Conference Realignment Makes Its Way to the Sun Belt
Over the past year, Middle Tennessee has been linked to the Conference-USA, Mid-American
Conference and Western Athletic Conference, but it appears, for now, that the Blue Raiders are
staying put in their Sun Belt Conference home.
However, the conference that takes the fields, courts and tracks over the next two years will be a
far cry from what MT faced last season.
Gone are North Texas, Florida International and Denver, three opponents the Blue Raiders have
faced every season since being admitted to the conference in 2001.
North Texas and FIU, the two largest current Sun Belt schools in terms of enrollment, have
accepted invitations to join the C-USA beginning on July 1, 2013.
North Texas leaves the Sun Belt after 11 seasons as a full member. The Mean Green finished
third this season in the Vic Bubas Cup standings, given annually to the all-sports champion of
the Sun Belt.
FIU ends its tenure in the conference after 14 years of full membership. The Golden Panthers
boast an enrollment of over 47,000 on its Miami, Fla., campus, leading second place North Texas
by more than 10,000 students.
Denver will leave the Sun Belt after 13 years as a non-football members to join the WAC this
July. The Pioneers are the only private school of the conference’s twelve members. They report
its second smallest enrollment at just over 11,000 students and competed in only 10 of the 19
Sun Belt sports in 2011-2012.
The Sun Belt needed to reload quickly if it was to remain a viable conference in a football
college sports landscape. It has looked to the Football Championship Subdivision to replace its
departed members and will add two full and one non-football member by July 1, 2013 to help
stabilize the conference.
A familiar name will be the first team added to help recapture the markets lost in realignment.
Georgia State will be joining the Sun Belt for the second time in the program’s 99-year history.
The Panthers were a charter member of the conference when it was founded in 1976. However,
the school left in 1981 and have called the FCS’ Colonial Athletic Association since 2005 where
they won four conference championships in their first three seasons.
Georgia State is located in Atlanta, Ga., and has a higher enrollment than any current conference
member at around 32,000. It competes in 18 sports with a 19th to be added in 2013.
A pair of Texas schools will be the other new members joining the conference, although each
have a pit-stop to make along the way.
Texas State and the University of Texas at Arlington will make the jump from the Southland
conference on July 1, 2012, but will be honoring an agreement to initially join the WAC before
moving to the Sun Belt in 2013.
The Bobcats of Texas State will most likely be the largest university upon arrival in the Sun Belt
with over 34,000 students at their campus in San Marcos, Texas. They will join as a full member
and have already began measures to improve athletic facilities, including doubling the capacity
of their football stadium.
The Mavericks of UT-Arlington have over 33,000 students and will join as a non-football
member in 2013. The school’s basketball team won the regular season Southland championship
in basketball with a 15-1 record in 2012. Their athletic program currently fields 14 sports.
In addition, South Alabama will begin competing in football this season in 2012. The conference
now has 10 members in football for the first time since it added the sport in 2001.
Top Sun Belt leadership say they are excited about the new look of the conference and believe
that the move will help improve the conference both on the field and in the classroom.
“The Sun Belt Conference has never been stronger athletically, academically or financially,” Sun
Belt President Dr. Jack Hawkins Jr. said. “Our goal is to add value to our conference by inviting
universities with strong academic and athletic programs that fit our profile and our geographic
Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson agreed with Hawkins, saying the new additions to the
conference can only be beneficial.
“We feel like, with the addition of Texas-Arlington, Georgia State and Texas State, the Sun Belt
Conference is a stronger league than it was 60 days ago,” Benson said at the Sun Belt’s annual
The new commissioner added that the conference was exploring its options, but is not actively
pursuing further conference expansion for the time being.
Benson’s statements come just days after rumors tied New Mexico State and Idaho to the Sun
Belt possibly seeking to move to a 12-team football conference with a possible championship
The origins of this new era of conference uncertainty can be traced back to early June 2010 when
Nebraska and the Big 10 Conference made an announcement which rocked the landscape of
college athletics and conventional conference affiliations.
The Cornhuskers of the Big 12 Conference officially accepted an invitation to join the Big 10 in
all sports, becoming the first member of a major conference to switch allegiances since Big East
members Virginia Tech and Miami bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2003.
No fewer than 30 teams have made conference moves over the last 23 months, with some doing
so on more than occasion. All but one of the 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences have
formally made moves to add new programs to their haul.