Sun Belt Shining Bright

Addition of USM, ODU lifts conference’s prestige
Illustration by Paddy Mills

Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football.

Like its names suggests, the Sun Belt Conference (SBC)— headquartered at the Caesars Superdome — stretches from Norfolk, Virginia, to San Marcos, Texas. Its members currently include Appalachian State; Arkansas – Little Rock; Arkansas State; Coastal Carolina; Georgia Southern; Georgia State; Louisiana; Louisiana – Monroe; South Alabama; Texas – Arlington; Texas State; and Troy. However, the SBC will look mighty different when fall sports kick off later this year.

The Sun Belt sponsors 17 NCAA sports, but the emergence of the league’s football programs has it quickly rising in national prestige, and it’s bringing in new members.

Within a five-day span in late October, the conference announced the addition of Southern Mississippi, Marshall and Old Dominion — joining no later than July 1, 2023. James Madison, currently of the Colonial Athletic Association Conference, will also be joining at the same time. Leaving the SBC’s ranks are Arkansas – Little Rock and Texas – Arlington — two schools without football programs.

“We’re really excited,” said SBC Commissioner Keith Gill. “We feel like the conference is improving year over year. We led the BCS in bowl win percentage the last three years. We are continuing to improve and get better, and I think a lot of people are starting to recognize that.”

The SBC enjoyed a remarkable 2021 football season, which culminated with Louisiana winning the Sun Belt Conference championship over Appalachian State in front of a championship-game record 31,014 fans in Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns were joined by three other SBC teams in the postseason.

The conference, founded in 1976, moved to the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), and has been growing since. During the 2020 season, the conference saw an eye-popping 135% increase in TV viewership, with seven of its games surpassing 1 million viewers. With those numbers — and three new teams coming to the table — the Sun Belt will have some major bargaining chips when it comes time to sign new broadcast deals.

Much of the conference’s growth and success can be attributed to Gill, the first African-American person to become commissioner of a NCAA FBS conference. Upon taking the job in March 2019, he said his priorities were to boost the league’s competitive success across all sports and to improve its national profile.

“The Sun Belt Conference — with our successful football programs and the passionate fanbases of our 14 members — is now stronger and much better positioned than it has ever been,” he said. “The compelling matchups of our regional rivalries, our already strong foundation, and the addition of four schools will make the 2022 football season one of the most anticipated in the history of the Sun Belt.”

The SBC’s 14 teams will be split into two divisions — SBC East and SBC West — with seven teams apiece.

“Our presidents and chancellors have expressed confidence in Sun Belt leadership and our member configuration amid national realignment conversations,” Dr. Kelly Damphousse, Arkansas State chancellor and chair of the Sun Belt Executive Committee, said when James Madison joined the conference. “The recent additions of Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion to the SBC aligned perfectly with our strategic goal of only adding schools that improved our conference’s competitiveness …. The Sun Belt CEOs believe that JMU likewise mirrors our conference’s athletics and academic missions, while also capitalizing on regionality goals.”

After finishing 16th in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and 17th in the USA Today Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, spirits are still high in Lafayette, but this will be a season of change. UL enjoyed a 13-win season for the first time in program history last year. That helped former head coach Billy Napier land the top job at Florida. Head Coach Michael Desormeaux, a former UL quarterback who led the team in the New Orleans Bowl, hopes he can keep the Cajuns cooking.

“I am a Ragin’ Cajun through and through, so to get this unbelievable opportunity is humbling, to say the least,” Desormeaux said at his hiring. “This program has been built on relationships… I am most excited that I get to stay and continue this journey with these men in that locker room. They are a very talented and special group.”