LAFAYETTE — How many bowl games is enough for the Sun Belt Conference?
The league has doubled its bowl tie-ins in the past two years — going from two to four — and that could have been higher had proposed games in Austin, Texas, and/or Little Rock, Arkansas, come together.
But even with this year’s addition of the Cure Bowl in Orlando, Florida, giving the league a fourth postseason destination, Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson wants more.
“Is four the right number?” he said. “Ask our coaches, and they’ll tell you the answer is no. We had some serious discussions, and we really thought we were going to get to number five, but unfortunately it didn’t materialize.”
The league added a spot in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, last year; South Alabama made its bowl debut in a 33-28 loss to Bowling Green.
That game was added to a lineup that included the New Orleans Bowl (where Louisiana-Lafayette became the first team to win the same bowl four straight years) and the GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, where Arkansas State has also been a four-year fixture.
But Texas State was bowl-eligible for the second straight year and stayed at home, and the league’s four bowl-eligible teams would have jumped to six had Georgia Southern and Appalachian State not been ineligible in a final transition year from the FCS. The league actually had seven bowl-eligible teams in 2013, with four sitting at home.
Even for the league’s bowl veterans — and for a Ragin’ Cajuns team that has helped draw more than 180,000 fans to the New Orleans Bowl the past four years — a 6-6 season doesn’t guarantee a bowl trip.
Texas State was banking on the new Austin bowl. The Bobcats were the only 7-5 team that didn’t go bowling last winter, in part because of geography. South Alabama, located within a 21/2-hour drive of all three of the league’s bowl games, leapfrogged TSU into a bowl bid despite going 6-6.
“Our players were certainly disappointed,” coach Dennis Franchione said. “We probably have a bit of a chip on our shoulder about this. They should have one. I certainly do. We have to find a way to get that done. But (the players) have to channel it the right way. It can’t be an anger chip. It has to be a respect chip. You can’t get too caught up in emotions.”
Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth, who has known nothing but bowl invites and bowl success every year since taking over in 2011, knows how fortunate his program is.
“We love coming to the Dome a lot,” Hudspeth said. “The people with the bowl and our fans have made it pretty special, and we’ve been able to reward them with something that nobody’s ever done.”
The Sun Belt could claim another bowl slot should one of its teams wind up as the top-ranked squad among the “Group of Five” conferences, which this year would mean a trip to either the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl as part of the College Football Playoff. Benson said that prospect isn’t as far-fetched as some may think.
“We have teams that, if the stars are aligned, they could be a 12-0 team,” he said. “We know that, under the new CFP model, if they do that, they will likely be in one of those games. It’s not a matter of if; it’s when the Sun Belt team becomes that highest-rated champion and plays on New Year’s Day.”
There’s also a dollar reward for that kind of success, both in bowls and in the regular season. The Sun Belt’s share of the CFP payout grows depending on combined won-loss records against peer leagues. The Sun Belt took in just under $12 million in CFP payout after finishing fifth among the “Group of Five” leagues; the Mountain West earned nearly $23.5 million for ranking first.
That’s why Benson has lobbied his athletic directors and coaches to get away from guarantee games against “Power Five” conferences and schedule more games with their peer leagues: the Mountain West, American Athletic, Mid-American and Conference USA. This season, Sun Belt teams will play 19 games against the “Power Five” and 16 against the “Group of Five.”
“Those 16 games are very, very meaningful,” Benson said. “As nice as it is and as great as it is to win a game against the ‘Big Five,’ in the system we have, the competition against our peer conferences is so important. We have some home games against the ‘Power Five,’ which is great, but we’ve got to create a scheduling structure that will be beneficial for the Sun Belt in the future.”