Last season, members of the Sun Belt conference shocked the college football world. App State took down Texas A&M in College Station just a week after nearly beating North Carolina in an instant classic. The same week, new conference member Marshall dashed Notre Dame’s dreams with a 26-21 victory in South Bend, and that’s not all. Georgia Southern sent Scott Frost packing with a 45-42 shocker over Nebraska.
Over the years, the Sun Belt has built a reputation for upsetting Power 5 teams. Just take a look at Troy’s 2017 victory against LSU, or Lousiana-Monroe’s infamous upsets against Alabama in 2007 and Arkansas in 2012. However, it’s taken a while to ascend the mountain of Group of Five conferences. What’s the history of the Sun Belt Conference?
The year was 1976. It was a monumental year in history. Not because Apple was founded by Steve Jobs, not because the NBA and the ABA merged, and not because Family Feud made its TV debut. 1976 was special because the Sun Belt was founded.
The Sun Belt conference opened in 1976, including members such as: the University of New Orleans, Georgia State University, Jacksonville University, UNC Charlotte, University of South Florida, and the University of South Alabama. At the start of the conference, basketball was the biggest sport, as football wouldn’t be a part of the Sun Belt until 2001.
While it was a relatively small start, changes were on the way soon. Apparently size does matter, because New Orleans was kicked out of the league after four short years due to their undersized gym that didn’t meet conference standards. However, commissioner Vic Bubas also added Western Kentucky, Old Dominion, UAB, and VCU early in the conference’s lifespan. While they hadn’t introduced football as a conference sport yet, the Sun Belt was definitely shaping up. Then 1990 happened.
Once the 1990-91 basketball season ended, many teams left the Sun Belt in a shocking move. It might have had something to do with Vic Bubas retiring. The Sun Belt was looking to expand at the time, which might have fragmented some relationships with schools. Regardless of exactly how it happened, the conference was left with fragments– Western Kentucky, South Alabama, and Jacksonville were the only remaining teams.
The Sun Belt and the simultaneously struggling American South conference merged, with the new conference adopting the Sun Belt moniker. Notable teams in the American South were Louisiana Lafayette, UCF and old friend New Orleans. Around this point, the longtime basketball conference entertained the idea of starting a football conference too.
In the next ten years or so, a few teams left. UCF decided they were too good for everyone, and pursued other ways to win national championships. Lamar, Texas-Pan American University, and Jacksonville all left in 1998. At the turn of the century, the Sun Belt had seen their fair share of turnover, but new commissioner Wright Waters had his eyes set on starting a football conference.
In order to add enough members to make football viable, the Sun Belt had to expand their reach a bit. And by a bit, I mean they took anybody willing to join. The Sun Belt had generally stayed in the Southeast region in their early days. North Texas, Middle Tennessee State, and UL Monroe certainly fit the bill of expansion members. It makes sense, right? Well, add in Idaho. And New Mexico State. And Utah State in 2003. In 2004, they also added Troy as a member, and Florida Atlantic joined the next year.
The Sun Belt football conference started off in 2001 without a championship game, and the title was given to the team or teams with the best conference record. North Texas dominated the conference from 2001-2004, winning a share of the title every single year. 2005 saw a three way tie, and then it was Troy’s turn to dominate. Every year from 2006 to 2010, the Trojans captured a conference title. All was well until there was even more realignment in the early 2010’s.
How about now, Benson?
With a new commissioner, Karl Benson, came new members. Let’s go through this round quickly:
Georgia State rejoined. Texas State joined. University of Texas at Arlington joined as a non football member. FIU, FAU, North Texas, and Middle Tennessee State all left for Conference USA in 2013. Western Kentucky also left for Conference USA in 2014. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern both accepted invitations. Idaho and New Mexico State both rejoined for a short stint after the Western Athletic Conference dropped football. Then they were dropped by the Sun Belt in 2016. Additionally, Coastal Carolina joined the conference in 2015.
So, after this whirlwind of realignment and chaos, the Sun Belt decided to split into two divisions for football in 2018, thus installing a conference championship. The East consisted of: Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, and Troy. The West contained: Arkansas State, Louisiana, Louisiana–Monroe, South Alabama, and Texas State.
The conference championships have been somewhat one-sided. Three out of five years, Appalachian State represented the East, while Louisiana has represented the West four out of five years. There was no more realignment up until last year.
Seriously? More realignment?
Thanks to Texas and Oklahoma agreeing to join the SEC, college football was thrown into yet another phase of realignment. After the Big 12 added schools from the American Athletic Conference, the AAC turned to add members from Conference USA. At this point, rumors sprung up that the C-USA might fold, so the Sun Belt agreed to add a few of their members.
That brings us to the current state of the Sun Belt, and the future is bright. Keith Gill and his predecessors have assembled a lineup of quality schools who are all capable of pulling the big, exciting upsets. Hopefully, there will be a decade free of realignment, and Cincinnati set the precedent for Group of 5 playoff berths in 2021. With the expanded playoffs on the horizon, the Sun Belt could certainly see increased success.It was a difficult situation for new commissioner Keith Gill to step into, but he’s handled it all very well. Southern Miss, Marshall, and former member Old Dominion all joined the Sun Belt in July 2022. Additionally, the conference added James Madison University, a top FCS program. All the new teams have fared well so far, with Marshall having the previously mentioned upset of Notre Dame and JMU beating App State in a thriller just last week.