Sun Belt Football: Expansion and Possible Member Shake Up

David HedlindAnalyst IIMay 15, 2011

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 18:  Jerrel Jernigan #3 of the Troy University Trojans scores a touchdown over Donovan Fletcher #29 of the Ohio University Bobcats during the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome on December 18, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Sun Belt conference is made up of two parts, football members and non-football members.  Unlike the Big East, which could really be two separate conferences due to that split, the Sun Belt could not. 

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the conference were made up of football-playing institutions only in the very near future. 

Of the non-football members, South Alabama, who has been a member since 1976, will be upgrading to be a full member including football. 

The University of Denver is leaving the conference to join the WAC.  Arkansas-Little Rock is the only school that does not have a football team. 

The Sun Belt is greatly regarded as the weakest FBS conference but with the recent raid of the WAC by the Mountain West, I think the Sun Belt may have moved up a notch in the pecking order. 

The conference has actually had quite a bit of in and out from various institutions.  Schools like Louisiana Tech, Idaho, Utah State, and New Mexico State were all recent members.  They left for what was at the time an upgrade to the WAC. 

Recently, the Sun Belt has made it known that they are entertaining the idea of adding another member. 

They have stated that they would only add a school with an established FBS-level program.  The other part of the criteria is that any new member must be within the geographic footprint of the conference. 

I honestly can’t see a Conference USA school wanting to leave that conference for the Sun Belt.  There is a small chance that a school that is constantly at the bottom of that Conference might entertain an invite if they feel they could be more competitive. 

A team such as Rice or Tulane could possibly do better in the Sun Belt than they do in Conference USA, but are wins worth what might be viewed as a step down?

The Mountain West has really only one candidate in New Mexico but I think that they, too, would view this as a step down. 

The MAC isn’t really a candidate due to their location. Western Kentucky puts them somewhat close but even the southern-most MAC schools are a bit far. 

The WAC has been raided and has always had an outlier in Louisiana Tech, who, as I mentioned before, is a former member of the Sun Belt. 

Louisiana Tech fits all criteria for what the Sun Belt is looking for.  New Mexico State is another former member that at least has the FBS status but is a bit outside the area. 

There are a few other things to consider. 

Mainly, what will the other conferences do? Many think the Big East is going to look to expand in the near future and the success of their last raid on Conference USA in 2005 may have them eyeballing them again.

If Conference USA loses any teams, they may go after Louisiana Tech themselves.  On the other hand, they may try to fill any holes they have by making a play at some Sun Belt schools. 

Troy has established themselves at the top of the conference.  They have not had fewer than eight wins and have won or shared the conference title for the last five seasons. 

Florida International is coming off their best season which includes a conference title and bowl win.  While this is a new position for them, they could be an attractive target for Conference USA if they lose UCF to the Big East, as the popular fan choice would have it. 

If the conference can both expand and hold on to their current members I think the future could be bright. 

If they lose one of their top teams, any ground they have gained in the conference strength standings may drop them back down.