The highest-ranked Sun Belt team -- most likely Coastal Carolina -- will be considered for a New Year's Six bowl berth despite the conference not playing a championship game, sources told CBS Sports.
College Football Playoff protocol language that states the highest-ranked Group of Five "champion" gets the automatic New Year's Six berth, but the Sun Belt will not have an outright champion this season after canceling its title game.
The adjustment was implemented after the Sun Belt's announcement that Coastal Carolina and Louisiana will not play due to a potential COVID-19 outbreak in the Chanticleers program. The conference declared No. 12 Coastal Carolina (11-0) and No. 19 Louisiana (9-1) "co-champions." Coastal won the head-to-head meeting between the teams 30-27 on Oct. 14.
The FBS conferences had to alert the CFP of their contingency plans for deciding a champion in November if a conference championship game couldn't be played, Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill told CBS Sports.
It wasn't known publicly until Thursday's cancellation that the Sun Belt would declare co-champions. But for CFP purposes, it had already been decided the highest-ranked team from the conference would be eligible for the lucrative New Year's Six berth.
"We were certainly prepared and talked about it," Gill said.
"It was not unanticipated," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said.
The decision removes some of the possible controversy over other Group of Five teams having to play conference championship games while the Sun Belt does not. No. 9 Cincinnati is the highest-ranked Group of Five team. It faces No. 23 Tulsa on Saturday. If Tulsa wins, it would, by definition, be the highest-ranked Group champion despite trailing Coastal in the CFP Rankings.
In that case, Coastal would grab the automatic New Year's Six berth over a Tulsa team that played and won its championship game.
"You could think the committee would have to discuss beyond 'technicalities' of declaring championships vs. earning championships," Tulsa interim AD Rick Dickson told CBS Sports. "At some point, they have to value staying healthy, being available and competing, you could think."
Tulsa (6-1) has seen three games canceled, including last week's regular-season finale against Cincinnati. The teams would have met in back-to-back weeks had the Dec. 12 game not been canceled. The prospects of either enhancing its New Year's chances would have increased with a sweep.
When the playoff started in 2014, the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences (AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) was guaranteed a spot in one of the top six bowls each year (Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Peach, Fiesta) if it didn't qualify for the playoff. So far, no Group of FIve team has been in the playoff.
If the Sun Belt had not been eligible and Tulsa won the AAC, the Mountain West champion could conceivably had been in the mix as well with the winner between No. 24 San Jose State and unranked Boise State being considered.
The AAC has grabbed four of the previous six New Year's Six berths. The MAC and Mountain West have taken the others.