NEW ORLEANS – If it wasn’t already obvious that the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division would be a torrid battle during the 2022 football season, the league’s East Division head coaches unanimously confirmed that on Tuesday.
They also welcomed four new Sun Belt members—James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss—into a league that by the numbers ranks among the nation’s leaders in recent football success.
“Welcome to the best non-autonomy conference in the country,” said App State head coach Shawn Clark, who fittingly opened Tuesday’s Sun Belt Football Media Days activities as the East Division’s defending champion and the consensus favorite to win the gauntlet that is expected to be the race for this year’s East Division title.
“This is by far the most challenging season that we’ve faced since we moved into FBS football,” said Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell, whose team has gone 22-3 over the past two seasons and is picked to finish second in the East. “But this is the season that our coaches have looked most forward to because of the challenges that are going to make this conference the best conference in the G-5 (Group of Five).”
Even Commissioner Keith Gill got into the act, citing a report fitting for Media Days and referencing the league’s newly-announced media rights deal with ESPN.
“ESPN’s Bill Connelly called the Sun Belt East Division the best non-autonomy division in FBS football,” Gill said during his ‘State of the Conference’ message that kicked off two days of media activities. “Now, this year, the best non-autonomy FBS conference just got better.”
The Sun Belt officially grew from 10 to 14 football-playing members on July 1, with the four new members beginning football competition in just over five weeks. In fact, one of those new members—Old Dominion—has the honor of kicking off the league’s season on Friday, Sept. 2, in hosting in-state rival Virginia Tech.
Three of the four newcomers are in the East Division (Southern Miss is in the West Division and will be part of Wednesday’s second and final day of Media Days activities when that division is in the spotlight), and will leap into a division where last year’s top three finishers compiled records of 29-12 overall and 19-5 in league play.
Gill, now in his fourth year as commissioner, pointed out that since the inception of the College Football Playoff (CFP) in 2014, the Sun Belt leads all FBS leagues with a .649 bowl winning percentage and had an even better bowl mark last year (3-1), when each of the four teams scored 36-or-more points in bowl games. Also, over the last two seasons, the Sun Belt has the most non-autonomy FBS teams in the top 15 of FBS winning percentage and had three teams—Louisiana, App State and Coastal Carolina—combine for 64 wins and an average winning percentage of .850.
“When the realignment train started moving in the summer of 2021,” Gill said, “the CEO’s and AD’s of the Sun Belt charted a course that transformed the conference for the better. Each and every member affirmed their commitment to the Sun Belt Conference, and then the decision was then made to consider new members that would substantially improve the Sun Belt … like-minded institutions that are committed to academic success and competitive excellence in all sports.”
“It was also decided that any new additions would have to enhance our geographic footprint, grow regional rivalries, have passionate fan bases and winning football traditions. We found four new members that check all those boxes,” said Gill.
The three new East Division members had a combined 25-15 record and went 17-7 in 2021 as part of their former conference homes.
“The East Division was very good,” said Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott, whose team rebounded from a 1-4 start to win seven of its last eight, including a 51-20 thumping of Ball State in the Camellia Bowl. “Now it’s even better.”
Talk of success wasn’t limited to football. Gill announced on Tuesday an expanded deal with ESPN that continues to run through the 2030-31 season but provides the Sun Belt with additional financial resources, exposure and linear opportunities in football and basketball. The agreement expands on the extended ESPN relationship announced last year that includes a more than 50 percent increase in football games on linear networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU) and a minimum of 40 percent of those games falling on football Saturdays.
The new agreement includes more than 6,000 additional live events available on ESPN+, with an emphasis on baseball, softball, women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer. Over 1,000 games in both baseball and softball will be added, along with the use of instant replay for the 2023 season in both sports, and the league plans to decrease overlaps of baseball and softball conference home weekends in future seasons to enhance ESPN+ coverage.
Gill also said Tuesday that the league is in discussions to add a sixth bowl tie-in to its current bowl agreements with the Duluth Trading Cure Bowl (Dec. 16), the LendingTree Bowl (Dec. 17), the Myrtle Beach Bowl (Dec. 19), the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 21) and the Camellia Bowl (Dec. 27). He said an announcement should come in the near future.
“Hate is good…”
Old Dominion head coach Ricky Rahne said that his Monarch team becomes the first in the history of the state of Virginia to play all of the state’s other four FBS member institutions—Virginia Tech (Blacksburg) at home on Sept. 2, at Virginia (Charlottesville) on Sept. 17, Liberty (Lynchburg) on Oct 1 and fellow new Sun Belt member James Madison (Harrisonburg) on Nov. 12.
He’s probably correct, since JMU is making the jump to the FBS this season in joining the Sun Belt, but Rahne also made the point that in addition to the new league schedule, it’s important to play in-state rivalries.
“I know I’m not supposed to use this word, but in college football, hate is good,” he said. “Hate is passion, indifference is terrible. It’s something that’s going to be great for the commonwealth of Virginia, we’re going to be able to showcase Virginia football on a national level and it’s going to be a great deal.
“When you get to play two ACC opponents in the state, and being able to play for, like someone said, be able to play for a state championship, I think it’s great because it shows our commitment to what college football should be, regional powers playing each other and letting our fans experience that.”
“Seven minutes from my house …”
New Georgia Southern head coach Clay Helton was asked about the difference in traffic at his current post as boss of the Eagles, and his previous position as head coach at USC from 2015-21.
“I tell Jared (Eagles athletic director Jared Benko) I feel like I’m getting paid a million dollars every day that I wake up. It took me anywhere from 47 minutes to an hour because of the L.A. traffic to get in,” Helton said, “and I slept at the office Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights during the season. I’m currently seven minutes from my house, about a half a cup of coffee.”
“I don’t know if you can put a price on being able to do that every day. It makes for a happier coach.”
“A quarterback and THE quarterback …”
Marshall’s Thundering Herd—which made its second New Orleans appearance in seven months at Media Days after participating in last December’s New Orleans Bowl—had major questions at the quarterback position entering spring practice. Only one player, redshirt freshman Cam Fancher, had ever taken a snap in a Herd uniform, and Fancher only threw six passes last season.
Marshall and second-year head coach Charles Huff got a big boost from incoming Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi, who threw for almost 1,300 yards and five scores for the Red Raiders in 2021.
“Cam got all the reps in the spring, and he was able to show us and his teammates what he was able to do and built a lot of confidence,” Huff said. “Henry coming in as a veteran at the quarterback position, it’s the most important position in all of sports. If you’ve got one you got a chance, if you don’t it’s going to be very difficult.
“Henry has become the quarterback on the team. There’s a difference between being a quarterback on the team and being THE quarterback on the team. A quarterback, you’re sitting in the quarterback room and you go in when your number’s called. The quarterback on the team is the leader, the organizer for seven-on-seven in the summer, he has the confidence of the unit, he can confront his teammates when there’s issues. That’s what Henry has done for us.”
“Losing ain’t fun … winning is”
Even though Coastal Carolina senior nose tackle Jerrod Clark redshirted in 2018 and then missed the 2019 season with an injury, he remembers the Chanticleers’ two losing seasons those years. That’s why he doesn’t take the runaway success of the last two years—11-1 in 2020 and 11-2 last season—for granted.
“Back in 2017 when we first came into the FBS, it was hard for us,” Clark said, including CCU’s 3-9 record in its move-up year. “At some point, you get tired of losing. Losing ain’t fun … winning is. We kind of did a 360 as a team, we got one goal and one focus. We’ve got to keep climbing and that’s what we do, climb the whole season. You can’t win the season in September. That’s why we’ve lost three games in two years by a total of eight points.”
“The toothpaste is out of the tube …”
James Madison’s Curt Cignetti, a 40-year coaching veteran, was one of several coaches asked Tuesday whether the transfer portal will help or hurt his program going forward.
“Now you’re dealing with the transfer portal, and people are coming in and offering your guys deals and they’re not even in the portal,” Cignetti said. “I lost my best receiver at the end of the season, I lost a guy to Texas after May 1. Every coach in America will tell you the roster management part of it is difficult, but it is what it is.
“Like what was said at SEC Media Days, the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s not going back in. We all have to adjust, improvise and do the best job we can in today’s landscape to be successful.”