LAFAYETTE — And then there were 10 ... or at least there will be in a few years.
The Sun Belt Conference announced Tuesday that it will move to a 10-team format for the 2018 football season. It will not renew the contracts of football-only members New Mexico State and Idaho when they expire following the 2017 season.
How that affects the conference from several standpoints — the appearance of future schedules, and the possibility of divisions and a conference championship game among them — remains to be determined.
The decision not to keep New Mexico State and Idaho as football-only members was based on several factors, including on-field performance, finance and eliminating lengthy travel to the conference’s most remote outposts, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said.
Benson said he hopes a 10-team league also will squeeze the conference’s on-field potential, particularly with regards to end-of-the-season rankings among peer conferences.
“At the end of the day, this is a Sun Belt decision that is in the Sun Belt’s best interest in the belief that, at this time, a 10-team league allows the Sun Belt to ... maximize our future performance,” Benson said.
Benson said the NCAA’s decision in January to remove the requirement for a conference to have 12 teams to hold a conference championship game played a “major factor” in Tuesday’s announcement.
Before Western Kentucky decided to leave the conference, the Sun Belt would have met the 12-team requirement after the additions of Idaho and New Mexico State. Now that that rule has been changed, the SBC could hold a championship game as early as 2017.
“The January decision that no longer required 12, it did generate some additional conversation and dialogue and analysis,” Benson said.
Benson said the conference has not decided whether to hold a title game. He anticipates discussing the benefits and drawbacks with the league’s football coaches and athletic directors this spring.
“The one thing that I think is important is there will be three new football coaches around the table for the first time this spring — four when you count Coastal Carolina,” Benson said. “So we want to start from scratch.”
The Sun Belt is one of two Football Bowl Subdivision conferences without a conference title game, the other being the Big 12. Texas State President (and president of the Sun Belt executive committee) Denise Trauth said the league likely will make a decision on a title game next fall.
The league also must figure out whether it wants to split into two five-team divisions — likely east and west — and how it wants to construct its schedule in a 10-team league. The new NCAA policy on conference title games provides two options, Benson said.
“One is to play a full round-robin schedule, and in the case of the Sun Belt with 10 teams, that would mean that we would play a nine-game conference schedule with a champion being established with the two top teams from the (conference),” Benson said. “Or, to split the conference into two five-team divisions and either play eight or nine conference games.”
Benson said if the conference decides to hold a conference title game, it’s likely the first one would be in 2018 “and it would be on campus at either one of the divisional champions or the No. 1 champion of the league if we went the round-robin route,” he said.
The decision not to renew the contracts of Idaho and New Mexico State also was made with the coffers of the member institutions in mind. Before those teams joined the league in 2014, conferences were planning to receive $1 million in College Football Playoff revenue per school. But shortly after their addition, that was changed to a $10 million flat rate per conference. By changing to a 10-team league, each school will receive an additional $166,666 when the conference shares its CFP revenue.
The futures of New Mexico State and Idaho beyond the 2017 season are unclear.
In a statement, Idaho President Chuck Staben said the school likely would decide whether to continue as an independent or accept an invitation to join the Big Sky Conference, which is part of the Football Championship Subdivision, in 2018.
Earlier this week, New Mexico State President Garrey Carruthers said playing as an FCS program as soon as 2018 would be seriously considered.
“I think it has to be one of the options,” he said.
Idaho is 5-18 overall and 4-12 in conference play during its two years in the Sun Belt. New Mexico State can boast records of 5-19 and 4-12.
Conference schedule coming soon
The only thing SBC teams know about their 2016 conference schedule is who they are going to play. Later this week, they should know when they will play those opponents.
“We expect to release that within the next 48 hours,” Benson said Tuesday. “We’ve been working in close concert with ESPN to finalize the ESPN schedule of games, and we’re closing in on that. We do expect an announcement on Thursday.”