NEW ORLEANS — Commissioner Karl Benson leaned into the podium microphone at Monday’s media day inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and declared the Sun Belt was “no longer a younger brother” among NCAA football conferences.
He spoke of the 2012 offseason, when nationwide conference realignment led to five teams leaving the Sun Belt for “greener pastures” in Conference USA. The Bowl Championship Series ranking system was still in place, and Conference USA held higher prestige than the Sun Belt.
But upon the 2014 institution of the more subjective College Football Playoff system, the two conferences were pooled together with three others in a second-tier Group of 5 that fought for one spot out of college football’s top six bowl games.
The highest ranked Group of 5 conference champion would earn that spot, along with prestige and a significantly higher share of NCAA postseason revenue.
Benson announced Monday that the Sun Belt has refocused its priorities toward earning that spot by scheduling games in a way that gives its teams the highest chance of being the top-ranked champion. That includes keeping the conference schedule at eight games so there is more room for nonconference games, and scheduling those nonconference games for competitive purposes instead of gains in revenue.
The Sun Belt has not produced the top-ranked champion in the three-year history of the CFP.
Arkansas State University has been the Sun Belt’s champion in 5 of the past 6 seasons, but in each of those seasons, the Red Wolves did not finish the season ranked in the Top 25.
Such a season would require a victory against a major nonconference opponent, which ASU has not done since it beat Texas A&M 18-14 in 2008.
“We truly want to bring that signature victory, that signature season to Jonesboro,” ASU Coach Blake Anderson said. “We love winning conference titles, and we want to continue to do that. But we want to take that next step.”
Group of 5 hierarchy
The Group of 5 is made up by the American Athletic, C-USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt conferences.
Since 2014, the American Athletic, Mid-American and Mountain West conferences have sent representatives to one of college football’s top six bowls, nicknamed the “New Year’s Six.” The Mountain West’s Boise State beat Arizona 38-30 in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, the American Athletic’s Houston beat Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl and the MAC’s Western Michigan lost 24-16 to Wisconsin in last year’s Cotton Bowl.
Boise State and Houston had established histories of success and belonged to conferences that had teams that were ranked in the nation’s Top 25. Western Michigan’s MAC held less prestige, but the Broncos benefited from finishing the season undefeated with victories over two schools that belonged to the Big Ten, which is a member of the Power 5 conferences that receive automatic bids to the New Year’s Six bowls.
“You’ve got to certainly have some Power 5 wins in there,” said Georgia Southern Coach Tyson Summers, who was the defensive coordinator of the American Athletic’s Central Florida when it beat Baylor in the 2013 Cotton Bowl. “You’ve got to have a year that gives you the opportunity to do that.”
Sun Belt teams have been regularly competing against Power 5 teams because it was another way to earn revenue. In 2016, the C-USA’s Western Kentucky earned $1.3 million to visit Alabama, and independent Massachusetts earned $1.25 million by visiting Florida. Benson said that five years ago, it was common for Sun Belt teams to be scheduling up to three Power 5 teams, which significantly reduced its teams’ chances of finishing the season with an impressive winning percentage.
Instead of scheduling multiple games against Power 5 schools, Benson said the conference now expects its teams to schedule one game against a Power 5 team, two games against Group of 5 teams and one game against a team in the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision, which competes in a separate postseason.
By focusing on Group of 5 games in the nonconference schedule, the Sun Belt can have the opportunity to distinguish itself before the CFP voting committee — like when the Sun Belt’s Troy plays Boise State on Sept. 2.
“Those are the games that our conference has to start winning to improve our rankings in the Group of 5 leagues,” said Troy Coach Neal Brown.
Although the schools would lose out on money they would earn from Power 5 matchups, the schools could make up for that money if a Sun Belt team reaches a New Year’s Six bowl. The 2017 CFO revenue was split among the Group of 5 conferences by how well the conferences fared during the season.
Since Western Michigan reached the Cotton Bowl, the MAC received a first-place $21,522,280 share. The Sun Belt finished fourth, which was a $17,115,246 share.
Essentially, the Sun Belt is gambling on itself to earn a higher share of postseason revenue.
“It gives them the opportunity to compete, to try and stand out with their peer conferences,” said Michael Kelly, the chief operating officer of the CFP. “Finding a distinguishing factor against the rest of the Group of 5 seems to be important to them, and that rationale makes sense to me.”
Down to 10
The NCAA ruling in January of 2016 that conferences with fewer than 12 teams can host conference championship games has enabled the Sun Belt to bolster its nonconference games while also having a high-profile game to end the season.
By May 2016, the Sun Belt announced that Idaho and New Mexico State would leave the conference after the 2017 season, which gives the conference 10 teams. In June 2016, the Sun Belt announced it would split into two divisions for the 2018 season, and its leaders would play for a conference championship.
This season, the 10-team Big 12 Conference will also host a championship game. But its teams will all play one another as part of a nine-game conference schedule. The Sun Belt will play only eight, which allows its schools to schedule one more nonconference game.
The format leaves open the possibility of a Sun Belt team losing in the championship to a team it already has beaten, knocking them out of contention for the Group of 5 top spot. But unlike a regular-season game, the championship game is guaranteed to be against a quality opponent.
“Would you rather play a championship game or maybe a team that goes 1-10 because they’re the ninth game in your conference?” said Bob Whitehouse, vice president of operations of the Fiesta Bowl. “Which is going to help you more in your ranking?”
This season, the Sun Belt will be the only FBS conference without a championship game, which presents a difficult obstacle for its teams that are trying to outrank the Group of 5 conference champions.
In order to surpass other conferences, the Sun Belt champion likely will have to be undefeated, and that puts more emphasis on the Power 5 nonconference games on its schedule.
Appalachian State will play Georgia on Sept. 2 and Wake Forest on Sept. 23; Troy, in addition to Boise State, will play at LSU on Sept. 30; and Arkansas State University will play at Nebraska on Sept. 2 and host Miami on Sept. 9.
“The NFL plays playoffs at the end of the season, and it’s almost like we almost play them at the beginning,” ASU’s Anderson said. “Those games really matter, because … without playing 3-1, 4-0 in nonconference, you don’t have that opportunity at the end of the year to be ranked high enough to be in that conversation.”
• The 12 Sun Belt Conference football teams will play 19 games against Power 5 Conference schools (SEC, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) this season. Arkansas State faces Nebraska of the Big Ten and Miami of the ACC in September. Two Sun Belt schools (New Mexico State and Coastal Carolina) will play Arkansas, with both games in Fayetteville.
Sept. 2;at Georgia (SEC)
Sept. 23;Wake Forest (ACC)
Sept. 2;at Nebraska (Big Ten)
Sept. 9;Miami (ACC)
Nov. 4;at Arkansas (SEC)
Sept. 2;at Auburn (SEC)
Sept. 23;at Indiana (Big 10)
Sept. 16;at Penn State (Big 10)
Oct. 21;at Missouri (SEC)
Sept. 16;at Texas A&M (SEC)
Nov. 11;at Ole Miss (SEC)
Sept. 9;at Florida State (ACC)
Nov. 18;at Auburn (SEC)
NEW MEXICO STATE
Aug. 31;at Arizona State (Pac-12)
Sept. 30;at Arkansas (SEC)
Sept. 2;at Ole Miss (SEC)
Sept. 8*;Okla. State (Big 12)
Sept. 9;at Colorado (Pac-12)
Sept. 30;at LSU (SEC)
To no longer be the NCAA’s little brother after this season, an unlikely run must be made.
“That’s been our goal,” ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir said. “Everything that we’re doing. Our branding. Our investment in the coaches, students. It’s all about reaching the New Year’s Six bowl. We will be there. The only variable is time.”
Sports on 07/25/2017