NEW ORLEANS – College athletics is changing at such a dizzying pace that it’s difficult to predict what will happen later this year, much less later this month. From the NIL to the transfer portal to the recent shocking conference realignment news, we are seeing unprecedented, transformative changes.
But one thing was crystal clear during the Sun Belt Conference’s media days last week – no matter what the uncertain future holds, Old Dominion is in a far better position now that it was just a month ago.
ODU became an official member of the Sun Belt on July 1, which, curiously, was the same day Southern Cal and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.
Coming on the heels of last summer’s decision by Texas and Oklahoma to exit the Big 12 for the SEC, it appears that two or three super leagues will emerge and dominate college football.
An aside here:
Rivalries are what make college athletics so popular, and in the frantic rush to join the biggest leagues in search of the almighty TV dollar, college presidents and athletic directors are obliterating ancient rivalries. Can’t wait for that UCLA-Rutgers football game, and I’m sure the players are looking forward to the five-hour plane flight to New Jersey.
The conference realignment that occurred a decade ago, largely begun by the ACC, also resulted in some unfortunate changes. Syracuse and Boston College in the ACC? Made no sense from a geographic standpoint.
Ask West Virginia how much it likes being in the Big 12. Or Maryland in the Big Ten.
How this will all shake out for ODU remains to be seen, but the league’s move to the Sun Belt Conference, skillfully engineered by Athletic Director Wood Selig and President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., looks all the better given the potential perils ahead.
ODU is a member of a strong league that all 14 members wanted to join. It’s not just a convenient place to play football.
All 14 schools have made major commitments to improve their athletic programs. All are spending a lot of money renovating or building new athletic facilities.
But best of all, the Sun Bent geographically is one of the most close-knit Division I football conferences. ODU is in the East Division with James Madison, Marshall, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State and Georgia Southern, which without a doubt, is the strongest division in the Group of 5.
The 14 schools are in 10 contiguous states.
ODU already has good rivalries with JMU and Marshall and will build good, regional rivalries with the others.
The Sun Belt will reduce travel costs and missed class time for ODU athletes, and it gives Monarch fans and the families of athletes an easier avenue to travel to road games.
Had ODU remained in Conference USA, the road trips would be longer and the rivalries less important to players and fans. And the future would be far more uncertain. C-USA will lose six schools to the American Athletic Conference in 2023.
Meanwhile, Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill announced Tuesday that the league’s deal with ESPN has been enhanced. The league will make more money and get 6,000 more TV opportunities over the next decade.
Sun Belt regular-season football broadcasts drew 18 million viewers last season .. Its four bowl games averaged nearly 1.5 million viewers. Those numbers don’t put the Sun Belt in the Power 5, but it puts the league near the top of the Group of 5.
And since the College Football Playoff began, the Sun Belt has won 64.9 percent of its bowl games, which leads FBS.
So, for now, regardless of what happens with the big boys, ODU is in as good a place as it can be.
There has been widespread speculation by the national media that the Sun Belt will supplant the American Athletic Conference and Mountain West atop the Group of 5 rankings. I think it will happen, if it hasn’t already.
Will the Sun Belt Become Best Group of 5 Football League?
And that’s a remarkable transformation for the Sun Belt, which a decade ago was clearly No. 10 among the 10 FBS leagues.
While other leagues, including Conference USA, went after sc hools in large TV markets, the Sun Belt went after solid programs in the South with winning traditions and passionate fans. The league jettisoned Idaho and New Mexico State to become a more regional league and added schools such as Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina.
That enabled the Sun Belt to vault over C-USA and the Mid-American Conference and begin to challenge the AAC and Mountain West for supremacy.
College football attendance is declining practically everywhere, and I think conference realignment should take some of the blame. The Sun Belt, meanwhile, has seen its attendance steadily increase.
Rivalries do matter.
“I understand it,” said ODU coach Ricky Rahne when I asked him about UCLA and USC. “People have to make business decisions in college football that are best for them. I get that.
“But I like being in a conference that has regional college football. Having 14 teams in 10 states is pretty awesome. I’m excited about that because that’s what I think college football is all about, those rivalries, that hatred that comes from what makes the game so special. “
Hatred, he noted, is a dirty word to some people. But in essence, that’s what great rivalries come down to. And although it’s been 10 years since ODU played JMU, I guarantee there will be a lot of hatred in the stands when the Dukes to come ODU on Nov. 14.
“Hate is passion,” Rahne said. “Indifference is terrible. Unfortunately, our fans were a little indifferent about who we played in our former conference. That’s not their fault, it’s not the conference’s fault. It’s just emotion.”
The AAC is losing Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston to the Big 12 and quickly grabbed six C-USA schools to replace them.
As changes continues, the AAC may lose more schools to the Power 5, and that could leave some opportunities for the Sun Belt.
When I asked Gill about expansion, he said the league is monitoring the changes elsewhere. Might East Carolina decides that a league with ODU, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina makes a lot of sense at some point?
Who knows? But if ECU or another regional school decides the Sun Belt is an attractive place, Gill said the league will listen.
“If someone asked me last year what the right number was for our league, I would have said 12,” Gill said. “However, we had the opportunity to add four quality schools, so 14 became the right number.
“We’re not actively looking to expand. But if there is a really good institution that makes sense for us, that’s like minded, is in our geographic footprint and brings value to the Sun Belt, we would certainly be open to having conversations.
“If we remain at 14, we are going to be in a very strong position. For the right school we would go to 15 or to 16. But we’re very comfortable where we are at 14.”
President Hemphill and Selig could not plan for all contingencies. Few saw the defections by USC and UCLA coming.
But because they had the wisdom to move ODU to the Sun Belt, the University is in the best place possible to ride out, and perhaps benefit from, the upcoming storm.