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Sun Belt commish Karl Benson: WKU's exit 'not a surprise'

By Chip Patterson | College Football/Basketball Writer

Western Kentucky's move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA was made official on Monday; another domino to fall in the latest wave of conference realignment.

Conference USA likely added the Hilltoppers to replace Tulsa. The Golden Hurricanes are expected to fill a void in the soon-to-be-renamed Big East -- according to CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler, it's not a matter of if, but when. The move fills one conference's need for balanced membership, but it creates another void for the Sun Belt.

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson issued a statement on Monday after Western Kentuck's announcement, confirming that the move is "not a surprise" and there are universities that "have a strong desire to be members of the Sun Belt Conference."

"Today's announcement that Western Kentucky University has accepted an invitation to join Conference USA is not a surprise given the communication that I have had with university officials and the rampant speculation over the past several months," Benson said in an official release. "I have long understood the implications of the move and what it means for the Sun Belt Conference.

"In fact, the Sun Belt Conference has been preparing for this possibility for some time and with the support and guidance of the Sun Belt Conference board of directors, I will continue to make recommendations on what options the Sun Belt Conference has in terms of future members and divisional structure. I remain confident that we have numerous options and that there are universities that have a strong desire to be members of the Sun Belt Conference."

Last week the Sun Belt Conference officially announced the additions of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern as all sports members as well as Idaho and New Mexico State as football-only members. CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd writes that James Madison and Liberty have been mentioned as possible replacements for Western Kentucky, though Benson has not identified any targets publicly.

If James Madison and/or Liberty join the FBS ranks, it would be a sign of the growing distance between the FBS and FCS levels of play. The Big Ten has already considered eliminating FCS opponents from the schedule, and other schools are considering similar -- though less formal -- practices in order to boost strength of schedule.

If the value of the FCS product is dropping, it might be more beneficial for these perennial powers like Appalachian State and James Madison to make the jump and hope to replicate that success within their new conference. Handing in national title contention for a long shot chance at one access bowl spot -- awarded to the highest ranked team from the old-Big East, Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt -- is a tough decision for fans to understand. But when the new conference offers an arguably brighter future than the devalued FCS, it's hard to blame the smaller schools for taking the risky move.

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