Sun Belt Expansion Possibilities

The one thing that is certain as the Sun Belt weighs the possibility of expansion is that there are schools that are ready to accept if they receive the call. The question though is whether the list of the willing includes any schools that can garner the needed nine votes or whether the Sun Belt deems the schools ready to move now.

The last time the Sun Belt voted to add teams, the list of the willing included New Mexico State but the Aggies fell short of the eight yes votes required at the time for full membership. The leadership at NMSU, at least publicly, is indicating that they do not expect to be extended a full membership offer at this time even though one of the known opposing schools, Western Kentucky, has since departed the league.

There are a number of indications that Missouri State may be leaning toward a move but the Bears would need to increase their stadium renovation project by about 5000 seats. That makes it unlikely that Missouri State would be ready to announce a move by June 1, 2014 the deadline to be able to play in the Sun Belt as a transitional member in 2016 and as a full member by 2017 unless they have already begun shifting their renovation plans.[CORRECTION: Dates are wrong. Should be: unlikely that Missouri State would be ready to announce a move by June 1, 2014 the deadline to be able to play in the Sun Belt as a transitional member in 2015 and as a full member by 2016]

James Madison's FBS study indicated virtually no difference financially between the Sun Belt, MAC, and C-USA but C-USA features another Virginia school and a team each in West Virginia and North Carolina while the Sun Belt has only Appalachian State in that region. The MAC also lacks proximate schools but James Madison reportedly draws far more students from the MAC footprint than the Sun Belt footprint. While there is no concrete evidence C-USA is close to expanding, the MAC is currently at 12 full members and 13 for football and there is speculation that the league will attempt to force UMass to join as a full member or face expulsion. If UMass opts to leave the MAC is unlikely to expand but if UMass does join the MAC would be expected to seek a 14th member. Unless JMU has received a clear indication that neither the MAC nor C-USA will invite them, they are likely not prepared to accept this spring.

Jacksonville State is among the willing and probably among the ready. JSU hasn't posted a losing record in football since 2002 and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals finishing with an 11-4 record in 2013. The bad news for the Gamecocks is they aren't likely to find a warm reception from Troy or South Alabama even though JSU is closer to Georgia State than either of the Sun Belt's two Alabama schools. Since they open up no new territory for the Sun Belt's regional television package, they seem to be an unlikely choice.

Southland members Sam Houston State and Lamar are often mentioned but neither seems to be ready for a rapid transition. Lamar has yet to post a winning record since returning to FCS football and their stadium would need to be enlarged. Sam Houston has the on-field success but their stadium is in greater need for improvement than Lamar's and more troubling SHSU struggles to draw fans. The lack of support for a successful football team in Texas has to be a concern. The announced focus on adding eastern teams would make both unlikely additions.

Eastern Kentucky has indicated willingness to move to FBS in either the Sun Belt or the MAC but the Colonels lack adequate facilities at this time. Of greater concern, EKU once an FBS power has slumped modestly, still successful but not at an elite level and with that shift is struggling to draw the types of crowds required to meet FBS criteria or more importantly, to create confidence among league members that EKU can meet attendance requirements.

Liberty is appealing for its Virginia location, facilities, and support. The problems with Liberty are multiple. Throughout its time in the NAIA, NCAA Division II, and Division I FCS, Liberty has never earned a post-season berth in football. The university is a heavy player in the online education realm with about three online students for every on-campus student. That creates a perception whether justified or not that the school is more of a for-profit diploma mill than a serious academic institution. Coupled with the university being seen as controversial for a variety of reasons. The school was placed on notice that the decision to ban the creation of a student Young Democrats organization violated the conditions for students receiving Federal financial aid. The school addressed that by abolishing all recognized student organizations rather than permit the creation the Young Democrats organization. The student code of conduct is more restrictive than the code at any FBS private college including the oft-criticized BYU code and the school requires more restrictive agreements on faculty than any FBS private college as well. Because Liberty is an outlier even among other Division I private colleges the question remains whether the Sun Belt's presidents and chancellors will consider the pluses of Liberty to out-weigh the possible controversy they may face from their own faculty and students as well as from members of the various associations and groups of universities they are members of, especially give the moderate success of Liberty football and the potential war chest that 34,000 online students could produce for the athletic department.

See A Look at Potential Sun Belt Expansion for an overview of the process and considerations.