Tuesday was a time for Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Keith Gill to celebrate the recent accomplishments of the football teams in the conference. It was also time to welcome four new members, who Gill believes will increase the strength of the conference.
Both of those things were expected. Was it expected, though, that Gill and the other current roster of Sun Belt institutions are already peeking ahead to more possible expansion? Truthfully, the way college athletics are in flux right now, that’s a necessity.
“I think, at the end of the day, we’re not really looking at a number, we’re looking at value,” Gill said during his state of the conference address, followed by a question-and-answer session with the media, during the first day of the two-day Sun Belt Media Days in New Orleans. “If I had truth serum and somebody asked me last year, ‘What is the right number?’ I would have said 12. However, when you have the opportunity to add the four schools that we did, then 14 becomes the right number. I think the same with 16 or 20.”
So does that mean Gill’s goal is to bring more teams in to join with newcomers Marshall, Old Dominion, Southern Miss and James Madison?
“I don’t think we’re looking to expand,” Gill said. “We feel good about our membership and where it is. But I don’t think you take anything off the table. We are exploring all opportunities. If there is a really good institution that makes sense for us, that’s like-minded, that’s in our geographic footprint, that brings value to the Sun Belt, we would certainly be open to having conversations with those schools. I feel like we’re very strong. If we do remain at 14, I think we are in a strong position. If we do have the opportunity to go to even 15, which is an odd number in intercollegiate athletics, but for the right school we would certainly do that.”
Sun Belt football programs have certainly gained national respect under Gill, who was hired as the conference’s commissioner in 2019 and recently received a contract extension that will end in 2030. Gill said since the inception of the college football playoff system in 2014, the Sun Belt Conference has an FBS-best .650 winning percentage in bowl games.
Over the past two years, the power has been a bit top heavy with Lousiana, Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State combining for 64 wins in that span. The other seven Sun Belt teams combined for 62 wins during that time. However, Troy made itself stronger with the hire of head coach Jon Sumrall and should return to its customary winning ways. South Alabama is on the doorstep of breaking through in Kane Wommack’s second season as head coach. The league seemingly got stronger with the addition of Marshall and former FCS national champion James Madison. Georgia State was a bowl participant last season.
String the conference teams together and it’s 14 teams in 10 contiguous states. Old Dominion, which moved over from Conference USA, had its average travel trimmed down from 1,000 miles per game to 500 miles, according to ODU head coach Ricky Rahne.
“Our geographic footprint and ... model is not one you see a lot,” Gill said. “You think about certainly the most recent realignment in terms of going coast to coast. I think we have a lot of things that are unique.”
A big part of the league’s strength right now is a media rights deal with ESPN, which was expanded for the second successive year. The new deal calls for a 50% increase in Sun Belt football games to appear on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. Saturday games will include 40% of those new opportunities.
With deals like that, as well as nationally ranked teams at the top of the Sun Belt, Gill is aggressive in promoting the conference. Many people in college football these days speak of tiers, especially with the talk of super conferences and exclusive playoff systems. Gill said he endorses a 12-team playoff system with the six highest ranked conference champions and the six highest ranked at-large teams. If that happens, he said, the Sun Belt Conference will be well positioned.
“The one thing I would say, this conference is too strong to be left out,” Gill said. “There is no scenario, in my mind, where I see FBS going in some direction that doesn’t have the Sun Belt. That’s because of our strength and that’s because we are so well positioned. [Now] how do we position ourselves to continue to grow and continue to get better.”
Day two of the Sun Belt media days will take place on Wednesday with Troy and South Alabama among the teams scheduled to appear.
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