Sun Belt Conference expands with addition of schools

Expands to 3 new states—Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi

Change is on the horizon for the Sun Belt Conference. The nationwide conference realignment that has shaken the entire NCAA has brought four new teams to the SBC. 

Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison all accepted their bids to join the conference no later than July 1, 2023. 

Their arrival increases the SBC to 14 members. All but two members, UT Arlington and Little Rock, have football programs.

The expansion brings a new level of opportunity for all schools in the conference. 

The arrival of new teams has athletic director Scott McDonald excited and optimistic for ULM’s future in the SBC. 

“As one of the strongest Group of Five conferences in football, these new additions will only further cement Sun Belt schools as a destination for recruits, student-athletes and supporters,” McDonald said.  “There is no question that ULM is uniquely positioned to grow and experience unprecedented success in an elite conference with great competitors.” 

The realignment frenzy first started on July 30 when Texas and Oklahoma announced they would be joining the Southeastern Conference. 

The two schools left to face the superior competition for football in the SEC. 

Since the playoff format was introduced in 2014 the SEC has produced the most national championships. Also, it is the only conference with multiple members who have won a football national championship in the same timeframe.

Following this, teams across the nation announced they would abandon their current conferences for new opportunities. These programs want better television deals and the opportunity to play ranked opponents within their conference.

Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill originally stated he was satisfied with the current structure of the conference. However, he later stated the conference would consider adding teams to the conference.

Southern Miss, ODU and Marshall all left Conference USA to join the SBC. They are a part of nine teams who chose to depart from C-USA. 

Old Dominion was a member of the conference originally from 1982 through 1991. It is the only school to win a Division-I championship while in the Sun Belt. 

James Madison will depart from the Colonial Athletics Association to join the SBC. Their football program will make the leap from the championship subdivision (FCS) to the bowl subdivision (FBS).

“Our department has achieved at a tremendously high level over the last seven years and even further throughout our entire history,” said Jeff Bourne, athletic director of JMU. “We have demonstrated an increased ability to succeed at the national level, and this move to the Sun Belt further enhances that to an even greater degree as we move forward.”

The SBC’s television contract with ESPN was a key factor for teams to join the conference. The SBC is locked in to a deal with ESPN that runs through 2021.

All four teams bring varied levels of success, but no new member has had more historic success than Marshall.

“We knew this institution could add value to our conference,” Gill said. “Think about two national championships in football, 17 bowl appearances and winning 75% of those games is pretty impressive and tracks with the Sun Belt’s success as well.”

While the divisions will likely see some form of realignment for geographical reasons, Southern Miss will join ULM in the West Division.

“Adding Southern Miss gives our Warhawk community another conference rival that is easily within driving distance and will immediately help our league grow in many areas,” McDonald said.