League be­lieves it can win more

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BROOKS KUBENA

NEW OR­LEANS — Com­mis­sioner Karl Ben­son leaned into the podium mi­cro­phone at Mon­day’s me­dia day in­side the Mercedes-Benz Su­per­dome and de­clared the Sun Belt was “no longer a younger brother” among NCAA foot­ball con­fer­ences.

He spoke of the 2012 off­sea­son, when na­tion­wide con­fer­ence re­align­ment led to five teams leav­ing the Sun Belt for “greener pas­tures” in Con­fer­ence USA. The Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries rank­ing sys­tem was still in place, and Con­fer­ence USA held higher pres­tige than the Sun Belt.

But upon the 2014 in­sti­tu­tion of the more sub­jec­tive Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off sys­tem, the two con­fer­ences were pooled to­gether with three oth­ers in a sec­ond-tier Group of 5 that fought for one spot out of col­lege foot­ball’s top six bowl games.

The high­est ranked Group of 5 con­fer­ence cham­pion would earn that spot, along with pres­tige and a sig­nif­i­cantly higher share of NCAA post­sea­son rev­enue.

Ben­son an­nounced Mon­day that the Sun Belt has re­fo­cused its pri­or­i­ties to­ward earn­ing that spot by sched­ul­ing games in a way that gives its teams the high­est chance of be­ing the top-ranked cham­pion. That in­cludes keep­ing the con­fer­ence sched­ule at eight games so there is more room for non­con­fer­ence games, and sched­ul­ing those non­con­fer­ence games for

com­pet­i­tive pur­poses in­stead of gains in rev­enue.

The Sun Belt has not pro­duced the top-ranked cham­pion in the three-year his­tory of the CFP.

Arkansas State Univer­sity has been the Sun Belt’s cham­pion in 5 of the past 6 sea­sons, but in each of those sea­sons, the Red Wolves did not fin­ish the sea­son ranked in the Top 25.

Such a sea­son would re­quire a vic­tory against a ma­jor non­con­fer­ence op­po­nent, which ASU has not done since it beat Texas A&M 18-14 in 2008.

“We truly want to bring that sig­na­ture vic­tory, that sig­na­ture sea­son to Jones­boro,” ASU Coach Blake An­der­son said. “We love win­ning con­fer­ence ti­tles, and we want to con­tinue to do that. But we want to take that next step.”

GROUP OF 5 HI­ER­AR­CHY

The Group of 5 is made up by the Amer­i­can Ath­letic, C-USA, Mid-Amer­i­can, Moun­tain West and Sun Belt con­fer­ences.

Since 2014, the Amer­i­can Ath­letic, Mid-Amer­i­can and Moun­tain West con­fer­ences have sent rep­re­sen­ta­tives to one of col­lege foot­ball’s top six bowls, nick­named the “New Year’s Six.” The Moun­tain West’s Boise State beat Ari­zona 38-30 in the 2014 Fi­esta Bowl, the Amer­i­can Ath­letic’s Hous­ton beat Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl and the MAC’s West­ern Michi­gan lost 24-16 to Wis­con­sin in last year’s Cot­ton Bowl.

Boise State and Hous­ton had es­tab­lished his­to­ries of suc­cess and be­longed to con­fer­ences that had teams that were ranked in the na­tion’s Top 25. West­ern Michi­gan’s MAC held less pres­tige, but the Bron­cos ben­e­fited from fin­ish­ing the sea­son un­de­feated with vic­to­ries over two schools that be­longed to the Big Ten, which is a mem­ber of the Power 5 con­fer­ences that re­ceive au­to­matic bids to the New Year’s Six bowls.

“You’ve got to cer­tainly have some Power 5 wins in there,” said Ge­or­gia South­ern Coach Tyson Sum­mers, who was the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor of the Amer­i­can Ath­letic’s Cen­tral Florida when it beat Bay­lor in the 2013 Cot­ton Bowl. “You’ve got to have a year that gives you the op­por­tu­nity to do that.”

Sun Belt teams have been reg­u­larly com­pet­ing against Power 5 teams be­cause it was an­other way to earn rev­enue. In 2016, the C-USA’s West­ern Ken­tucky earned $1.3 mil­lion to visit Alabama, and in­de­pen­dent Mas­sachusetts earned $1.25 mil­lion by vis­it­ing Florida. Ben­son said that five years ago, it was com­mon for Sun Belt teams to be sched­ul­ing up to three Power 5 teams, which sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced its teams’ chances of fin­ish­ing the sea­son with an im­pres­sive win­ning per­cent­age.

In­stead of sched­ul­ing mul­ti­ple games against Power 5 schools, Ben­son said the con­fer­ence now ex­pects its teams to sched­ule one game against a Power 5 team, two games against Group of 5 teams and one game against a team in the lower-level Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion, which com­petes in a sep­a­rate post­sea­son.

By fo­cus­ing on Group of 5 games in the non­con­fer­ence sched­ule, the Sun Belt can have the op­por­tu­nity to dis­tin­guish it­self be­fore the CFP vot­ing com­mit­tee — like when the Sun Belt’s Troy plays Boise State on Sept. 2.

“Those are the games that our con­fer­ence has to start win­ning to im­prove our rank­ings in the Group of 5 leagues,” said Troy Coach Neal Brown.

Al­though the schools would lose out on money they would earn from Power 5 matchups, the schools could make up for that money if a Sun Belt team reaches a New Year’s Six bowl. The 2017 CFP rev­enue was split among the Group of 5 con­fer­ences by how well the con­fer­ences fared dur­ing the sea­son.

Since West­ern Michi­gan reached the Cot­ton Bowl, the MAC re­ceived a first-place $21,522,280 share. The Sun Belt fin­ished fourth, which was a $17,115,246 share.

Essen­tially, the Sun Belt is gam­bling on it­self to earn a higher share of post­sea­son rev­enue.

“It gives them the op­por­tu­nity to com­pete, to try and stand out with their peer con­fer­ences,” said Michael Kelly, the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the CFP. “Find­ing a dis­tin­guish­ing fac­tor against the rest of the Group of 5 seems to be im­por­tant to them, and that ra­tio­nale makes sense to me.”

DOWN TO 10

The NCAA rul­ing in Jan­uary of 2016 that con­fer­ences with fewer than 12 teams can host con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship games has en­abled the Sun Belt to bol­ster its non­con­fer­ence games while also hav­ing a high-pro­file game to end the sea­son.

By May 2016, the Sun Belt an­nounced that Idaho and New Mex­ico State would leave the con­fer­ence af­ter the 2017 sea­son, which gives the con­fer­ence 10 teams. In June 2016, the Sun Belt an­nounced it would split into two di­vi­sions for the 2018 sea­son, and its lead­ers would play for a con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship.

This sea­son, the 10-team Big 12 Con­fer­ence will also host a cham­pi­onship game. But its teams will all play one an­other as part of a nine-game con­fer­ence sched­ule. The Sun Belt will play only eight, which al­lows its schools to sched­ule one more non­con­fer­ence game.

The for­mat leaves open the pos­si­bil­ity of a Sun Belt team los­ing in the cham­pi­onship to a team it al­ready has beaten, knock­ing them out of con­tention for the Group of 5 top spot. But un­like a reg­u­lar-sea­son game, the cham­pi­onship game is guar­an­teed to be against a qual­ity op­po­nent.

“Would you rather play a cham­pi­onship game or maybe a team that goes 1-10 be­cause they’re the ninth game in your con­fer­ence?” said Bob White­house, vice pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions of the Fi­esta Bowl. “Which is go­ing to help you more in your rank­ing?”

This sea­son, the Sun Belt will be the only FBS con­fer­ence with­out a cham­pi­onship game, which presents a dif­fi­cult ob­sta­cle for its teams that are try­ing to out­rank the Group of 5 con­fer­ence cham­pi­ons.

In order to sur­pass other con­fer­ences, the Sun Belt cham­pion likely will have to be un­de­feated, and that puts more em­pha­sis on the Power 5 non­con­fer­ence games on its sched­ule.

Ap­palachian State will play Ge­or­gia on Sept. 2 and Wake For­est on Sept. 23; Troy, in ad­di­tion to Boise State, will play at LSU on Sept. 30; and Arkansas State Univer­sity will play at Ne­braska on Sept. 2 and host Mi­ami on Sept. 9.

“The NFL plays play­offs at the end of the sea­son, and it’s al­most like we al­most play them at the be­gin­ning,” ASU’s An­der­son said. “Those games re­ally mat­ter, be­cause … with­out play­ing 3-1, 4-0 in non­con­fer­ence, you don’t have that op­por­tu­nity at the end of the year to be ranked high enough to be in that con­ver­sa­tion.”

To no longer be the NCAA’s lit­tle brother af­ter this sea­son, an un­likely run must be made.

“That’s been our goal,” ASU Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Terry Mo­ha­jir said. “Ev­ery­thing that we’re do­ing. Our brand­ing. Our in­vest­ment in the coaches, stu­dents. It’s all about reach­ing the New Year’s Six bowl. We will be there. The only vari­able is time.”

Sun Belt Con­fer­ence/DERICK HINGLE

Arkansas State Coach Blake An­der­son said it’s im­por­tant for Group of 5 schools like ASU to win non­con­fer­ence games against Power 5 schools to make them vi­able con­tenders to play in one of col­lege foot­ball’s top six bowl games. The Red Wolves have that chance, fac­ing Power 5 teams Ne­braska and Mi­ami in its first two games of the 2017 sea­son.

Sun Belt Con­fer­ence/DERICK HINGLE

said Mon­day the league has re­fo­cused its pri­or­i­ties to­ward earn­ing a spot in one of col­lege foot­ball’s top six bowl games.

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