One of the buzz topics at Monday’s Sun Belt Conference Media Day was the team that wasn’t there and when it would arrive.
The question of when — or whether — the SBC would add a 12th football-playing member is more complex than one would think when considering the question at face value.
Commissioner Karl Benson has long been a proponent of a 12-team divisional SBC. But at this point, his thought process is being driven less by football than by the other sports despite the fact that he presides over one of just two conferences without a conference championship game.
And as hard as it is to think against the grain of most of the rest of the college football world, he’s perfectly in line to think that way.
For one, the entire point might be moot by next year’s media day.
There is growing belief the NCAA will vote later this year to remove the rule that requires 12 teams to play a conference championship game.
If that’s the case, a 12-team league simply would serve to make the league symmetrical with two six-team divisions. While that would be nice, it also would create another mouth to feed when the conference shares the wealth from television contracts.
There’s also the matter of finding the right fit.
Any prospective team must be capable of being a full-fledged member (more on that later) and must fall within the conference’s footprint. That narrows the list considerably. The SBC already has moved on from considering James Madison and Liberty and is considering a list of other schools now.
“If there had been another Georgia Southern or Appalachian State out there, we probably would’ve already made that decision a year ago or two years ago,” Benson said. “Is there a team out there that has the potential to get there? That’s hard to predict. We may end up not doing anything.”
But the odds that the league will end up not doing anything are slim, because the decision isn’t simply driven by football.
“We want 12 teams, no ifs, ands or buts — in basketball,” UL-Lafayette Athletic Director Scott Farmer said.
If the decision to get to 12 teams to facilitate a football conference championship game is made moot by an NCAA rule change, it is still made relevant by the horrid schedule the basketball teams had to follow last year — and will follow again.
With an 11-team league, each team was forced to play 20 games — two each against the other 10 schools in the SBC. That forced teams like the Cajuns to play four games in a seven-day stretch, a scheduling quirk that coach Bob Marlin constantly bemoaned.
Add another team, creating eastern and western divisions, and that schedule goes to a more manageable 16 games — two games each against inter-division opponents, one against cross-division opponents. An additional school, for purposes outside of football, is a no-brainer.
But back to football: Would the SBC even play a conference championship game if it had the option? Surprisingly enough, that wasn’t clear after Monday.
Surely a team like the Cajuns, who would’ve qualified for a championship game each of the past three years, would welcome the addition of a conference championship game.
Then again, maybe they wouldn’t. It’s not hard to see a conference championship game bringing more harm than good to a team like the Cajuns.
“It would have to be a televised, prime-time spot, to me, to be worth it. Is it going to be financially positive for the conference and the schools involved?” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “If so, I think it would be a great move … to get that so we can crown a true champion and create one more week of buzz about the Sun Belt Conference.
“If a team is undefeated and they lose in the conference championship game, could that knock them out of a possible New Year’s Day bowl game? We’ve got to weigh all those things out as athletic directors and as football coaches to see what the best move is.”
It’s all a giant muddled picture, but one thing was clear Monday: The SBC is going to think this thing all the way through before it arrives at a decision.