LAFAYETTE — The Sun Belt Conference officially announced Wednesday that it unanimously approved a football conference championship game in 2018, making it the last of 10 FBS conferences to have one.
While the impending announcement of a title game was known, thanks to that information being leaked to ESPN on Tuesday night, Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson cleared up some of the other questions that go along with the announcement: where will the game be played, why is it being played in 2018 instead of earlier and, to a lesser extent, what sort of path will teams have to take to get there?
For the foreseeable future, Benson said the title game will be played at an on-campus site. Of the eight current conference championship games, five take place at neutral sites, and three — the AAC, Conference USA and Mountain West — take place on campus.
“We believe that, first of all, we’re in a great location of the country in terms of college football,” Benson said. “We have great fan bases. We have some great facilities within the Sun Belt that we think could and would showcase Sun Belt football. In the early stages, the route we will take will be on one of our campuses.”
After the NCAA deregulated conference championship games in January, making it possible for a league to stage one without the previously required 12 member schools, the Sun Belt could’ve held a title game as early as this season.
But Coastal Carolina will not join the league’s ranks until the 2017 season, which will also be the final year in the Sun Belt for football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State. Since Coastal Carolina will be ineligible for postseason play in 2017 as it transitions from the FCS, Benson said 2018 served as a sort of clean slate for the conference.
“The fall of 2018 really is the new era for Sun Belt football,” Benson said.
The only thing Benson didn’t really have an answer to was the actual structure of the league, which has an effect on the schedule.
It’s possible the Sun Belt remains in its current undivided state, with one 10-team league. If that were to happen, Benson said, it would force SBC teams to play a full round-robin schedule against all nine conference opponents. Currently, the SBC plays an eight-game schedule.
The league could also split into two five-team divisions, which Benson said would likely be split into an eastern division and a western division. Under this scenario, and eight-game conference schedule is still possible, allowing teams to schedule four nonconference games.
Benson said the conference was still undecided on this topic, and he can see the benefits to both approaches as it relates to a conference title game.
“Conference championship games have now been in place for 20-something years,” Benson said. “Sometimes they get those two best teams in a classic matchup, and sometimes it’s a 10-2 team against a 7-5 team.
“I don’t think there’s one that plays out more often than not. Obviously you want those two teams that have great records and good rankings to be put center stage.”