NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — The blue and gold pomp illuminated by the Sun Belt stage didn’t distract east division schools from one overarching conclusion at media day Tuesday: The Sun Belt Conference is loaded, especially in the East.
Amid the recent realignment shakeup, which has seen Cincinnati, UCF and Houston leave the American Athletic Conference (AAC) for the Big 12 effective July 1, 2023, the doors are open for another conference, maybe even division, to take the reins as the premier cohort in Group of 5 football.
Gill’s confident in his own — namely the side that spans from Virginia to Georgia.
“It’s so competitive,” Gill said. “There's going to be some really just fun and exciting football played in the eastern division and the western division too, but the eastern is going to be really interesting.”
ESPN’s Bill Connelly, as repeated by Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill during his state of the conference address Tuesday morning, said he thinks the Sun Belt’s east is the best “non-autonomy” division in the FBS. Non-autonomy leagues, or the Group of 5 — programs in conferences that don’t make their own rules, dissimilar to the Power 5 conferences — include AAC, which was represented by Cincinnati in the four-team College Football Playoff (CFP) last season.
Seven teams comprise the Sun Belt’s East Division, three of them being new members of the conference. JMU, Marshall and ODU joined current Sun Belt members Appalachian State, Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina to form the revamped division July 1.
Last season, Coastal Carolina finished 11-2 (6-2 Sun Belt) and No. 14 in the nation. Appalachian State went 10-4 (7-1 Sun Belt) with its only losses to the ACC’s Miami — ranked No. 22 at the time — Sun Belt champion Louisiana twice and its bowl game versus Western Kentucky. Georgia State started last year 1-4 but finished 7-1, dropping a midseason matchup to Louisiana by four points.
The preseason Sun Belt polls were released Monday, in which coaches predict where each team will finish in the conference. Four Sun Belt east teams received first place votes: Appalachian State received 10, Coastal Carolina had two, and Georgia State and Georgia Southern got one apiece. In the west, only Louisiana, with 12, and South Alabama, two, received votes.
Appalachian State head coach Shawn Clark, despite the preseason predictions favoring his squad, said he thinks the Sun Belt’s eastern division will be the toughest in the Group of 5.
“If you look at the East,” Clark said, "you could put all those teams in a bag and shake them up and pick a team and they’d win the conference.”
As his league continues to improve from top to bottom, Gill said he wants the CFP to include a guaranteed spot for the Sun Belt. He envisions a playoff expansion, maybe to 12 teams, he said, after the four-team format’s contract expires following the 2025 season.
Realignment beyond the Sun Belt may prevent this from coming to fruition. Amid the most recent college athletics pendulum swing that’s seen USC and UCLA jump ship from the Pac 12 to the Big 10, speculation of an endgame has gained traction in which the Big 10 and SEC form a “superconference” that creates 3-4 separate levels of Division I football: them, what’s left of the Power 5, the Group of 5 — where the Sun Belt is — and the Football Conference Subdivision (FCS).
Gill said he’s not concerned about a split. As it stands, the Group of 5 is eligible for at least one New Year’s Six bowl game and the CFP, and it intermingles with Power 5 programs in top 25 rankings. Since the CFP’s inception in 2014, the Sun Belt leads all FBS programs with a .650 bowl game winning percentage.
“This is all an ecosystem, and I think we're a really important part of that ecosystem,” Gill said. “So I can't imagine FBS without Sun Belt, and I don't think it's going to be all the splintering off and breaking off. But certainly, if it happens, I certainly think the Sun Belt is well positioned to be a part of FBS or any of the prominent economies.”
Georgia Southern head coach Clay Helton, who previously coached at USC from 2015-21, said he’ll be taking a “living in the moment” mentality in the fall, not looking ahead to any one team because of the week-in, week-out quality of opponents. Georgia Southern is coming off a three-win season and is picked to finish fifth in the Sun Belt in 2022.
“The Sun Belt is the premier Group of 5 league in the country,” Helton said. “Very humbled for the opportunity to compete in this league.”
Old Dominion is projected to finish last in the Sun Belt east after going .500 in the regular season (5-3 Conference-USA) and winning five in a row before losing the Myrtle Beach Bowl to Tulsa. JMU head coach Curt Cignetti, leading the team one spot ahead of ODU, said the sixth-place spot isn’t a surprise considering the strength of the east.
Compared to past seasons, when JMU’s been picked unanimously to run the CAA and be a prominent FCS national championship contender, all signs point to the Sun Belt being a gauntlet — up and down the east division.
“When you think about all these schools with great tradition, there’s not enough seats at the table for everyone to have a great year,” Cignetti said. “That’s just going to accentuate the rivalries, and they’re going to become more intense.”
This story was updated at 1:03 p.m., July 30
Contact Grant Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.