How the Sun Belt is approaching college football conference realignment dance

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Sitting in Malone Stadium’s press box prior to UL Monroe’s upset win over Liberty on Saturday, ULM athletics Scott McDonald put conference realignment in perspective.

It’s a standoff bound to break.

“It’s like junior high dance; boys on side, girls on the other, and somebody’s got to walk across the gym and ask somebody to dance,” McDonald said. “When that happens, I think the rest of the group will follow.”

On Monday, Yahoo Sports reported that the American Athletic Conference was expected to receive and ultimately approve membership applications from Conference USA members Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA.

Next to make a move may be the Sun Belt Conference.

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Ten or 12?

The Sun Belt has put out mixed signals, indicating it’s willing to stay status quo with 10 football-playing members while also suggesting there’s room for two more.

“We like where we are in terms of our 10 football-playing schools,” commissioner Keith Gill told The Daily Advertiser on Oct. 12.

“We have a lot of momentum in the right direction. … So we feel good about that being our core.”

McDonald and UL athletics director Bryan Maggard, however, remain open to expansion.

“It depends on who you have that wants to join,” McDonald said.

“At the end of the day, if we stay at 10 football-playing schools, we’re OK. Adding is not a must,” Maggard added earlier this month. “But if it can make sense – geographically, and competitively – then we’d be very interested.”

Sun Belt targets

The bigger question is which programs are sensible Sun Belt targets?

Asked whether any C-USA programs are proactively knocking on the Sun Belt’s door, Maggard said, “I would just say we have schools who are engaging in conversations.”

Charlotte and UTSA would have made sense, but attention turns elsewhere with those two evidently off the table.

Marshall, another current C-USA program, is in the mix, and perhaps Southern Miss. Both appear to be frontrunners for Sun Belt consideration.

The Sun Belt Conference, based in New Orleans, currently has 10 football-playing members.

Liberty, an FBS independent, is another option, but the Flames were turned down during the last round of Sun Belt change.

The Sun Belt also could call up an FCS program or two, much like it did when adding Appalachian State and Georgia Southern after North Texas, FAU, FlU, Western Kentucky and North Texas left for C-USA.

James Madison is one FCS possibility, and McNeese would covet an invite.

“I don’t know we would necessarily (say) ‘It’s got to be an FBS-playing team,’ ” McDonald said.

Scott McDonald addresses the audience during the press conference announcing him as the new athletic director at University of Louisiana at Monroe in Monroe, La. on June 14.

“Is there the right FCS program? That would be for the nominating committee to come back to us and say, ‘This is why we think this particular school is a good match for our conference,’ and then we’ll evaluate it as ADs.”

The more likely move seems to be adding two C-USA schools, if they can be had.

“We’re kind of working through our strategy,” Gill said a week ago.

“But we feel like there are, certainly, good, quality FBS programs that certainly they have some interest, and it’s reciprocated and it certainly seems to maybe make some sense. But, like I said, we can certainly stay at 10.

“Our presidents and ADs will kind of figure out that strategy through the fall, and then we’ll kind of see what we think works best.”

Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill addresses the state of the conference last July in New Orleans.

Geographic sensibility

One critical factor is regional sensibility.

With teams stretched from Texas State eastward to Coastal Carolina, the Sun Belt has two football programs in Alabama (Troy, South Alabama), two in Georgia (Georgia Southern, Georgia State) and the two in Louisiana, along with Arkansas State and Appalachian State.

“ ‘Geographic footprint’ is very important to all of us,” McDonald said.

“Not having to put a lot of teams on planes and travel long distances for a majority of your conference play is a big deal.”

If the Sun Belt does add two, it remains to be seen how they’d be geographically positioned.

“I think one East, one West, would probably be most fair,” Maggard said.

UL athletic director Bryan Maggard feels the Sun Belt Conference has room to add two new football members.

It’s all about balance.

That may be especially so as the Sun Belt tries to make sure none of its current programs – including nationally ranked Coastal Carolina; Appalachian State, an SBC power since joining the league; and Georgia State, which is situated in the coveted Atlanta media market – are picked off.

“We’ve got some very valuable members on the east side of this conference,” McDonald said, “and we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure they know how important they are to this conference, and give them another easy trip.

“But at the same time we’ve got some really attractive markets and programs on the west side. … We’ll just see how it happens. It’s an exciting time, and I think it’s one of those things that one domino is going to fall, and then it’s gonna go quick.”

The dance, actually, already is on.