Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson has high aspirations for the conference, including a belief that the league can compete with Conference USA and the Mountain West as the most attractive "below the line" conference.
"The goal of the Sun Belt right now is to be the best of the quote, 'below the line conferences,'" Benson said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "There's going to be five [conferences] above the line and five below the line. The Sun Belot's goal is going to be to compete with those other conferences."
Benson saw firsthand what conference realignment can do to a struggling conference, after 17 years with the WAC - which recently announced the suspension of football competition after this season. According to the Sun Belt commissioner, one way to elevate the on-field profile of league members would be an adjustment to the way non-conference schedules are assembled.
"We've talked about scheduling philosophy, scheduling strategy," Benson said. "Ideally we'd like to establish across the board some scheduling parameters that would limit those guarantee games to one a year," Benson explained.
Those "guarantee games" are arranged by schools in power conferences, looking to fill Homecoming dates and non-conference home game slots inferior FBS competition. Sun Belt schools are frequently filling their non-conference schedules with away games against premiere opponents with no guarantee of a return visit. These agreements usually carry a significant pay day for the visitors, but rarely carries beneficial on-field results.
Benson instead would like to see Sun Belt members schedule non-conference opponents from similar conferences - like Conference USA and the Mountain West - to raise the profile of the league. Instead of sacrificing potential wins for a big pay day, the conference would be more likely to produce undefeated or one-loss teams. Western Kentucky has already adopted a philosophy of one single-game contract per year, and other schools could follow the Hilltoppers lead.
Last season, the Sun Belt went 7-6 against teams from Conference USA, the Mountain West, Mid-American Conference, and Western Athletic Conference. Adding more games - and wins - to that tally could change the idea that the 10-year-old Sun Belt is at the bottom of the totem pole. Moving up in the pecking order is essential, especially to survive another wave of conference realignment.
"What my goal would be is for the Sun Belt to enhance our assets, our characteristics, so if and when the time comes that Conference USA comes looking to the Sun Belt for a replacement team because Conference USA lost school A, B, or C, that the Sun Belt member will look at what the Sun Belt provides and come to the conclusion that there's no reason for us to leave the Sun Belt," Benson said.
The Sun Belt will be in two primetime games on opening weekend against Top 5 opponents. New head coach Gus Malzahn will lead Arkansas State into Eugene to face No. 5 Oregon, while North Texas heads to Death Valley to take on No. 3 LSU.