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Teel: Sun Belt membership likely to elevate JMU, ODU, especially in football
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Teel: Sun Belt membership likely to elevate JMU, ODU, especially in football

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James Madison Old Dominion Football

Old Dominion receiver Larry Pinkard (center) made a catch between a pair of James Madison defenders in a 2011 matchup. The former CAA rivals soon will be reunited in the Sun Belt Conference.

When last seen in Virginia, the Sun Belt Conference was a tidy, eight-team basketball league that included VCU and Old Dominion. Thirty years later, the Sun Belt is poised to add James Madison, reunite with ODU and become a formidable collection of 14 football programs.

Expected to be finalized within two weeks, the transactions should elevate the Dukes, Monarchs and their new conference home.

Most realignment decisions are football-driven, and these were no different.

By adding JMU, ODU, Marshall and Southern Mississippi, the Sun Belt will be positioned to supplant the American Athletic as the Group of Five’s best football conference. That status matters.

Since the College Football Playoff’s advent, the highest-rated champion from the Group of Five (Sun Belt, Mid-American, Mountain West, Conference USA and American) has been guaranteed a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. Five times in those seven seasons, that champion has hailed from the AAC.

But four of the AAC’s five New Year’s Six appearances in the playoff era have been earned by Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati, schools that are leaving the conference for the Big 12.

That creates a large opportunity for the Sun Belt, which last season had Louisiana and Coastal Carolina finish among The Associated Press Top 25. That opportunity mushrooms to enormous if the CFP triples its field from four to 12 teams, a model that assures at least one Group of Five champion a bid to the playoff, heretofore the Power Five’s sole domain.

As Conference USA members, ODU, Marshall and Southern Miss are accustomed to Group of Five life. But joining the Sun Belt, likely starting in 2023-24, will put them in far better football company.

Sun Belt teams are 18-8 in bowls since 2015, their .692 winning percentage the highest of any conference.

Meanwhile, the only C-USA team ever to crack the CFP selection committee’s top 25 — there have been 42 such rankings — was Marshall, for one week in 2014 at No. 24.

JMU’s transition will be the most challenging.

The Dukes won the 2004 and ’16 Championship Subdivision national title, and Saturday’s victory at Delaware enhanced their case for an eighth consecutive playoff bid. In short, life in the FCS and Colonial Athletic Association is good.

But unbroken success and upgraded infrastructure have long prompted the question: Should JMU follow the path of ODU and Liberty and elevate from the FCS to the Bowl Subdivision?

The commitment includes funding additional football scholarships — the FBS limit is 85, the FCS 63 — and wisely, university leaders such as veteran athletics director Jeff Bourne have been deliberate. Another component is the Virginia law that requires state FBS universities to be less dependent than FCS schools on student athletics fees.

But with the College Football Playoff likely to expand, and with the upwardly mobile Sun Belt offering geographically sensible East Division rivalries with ODU, Marshall, Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Georgia State, this is an opportune moment.

That new Sun Belt East will include four programs with 13 combined FCS national titles: Georgia Southern six, App State three, JMU and Marshall two apiece. And let’s not forget Coastal Carolina baseball’s 2016 College World Series championship, an improbable run that JMU softball nearly matched last spring, and Marshall's 2020-21 men's soccer NCAA title.

The Sun Belt West also has a former FCS national football champ, Louisiana Monroe, baseball powers Louisiana and South Alabama, plus Troy, Arkansas State and Texas State. Southern Miss, another baseball stalwart, will join this half of the league.

Growing from 10 to 14 full-time members will bring considerable change to the Sun Belt as well.

The larger the conference, the more complex the scheduling, quite the contrast from the more compact Sun Belt of the 1980s and early ‘90s.

With a membership ranging from 6-8 teams, the league could comfortably play a traditional double round-robin in basketball, a model that fueled the rivalry between VCU and ODU — the Rams defeated the Monarchs in the 1985 Sun Belt tournament final at Hampton Coliseum.

VCU left the Sun Belt for the Metro in 1991, the same year ODU exited to the Colonial.

Basketball life in the expanded Sun Belt won’t be much different from what ODU, Marshall and Southern Miss encounter in Conference USA, or what JMU faces in the CAA. None of those leagues has received an at-large bid to any of the last six NCAA tournaments, and their average rankings at during that time are comparable

C-USA’s is 15.9 among the 32 Division I conferences, with the Colonial at 16.3 and the Sun Belt at 16.9. Translation: They’re middle of the pack.

By now you may be wondering the fate of Liberty, a football independent that otherwise competes in the Atlantic Sun. The Flames covet a stable football home, and C-USA tried to add Liberty and JMU while retaining ODU and Marshall.

But with a superior television package and more stable membership, the Sun Belt outmaneuvered C-USA, which is also losing six schools to the American. Liberty football is 24-8 the last two-plus seasons, defeated Coastal Carolina in last year’s Cure Bowl and is likely to remain independent.

“This model has worked well for Notre Dame,” Liberty athletics director Ian McCaw told the Lynchburg News & Advance’s Damien Sordelett on Saturday. “It’s worked well for BYU, it’s worked well for Army, and obviously we’re off to a great start in our first three years.”

But playoff and New Year’s Six bowl access is far more difficult for an independent, access JMU and ODU will relish in the Sun Belt.

Twitter: @ByDavidTeel


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