The college athletics landscape moved another step in the direction of two power super-conferences with the recent announcement that UCLA and USC are joining the Big-10. This, combined with teams like Texas and Oklahoma jumping to the SEC, may mark an end to regional conferences as we know it.
While there continues to be plenty of shake-up in the Power 5 conferences there are also changes in the Group of 5 conferences including the Sun Belt, which has added four schools to its lineup.
This fall, Georgia Southern fans will see three new names on the Eagles' schedule with James Madison, Old Dominion and Marshall — as well as Southern Miss in the western division — playing their first season of Sun Belt football.
Georgia Southern Director of Athletics Jared Benko is excited for the future of the Sun Belt conference as well as Georgia Southern athletics and is happy the league was able to get such strong additions and keep their geographical footprint.
“I feel like we are now the preeminent Group of 5 conference in the country,” said Benko. “To be the best you have to beat the best. I am excited about getting these new schools in here and to have more regional rivalries. There are no cupcakes anymore and I am excited about playing tougher competition.”
Eagle fans are quite familiar with Old Dominion, having played the Monarchs in two straight FCS playoffs. The Eagles also have plenty of previous matchups with JMU, owning a 7-1 record against the Dukes. The Eagles and Marshall have met six times with Marshall leading the series 4-2. Georgia Southern and Southern Miss have not met during the modern football era.
Marshall and James Madison join Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Louisiana Monroe as Sun Belt teams with at least one FCS Championship. Benko feels the addition of the four team teams really strengthens the Eagles schedule, particularly in the Sun Belt Eastern division where three of them will play.
“I feel like the Sun Belt eastern division is now a lot like the SEC western division,” said Benko. “It really stands out in football, but I feel like in every sport there are a lot of really quality teams we will be going up against.”
With the level of competition going up in the league Benko admits it will be tough to schedule out of conference teams in football quite the same way it has been in the past.
“I have tweaked our scheduling model more,” said Benko. “This year nine of the twelve teams we play were in a bowl game last season. I don’t think that is going to be an outlier. I think consistently you are going to see seven to nine teams a year that have made a bowl game the previous season. I think the Sun Belt could have seven or more bowl bids in the future.
“What we are starting to do is take a little bit less money to have a better matchup,” said Benko. “To play a Kansas State, a Kentucky or an Ole Miss gives a group of five team a lot better chance to beat them rather than an Alabama or a Clemson. We also want to stay a little more regional when we do play a group of five school that is not in our conference. Not having to get on a plane saves hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
As far as the continued arms race between the SEC and Big-10, as well as where that leaves the ACC, Big-12 and Pac-12, Benko feels the main effect it will have on the G5 schools has to do with scheduling.
“The SEC has been debating how many conference games they will play and that will play a factor in their non-conference scheduling ability,” said Benko. “I think they are going to stay with eight games through 2025. There will be a trickle down in terms of team’s willingness to play, is it a buyers’ market or a sellers’ market. Scheduling will be difficult until decisions are made within the power five.”