The great conference realignment of the early 2010s had a massive effect on the Sun Belt. Conference USA ripped five schools from the Sun Belt, temporarily relegating the conference to a fragile conglomerate of schools stretching from south Georgia to Idaho – the logistical nightmare of 10 to 12 athletic directors across the nation.
Georgia State and South Alabama had football programs still in their infancy. Bowl bids were at a premium. However, there was a plan.
Like any good plan, those who made it needed time to see the full results, and we have reached that point.
In 2013, the conference’s front office focused on adding FCS powerhouses with strong fanbases, including Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and even Georgia Southern – to complement their traditional and developing programs.
Now the Sun Belt has placed itself in a position to solidify its standing as a top Group of Five conferences in football, rejuvenate the top of the conference in basketball, add national contenders in baseball and even bring back men’s soccer!
Let’s look at how the additions of James Madison, Old Dominion, Marshall and Southern Mississippi changed the landscape of the Sun Belt’s major sports.
James Madison is similar to Coastal, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, with 12 FCS playoff appearances in the last 20 years and three FCS championships. They’ve averaged over 22,500 people per game so far in 2021 in beautiful Bridgeforth Stadium.
According to Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings at ESPN.com, the Dukes would expect to place around Troy and Georgia State in the Sun Belt standings this season. Still, they could immediately contend for the Sun Belt east division title come 2023.
Old Dominion only restarted their football program in 2014 but have experienced the near-full spectrum of success since ten wins and a bowl victory in 2016, then just one win and a bottom-five Simple Rating System (SRS) ranking in 2019.
The Monarchs have a considerable athletics budget, bring in over 18,000 people a game, and are in the major metro area of Norfolk, VA. ODU football may not immediately compete for titles but can fill out the middle of the conference for the time being.
Marshall has a storied history and a lot of brand recognition. From the tragedy of the 1970 airplane crash and We Are Marshall to the Herd’s undefeated 1999 season and spectacular 13-1 campaign in 2014, college football fans know Marshall.
According to SP+, Marshall would battle Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State this season for the east division title. Bonus: Marshall adds a beautiful green to the Sun Belt’s color palette.
While the other three schools expand the Sun Belt’s geography northward, Southern Miss fits right into the conference’s current footprint. The Golden Eagles are bottoming out right now (last in the nation in points per game, 128th in SRS) but could have a fun team by the time they join the conference in 2023.
Other pros include their 36,000-seat facility and their proximity to four Sun Belt schools.
The Sun Belt added two schools that can immediately compete for the football title, two more that can contend in a few seasons and four programs with dedicated fanbases that travel well.
The east division has become one of the toughest – if not the toughest – division in the Group of Five. Good news for the Sun Belt, not great news for the Panthers.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ratings, Marshall and Old Dominion would be near the top of the Sun Belt’s east division in men’s basketball, right behind Georgia State. Marshall is fresh off a C-USA regular-season championship but got unlucky in the first round of the conference tournament.
The Thundering Herd have three 20-win seasons in the last five seasons and upset fourth-seeded Wichita State in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Old Dominion has had four 25-win seasons in the last decade and made a brief appearance in the AP Top 25 in 2014. The duo provides a needed boost to the Sun Belt’s basketball reputation – a boost that could make the Sun Belt a two-bid conference down the road.
James Madison and Southern Miss are both top 200 teams in the KenPom and reside somewhere in the middle of the current Sun Belt standings. The Dukes were the regular-season champions of the slightly weak and wide-open Colonial Athletic Association last season after finishing last the year before.
The Golden Eagles have struggled in their first two seasons under head coach Jay Ladner (.304 winning percentage), but many expect them to take a step forward this year.
James Madison and Old Dominion ranked just behind Troy in women’s basketball, who have four Sun Belt championships in the last six seasons, in NET rating last season. James Madison posted a 28-4 record in the 2019-20 season and hasn’t won less than 20 games since the 2004-05 season.
The lady Monarchs held their own in the tough Conference USA with a few 20-win seasons but haven’t secured a conference title. Marshall has also done well recently and would be a top-five Sun Belt team right now. Southern Miss has been a .500 team the last few seasons and ranks similarly to Georgia State or Georgia Southern right now.
The Sun Belt has recently taken massive leaps in baseball, with the South Alabama Jaguars emerging as a top-60 program. Now, the conference picks up a top 15 squad and regional runner up in Old Dominion and a top-25 team in Southern Miss.
Marshall has only one winning season this century but is moving into a new on-campus stadium soon. Both the Thundering Herd and James Madison would sit at the bottom of the Sun Belt, at least at the beginning.
The Sun Belt didn’t sponsor men’s soccer this season and only had four schools participate during the 2020 season. With the current Number 1 program in Marshall joining the fold and Old Dominion and James Madison, men’s soccer competitions could return to the Sun Belt. Georgia State would look to continue thriving against the exceptional competition.
With these new additions, the Sun Belt doubled its identity as a group of dedicated fanbases throughout the south while also shifting landscape and scavenging the north into C-USA. Overall, the Sun Belt Conference will be better across the board come 2023 and have plenty to offer fans.