Sun Belt turn next? Personally, I believe the league has added enough programs with "potential" and needs to focus on two programs with tradition and great fans. Benson needs to forget FBS schools like New Mexico State and Idaho and focus on landing Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.

Georgia Southern Football has been the most dominant FCS(1-AA) program since the mid 80s. With six National Championships, the Eagles have established themselves as a true "football school". The fan support in Statesboro is one of the best in the FCS. Georgia Southern actually had a higher average attendance in 2011 than did Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Monroe, and Western Kentucky. They only averaged 100 fewers fans a game than Troy did. Neither Idaho nor New Mexico State had an average attendance higher than GSU, despite playing a home schedule that had FBS schools on it. Georgia Southern has an all time record of 17-17 against Sun Belt teams, proving that their school is capable of competing within the league. Statesboro's rural location is similar to several towns in the Sun Belt, but offers visiting fans the chance to visit great cities like Atlanta or Savannah, GA. Rivalries with Troy and Georgia State are certain to come about if the Eagles were to join the Sun Belt.

Appalachian State has been the best FCS program over the last decade. Since 2004 ASU has a 79-19 record, 3 National Championships, 6 conference championships, a win at Michigan, and has 7 consecutive playoff appearances. The Mountaineers are averaging over 25,000 fans a game, more than any Sun Belt School in 2011 with the exception of ULL. The 25k fans a game total is 6,000 more than the entire conference averaged in 2011. Appalachian State Football would enter the Sun Belt with a larger fan base and more football tradition than FAU, FIU, Western Kentucky, Troy, and South Alabama did when they became new additions to the conference. Boone, NC is also one of the most scenic places in the Southeast to visit and would be a fantastic trip to any visiting fan. Kidd Brewer Stadium has a unique atmosphere to it, that no other expansion contender could match.

One big question is what does the Sun Belt offer for Georgia Southern and Appalachian State? First, it would offer a chance for these two schools to be on TV more often. Outside of the FCS Playoffs, these two schools are rarely on national TV, but with the new Sun Belt's TV package these two programs would become more visible nationally. This can certainly help with athletics, but also increase the amount of applications students send to these schools. The chance to attend a bowl game to support your school in New Orleans is a more attractive option than going to Montana to watch a playoff game.

Certainly there would be some growing pains at first, but the two schools have also accomplished all they can at the FCS level. There is nothing the two schools can do anymore to make themselves more visible in the FCS. These two schools would now play the big boys of the FBS with equal numbers of scholarships. Neither program is likely to become another Alabama anytime soon, but there is no reason they couldn't have the success of a Southern Miss, Houston, Tulsa, or even Boise State. It just takes a commitment from all alumni, students, fans, and cities involved.

This would also be a chance for Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to attract bigger name opponents to their home stadiums. Schools like Oklahoma State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Minnesota, and Georgia Tech have visited Sun Belt Stadiums in the last decade. Mississippi State alone will visit two more Sun Belt Stadiums in the next 3 years. How much would Appalachian State fans love to see schools like Wake Forest, East Carolina or even UNC come to Boone? Imagine how crazy things would be at Paulson Stadium if Georgia Tech or Central Florida visited. Expect larger crowds, more revenue, and more fan interest with a move up to the FBS.

A twelve team league would generate plenty of interest in the SBC.  It would give the conference two 6 team divisions and a conference championship game.  The league would benefit more having a on campus championship game like the PAC 12 and Conference USA have.  Imagine the atmosphere at "The Swamp" or in Boone if a conference championship and a trip to New Orleans was on the line during the first week of December.  This would create more excitement in the league and to those casual observers outside the league.  

The Sun Belt Conference has a chance to continue its growth as a football conference. The league has improved over the last decade and with the additions of Texas State, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, and Appalachian State the league would begin the process to become one of the better Non BCS Conferences. 

Matt Barber
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