Death knell for Sun Belt Conference?

by Leslie Turk

No matter how you slice it, the recent defections from the SBC aren't good for UL athletics.

Depending on who you listen to, the most recent defections from the Sun Belt Conference are either a minor inconvenience or a death knell for the league.

Either way, it's not good for the Ragin' Cajuns athletic program, one that UL President Joe Savoie said joined with other Sun Belt schools to make a solidarity pact only months earlier. That came at this year's league meetings, right after North Texas and Florida International announced they were bolting to join the revamped Conference USA.

"When the previous wave of schools switched conferences last spring, our decision was that the Sun Belt Conference was the best fit for the university at that time," Savoie said in a joint statement with Athletics Director Scott Farmer released on Thursday. "The Sun Belt membership had made a commitment to stay together and collectively help the league reach its potential. The performance of the league on the football field this fall showed a glimpse of that potential."

That commitment didn't mean much to Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic, who jumped into an agreement with C-USA only two days after that league lost Tulane and East Carolina to the also-rebuilding Big East.

With the moves, Conference USA expanded its footprint into several major Southern television markets, with FIU and FAU coming from Miami and South Florida, North Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and MTSU a virtual suburb of Nashville. But none of the four soon-to-be-former Sun Belt members - FIU and UNT depart at the end of next June, MTSU and FAU in June of 2014 - are a primary media focus in their markets. Middle is secondary to Vanderbilt and, by connection, the SEC in Nashville, and the other three are even further down the pecking order in their markets, as is the general rule with Sun Belt schools located close to major markets.

That didn't stop C-USA, which not long ago was a league on the ropes with Memphis, SMU, Houston and Central Florida departing for other leagues this June. This week's bolt by Tulane and ECU meant only six carry-over members - Tulsa, UTEP, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB and Marshall.

However, with the four additions from the Sun Belt and the earlier adding of Louisiana Tech, UTSA, Charlotte and Old Dominion - the last two non-football for now - C-USA is at least poised to keep most of its five (and a backup in a sixth) bowl tie-ins and salvage some of what was a better TV contract than that held by the Sun Belt.

The C-USA lineup is much less glamorous than its grouping of a couple of years ago, but the league is solid with 14 teams. And there's already a rumor that C-USA may invite two others to get to a 16-team league. Western Kentucky and New Mexico State have both been mentioned, and one Alabama media outlet also threw the Cajuns into the pool of prospective Conference USA additions.
Meanwhile, the Sun Belt is left with eight football-playing schools beginning in 2014 - UL, Arkansas State, Georgia State (moving from the FCS Colonial Athletic Association), South Alabama, Texas State (moving from the disintegrated WAC), Troy, UL Monroe and Western Kentucky.

UL football coach Mark Hudspeth's comments in Thursday's Daily Advertiser were rooted in frustration.

"It's obviously disappointing from a sister university in this conference to see all these other teams leaving," he told the paper, "because now you look at what's left, and there's not even many teams left. As strong as this conference was this year, I really thought this conference had really turned the corner and was gonna be one of the top up-and-coming conferences."

The Sun Belt takes a 6-2 football record against Conference USA into the bowl season and was 5-3 against C-USA last year.
Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson, who guided the WAC until earlier this year and saw that league spiral into oblivion from raids from other leagues, mentioned that success while trying to paint a rosy picture to the departures.

"While I am disappointed that they [MTSU and FAU] have elected to depart the Sun Belt Conference, the SBC is still very well positioned for the future and I remain very optimistic that the momentum that has been created in the past six months will continue to grow," he said in a statement released by the league Thursday morning. "There are several outstanding universities that have indicated interest in joining the SBC."

Unless the Sun Belt can persuade current members of other FBS conferences to come aboard (an unlikely prospect), the pool of possible new members is made up of current FCS members. Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Sam Houston State and Lamar have been mentioned - mentions that stick in Hudspeth's craw.

"I'm not favoring turning this into a take all the I-AA' league," he told the Advertiser. "I'm not interested in that route whatsoever."
Apparently, the only way to avoid that is for the Cajuns to join the departed, and Savoie and Farmer made veiled references to that in their Thursday statement.

"While we are disappointed at the decision, conference realignments will further evolve," it said. "We continue to monitor and evaluate our options so that we can do what is best for the university, our athletics department, student-athletes, fans and alumni. The university remains committed to enhancing our position by developing programs, resources and facilities to compete at the highest level of collegiate athletics."

Hudspeth's name has been connected to other coaching jobs after guiding the Cajuns to back-to-back bowl berths, and the fear from many UL fans is that the drop in Sun Belt prestige may make one of those other positions more attractive as the coaching-change season swings into high gear.

"I just hope that, as a university, we can have enough foresight to put us in a position to be successful," Hud told the Advertiser, "and put us in a position to compete nationally in recruiting, and put us in a position to be able to financially make it against these other universities that are gonna be making a lot of money with these new conferences."