MURRELL COLUMN: Sun Belt, C-USA need distinction

Published 3:09 pm Saturday, August 5, 2017

Ah, the Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA.

They are epitomes of a league where schools fight for statewide academic and athletic respect and, no matter how many football scholarships they can offer, will always take a back seat in consideration for the College Football Playoff.

In 2018, the once basketball-centric conference known as the Sun Belt will play its first football championship game, meaning every Football Bowl Subdivision team will host such an event. (The Football Championship Subdivision’s Southwestern Athletic Conference, which includes Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M, is dropping its title game to further support the Celebration Bowl, therefore killing any other motivation for the likes of the Southland and Big Sky to have their own one-game postseason before the NCAA playoffs. But that’s another column for another time.)

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When Conference USA, another once-basketball power, was established in 1995 as the merger of the Metro and Great Midwest conferences, it was a relative star in college football. Cincinnati was on the rise, Louisville was a threat in the national championship race, Southern Miss was a traditional power, Houston made noise and Tulane went undefeated in the first season of the Bowl Championship Series.

Many of the original C-USA schools (Houston joined a year later) have somewhat graduated into the more visible American Athletic Conference, which should be considered the sixth power conference to keep from losing any more Tom Hermans and Matt Rhules of the world.

The Sun Belt has gained luster in competition over the years through mid-week ESPN specials such as Arkansas State vs. Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy vs. South Alabama, but it’s not quite at the level of the American. Conference USA was what the American is, but its overall luster has dullened, especially in its West Division, where UTSA, North Texas, UTEP and Rice reside.

As the Sun Belt sheds Idaho — yes, Idaho — and New Mexico State as football affiliates after this season, and Little Rock (academically the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) considers the feasibility of the sport, it’s more apparent the conference as a whole crosses paths with Conference USA. The Sun Belt cited geographic challenges in not renewing its agreement with the two westernmost football programs, and if the leaders there were smart enough, they’d consider realigning with C-USA.

Both conferences run from Texas to the Carolinas. In the Sun Belt’s new football divisions for 2018, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Texas State comprise the West, and Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Troy make up the East.

But the original distinctions of the Sun Belt and C-USA have been lost and are not going to be regained.

Let Rice, UTEP, UTSA and North Texas join the Sun Belt West, take back N.M. State and sneak in Troy and rivalries will strengthen. The UTs, Texas A&Ms and LSUs will still outshine their little sisters, but the Sun will be a little more fun.

I.C. Murrell can be reached at 721-2435 or at On Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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