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Athletics: Sun Belt Conference adds to its ranks

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, September 1, 2015


The Sun Belt Conference has a new member.

Coastal Carolina was added Tuesday to the league to which UL belongs, effective in 2017 for football and in the 2016-17 school year for other sports.

“This is what we were after,” SBC Commissioner Karl Benson said.

The public university — located in Conway, South Carolina, near popular tourist destination Myrtle Beach — currently plays FCS football, one step below the FBS level.

The Chanticleers will transition.

In 2016, they remain an FCS program. They’ll compete as a 2017 SBC football member, eligible for the conference title but not bowls. Full FBS status follows in 2018.

What does it mean for the Ragin’ Cajuns?

Plenty, including easier travel, a two-division conference for most sports and a possible new football bowl opportunity.

The addition could also prompt eventual departure from the SBC for one or both of two current football-only members, New Mexico State and Idaho.

They’re in the second year of a four-year SBC deal subject to renewal after 2015, and Benson said “there will be an evaluation and an assessment and a decision made whether to extend” the agreement.

Benson deemed it “premature” to speculate if the Sun Belt will be a 10-, 11- or 12-team football league in 2017. He hopes to know by mid-January.

Coastal Carolina was voted in by SBC-member presidents Sunday in Dallas, where they also considered New Mexico State for all sports and Eastern Kentucky.

An SBC membership committee visited all three this summer.

The latter two “received very, very favorable consideration,”

Benson said. But the decision apparently wasn’t unanimous.

Benson: “Very rarely do you have a decision like this where there aren’t differing opinions. But, at the end of the day, it was a wide majority that favored this direction and favored Coastal Carolina.”

An invitation was extended and accepted Sunday night. CCU essentially succeeds Western Kentucky, which joined Conference USA in 2014.

But rather than replace WKU immediately — Liberty and others were considered, but rejected — the SBC waited.

“Sometimes the longer you wait the better the results,” Benson said.

“Had we done this two years ago, we may not have gotten the same result. Coastal Carolina was not ready for the Sun Belt two years ago.

They are ready today.”

Benson said two divisions for sports besides football, now possible, affords student-athletes “easier travel demands” and less missed class time.

Without a travel partner for current SBC-member Appalachian State, scheduling proved geographically challenging.

Now, teams can travel once to the Carolinas and play two games instead of one. Divisions also mean fewer visits to faraway conference locales.

Benson said “… this was very, very critical for men’s and women’s basketball in fixing the schedule we’ve had” as an 11-team league.

The count of conference basketball games can now drop from 20, perhaps to 18 or 16, allowing for improved non-conference scheduling and lower travel costs.

UL, UL-Monroe, Arkansas State, Little Rock, Texas-Arlington and Texas State will comprise the SBC’s new Western Division starting in 2016-17, with Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, South Alabama and Troy in an Eastern Division.

Had NMSU been added for all sports a western team would have had to move east, but that’s no longer an issue.

Benson also said he remains a proponent of an SBC football-title game, which could still happen as soon as 2016 if the NCAA allows, and that an eight-game conference schedule remains “the preferred number by a majority of our football coaches,” with some favoring nine.

Adding CCU, Benson added, will promote further conversation between the SBC and a Charleston, South Carolina, group planning a new bowl, pending NCAA certification, starting in 2016.

The Sun Belt wants a fifth primary bowl partner.

Benson suggested that while it prefers one in the west — Little Rock, Arkansas, and Austin, Texas, were previously discussed, but haven’t materialized — Charleston is now an option.