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Sun Belt to drop Idaho, NMSU following 2017 season

    During a Tuesday afternoon teleconference, Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson and Texas State University president Dr. Denise Trauth announced that the Sun Belt will be a 10-team football conference beginning with the 2018 season.
    In order to get to that number, a conference that has already seen plenty of schools come in and out of membership over the last four years has shaken things up even more. Both New Mexico State and Idaho — brought in as football-only members prior to the 2014 season — will have their contracts with the Sun Belt expire and will not be offered a renewal. As those two schools sever ties to the conference, Coastal Carolina — which begins membership for all sports other than football in 2016-17 — will play its first season of FBS football in the Sun Belt.
    The changes will make the new layout of the conference much more compact.
    “Our strength is in our geographic footprint,” Trauth said. “The Sun Belt is now one of the most geographically stable conferences in FBS.”
    Throughout the announcement, Benson and Trauth made it clear that one of the main factors in determining conference membership was the ability to host a conference championship game in football. A recent ruling has deregulated conference championship games, allowing conferences with fewer than the formerly-required 12 teams to host a championship game that often attracts lucrative sponsorships and national television audiences.
    Benson stated that the inclusion of NMSU and Idaho was done with the specific goal of fielding enough teams for a conference title game. With their inclusion no longer necessary, the decision was made to tighten up the Sun Belt’s borders.
    “We wanted to do what was in the best interests of our schools and our student athletes,” Benson said. “This is going to provide the best possible travel scheduling and will also provide a better situation for revenue sharing among member schools.”
    Benson stated that a football championship game could be played as soon as 2017, but “most likely” would begin in 2018. A new focus will now be on scheduling. The Sun Belt could elect to play a round-robin format in a conference with no divisions. Alternately, it could also split into a pair of five-team divisions and play either eight or nine league games each season.
    Decisions regarding what future football seasons will look like will be discussed throughout the spring and a final plan is expected by the fall.
    “We’re very pleased with how our conference is set up,” Trauth said. “We have schools that easily distinguish themselves as being in the west and in the eastern part of our conference. That gives us options on how to proceed.”
    Nothing will change for the 2016 football season and Benson said that the conference was still in talks with ESPN to set up dates for this season’s televised midweek games. A full schedule is expected to be released by Thursday at the latest.
    New Mexico State and Idaho will be the sixth and seventh football-playing members to depart the Sun Belt since 2013, joining Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State, North Texas and Western Kentucky — all of which now play in Conference USA.
    Rumors have circulated that Idaho may elect to drop down to the FCS level of football and that a membership in the Big Sky Conference is already in the works.
    New Mexico State’s future is less certain. The Aggies’ other athletic programs play in the Western Athletic Conference, which dropped football following the 2012 season.
    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.