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The Sun Belt embraced what makes college football unique. Is it winning realignment?

Every day, millions of people ask, “Who am I?” Countless books, penned by everyone from Marcus Aurelius to Oprah, try to help people find answers. As Deepak Chopra writes: “One must take it upon themselves to do the work of self-awareness discovery now.”

Well, with all due respect to the father of quantum healing, there is one place that does not require any assistance when it comes to self-awareness, even though it lives life as the flag tied to the middle of the tug-of-war rope that is the world of collegiate athletics.

The folks down at Sun Belt Conference HQ in New Orleans? They’re good to go. No self-help guides needed there. They know exactly who they are, where they are, what they want to be and where they want to go from here.

“In the end, what makes football great is when you look across that field and you see a team that you really, really want to beat, that your fans really, really want to beat, games that you get emotional about,” explains Appalachian State head coach Shawn Clark, a former two-time FCS All-American offensive lineman for the Mountaineers. “When I look at the conference schedule that the Sun Belt has put together for us, for an old-school guy who played here, I see those kinds of games all over the calendar.”

The SBC is now a 14-team league, cleanly divided into two true regional divisions, east and west. When their football season kicks off Sept. 2, it will do so with four new members, three defectors from fellow Group of 5 league Conference USA — Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion — and one promoted FCS superpower in James Madison. Those new schools, along with the departure of two far-flung non-football members, create a perfectly seamless corner of the American map. The new Sun Belt roster of schools starts in Virginia and sweeps down through every state of the Deep South until it reaches central Texas.

The Sun Belt is keeping its divisions, leaning hard into regional rivalries, and reconnecting long-missed matchups that were lost to previous rounds of conference realignment and teams leaping into the FBS ranks no matter where and how they did it.

That strategy, once the standard in college sports, is now downright counter cultural. A playbook that feels as though it is through the looking glass during this one-year stretch when we have been told that Oklahoma is actually in the Southeast, Los Angeles is in the Midwest, the number 10 actually means 16, the number 12 really means 10 now and will one day mean 14 but for a minute will be 16.

The Sun Belt represents stability and familiarity in a world where complaints of “I don’t even recognize my favorite sport” are becoming louder by the day. That’s no accident.

“No, no, we were really deliberate. At the end of the day, we want fans to be able to travel to the games, but also games they want to go to,” says commissioner Keith Gill, a former Duke running back who took the SBC reins in April 2019. Barely two years later, in the days after the news broke that Texas and Oklahoma were departing the Big 12 for the SEC, Gill had his presidents and athletic directors on the phone to map out the conference’s potential reactions.

Everyone knew the Big 12 was going to poach the American Athletic Conference and perhaps more. In return, the American would go shopping among the others in the Group of 5. Gill laid out his strategy of galvanized regionalism as both a form of defense and as a recruiting tool. The entire group agreed, and the phone calls to and from potential members began in earnest, especially when there was established history involved.

“Trying to create new rivalries can be a tall order, and we have experienced some of that as we have moved up the ladder over the years,” says Coastal Carolina athletic director Matt Hogue, who has been with the Chanticleers since 1997, six years before the school played its first football game and two decades before it arrived at the FBS level. “But proximity, mixed in with some success, that lights the fire pretty quickly. Appalachian State people love to come to the beach, and we beach people love to go the mountains. We know each other pretty well. Now we’re fighting for the division every year. If you’ve been to those games, there’s certainly no lack of intensity.”

Same for Louisiana and UL Monroe. Or South Alabama and Troy. Or Georgia State and Georgia Southern. The new schools added to the roster slide right into that chart of animosity like pieces of a puzzle. Anyone who knows their football history of the region is well aware that no ramping-up time will be needed for App State and Marshall, Marshall and Georgia Southern, or even Old Dominion and Georgia Southern. They all have roots going way back to playing for FCS championships. Keeping those fires stoked is why Troy was moved into the more map-logical West Division, home of rival South Alabama. Southern Miss, on hard times now but a longtime football-obsessed school, was also natural fit.

“What I see when I am in the room with these coaches and these players is that these are football people,” says new Georgia Southern head coach Clay Helton. “In Statesboro they tell stories about the Erk Russell days, playing for I-AA (FCS) national championships and having to do it by playing guess who? App State. Marshall. Old Dominion. Arkansas State. I can’t wait to get in the stadium for these games.”

Even the decision to keep the two divisions was done so with the motivation of creating more rivalry tension. Those in the East won’t see those in the West with much regularity, which in theory should lead to battles of “Us vs. Them” in the same the way divisions originally did for the originator of the model, the SEC of the 1990s.

It’s all about the story of showdowns, something over which fans can find themselves worked into a lather. No, the nation as a whole is never going to be buzzing coast to coast about an Appalachian State-Marshall matchup the way it does about the Iron Bowl. Just as the Sun Belt isn’t likely to ever land a $7 billion TV deal. But that’s also not the goal.

The long-term SBC eye is on two horizons at once. The first is on the postseason, both the ongoing College Football Playoff expansion debate, ensuring there is a place at the table for non-A5 (Autonomous 5) schools, but also keeping some sort of bowl-season model in place. Says Gill: “The 12-team model of the six highest-ranked conference champions and the six highest ranked at-large teams, that has had our support from the first moment it was proposed. And so do the bowls. That’s a showcase for our universities and a reward for our student-athletes that they deserve.”

The second is the always-looming idea of further realignment, whether it be bringing others into the SBC fold or shoring up the moat around New Orleans to hold off would-be conference raiders.

“Right now, we’re certainly going to take a pause,” Gill says with a deep breath. “That’s not to say if there’s a really good opportunity there, then we will certainly be open. But we like what we have. We like our configuration, it kind of fits us perfectly.”

It does. And that brings us to the Sun Belt’s short-term goal, one that is as simple as it is noble. Play good football and do it in meaningful, regional, passionate rivalry games the people who wear the colors of its schools want to see. Perhaps the rest of the sports world will catch a whiff of that energy, decide to tune in and find themselves becoming #FunBelt devotees.

In other words, college sports the way it’s supposed to be.

“We are just trying to make sure that people know that we’re here and that people will appreciate the level and quality of football that we play,” Gill says. “I think people think if you’re not in an A5 league, you’re not playing quality football, you’re not trying as hard, those kinds of things. And that’s just the furthest thing from the truth. We’ve got a great product, something that’s really exciting for folks to watch.

“Proximity creates value, in the sense of, if we have more people at our games, there’s more energy. It’s good TV. It’s good football.”

Sourced from ESPN

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