Sun Belt focuses on schedule strategy
Conference hopes to rebrand and revitalize member programs
The Sun Belt is focused on catching Conference USA and the Mountain West in the race to be the best of the rest among major college football conferences.
New Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson believes conference realignment and an evolving postseason format has widened the gap between the have and have-not conferences.
The 10-year-old Sun Belt has usually been the have-least league, but has taken small steps forward while its "peer conferences" -- as Benson like to call them -- have slid back.
"The goal of the Sun Belt right now is to be the best of the quote, `below the line conferences,' " Benson said in a recent interview. "There's going to be five [conferences] above the line and five below the line. The Sun Belt's goal is going to be to compete with those other conferences."
Last year the Sun Belt competed just fine with its peers, going 7-6 against teams from C-USA, the Mountain West, Mid-American Conference and Western Athletic Conference. That included a 5-2 mark against C-USA, the league the Sun Belt will most directly compete against for players and attention in the coming years.
"In my estimation the competitive position of the Sun Belt exceeds its "brand,' " Troy University President Jack Hawkins said in an email to the AP. "This will change very soon. When its brand matches reality, the Sun Belt will equal or exceed several non-AQ [automatic qualifier] conferences it sought to emulate just a few years ago."
Benson took over the Sun Belt earlier this year after leading the WAC through 17 years of constant change.
Conference realignment has whittled the WAC to the brink of extinction as a football conference, and reshaped the Big East, Mountain West and Conference USA -- not necessarily for the better.
After the Big East lost West Virginia to the Big 12 and Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the Atlantic Coast Conference, it grabbed six schools from C-USA and the Mountain West.
The Mountain West has rebuilt itself mostly by luring away most of the WAC's best football programs, while C-USA turned to the Sun Belt to find some new members when it lost SMU, Houston, Central Florida and Memphis to the Big East.
|MORE 2012 FOOTBALL|
|Pac-12/Big 12||ACC/Big East|
North Texas and Florida International will leave the Sun Belt for C-USA after this season. Conference USA is also adding Louisiana Tech as well as Texas-San Antonio and its fledgling football program.
Charlotte, also joining next year, will have its football program up and running by 2015.
The rest of the C-USA will include East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Mississippi, Tulane, Tulsa, Alabama-Birmingham and UTEP.
Benson moved quickly to replace the Sun Belt schools that left for C-USA.
Texas State, in San Marcos, Texas, about 30 miles south of Austin, moves up from FCS to FBS to join the Sun Belt in 2013, as does Georgia State, which gives the league a team in Atlanta. South Alabama is making a similar transition this season.
Texas-Arlington, which does not play football and essentially replaces departing Denver, also will join in 2013. Arkansas-Little Rock is also a non-football member of the Sun Belt, which spans from Florida to Texas.
Florida Atlantic, Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Kentucky, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee round out the rest of the conference.
"The population of the Sun Belt, and this has to do with the overall demographics of the southeast and Texas, the Sun Belt footprint is growing and I think the Sun Belt is prepared to take advantage of those changes in demographics," Benson said.
Despite the progress, the Sun Belt still has plenty of work to shed its status as the conference most likely to fill a homecoming date.
Tweaking those schedules is a place to start.
Sun Belt members commonly load up on top-notch opponents as a way to fund their programs. Top programs from power conferences pay big bucks, figures often approaching $1 million these days, to get teams to agree to play in their stadiums with no guarantee of a return trip.
Benson understands the financial considerations, but would like to see Sun Belt teams scale back and look to play more nonconference games against teams from those peer conferences.
"We've talked about scheduling philosophy, scheduling strategy. Ideally we'd like to establish across the board some scheduling parameters that would limit those guarantee games to one a year," Benson said.
Some Sun Belt members are already moving in that direction.
"We've adopted the philosophy here we will do one single-game contract a year," Western Kentucky President Gary Ransdell said.
This season, the Hilltoppers play at Alabama. But they open with I-AA Austin Peay, their own version of a guarantee game, then play at Kentucky (a rivalry of sorts) and have a home against Southern Miss of C-USA.
Having led the WAC at a time when Boise State and Hawaii both secured BCS bids, Benson understands the value of an unbeaten or even a one-loss season - even if the overall competition is only so-so.
"My message to the Sun Belt membership is there isn't any reason that one of you isn't the next Boise State," Benson said.
Mostly, though, the message Benson wants to send to his members is this: The grass is not necessarily greener in another conference.
"What my goal would be is for the Sun Belt to enhance our assets, our characteristics, so if and when the time comes that Conference USA comes looking to the Sun Belt for a replacement team because Conference USA lost school A, B or C, that the Sun Belt member will look at what the Sun Belt provides and come to the conclusion that there's no reason for us to leave the Sun Belt."