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Coming off historic football season, the Sun Belt eyes growth

Is there a glass ceiling for G5 schools?
Matt Viator and Billy Napier
Posted at 5:23 PM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 18:29:08-05

In college athletics football is king. In the Sun Belt there is absolutely no exception.

"We want to be an elite football conference, and we think we are an elite football conference," said Keith Gill.

The Sun Belt commissioner spoke with the Lafayette media Tuesday as a spring update, of sorts, but SBC football was the topic de jure.

The conference comes off its best football season, which culminated in two teams being ranked in the top 20 in the final football polls. Gill believes Louisiana and Coastal, even Appalachian State, could all receive preseason top 25 designations in the fall. He said that's an important step in getting into the New Year's Six or even College Football Playoff conversations.

"One of the things that kept us down was we weren't in there early," Gill said referring to the conference's NY6 momentum last year. "That's where we want to be, we want to be in that conversation when we're talking about New Year's Six opportunities, we're talking about College Football Playoffs, that's really important. So having the two ranked teams in the CFP, essentially playing for an opportunity to play in a NY6 is really important."

Since the inception of CFP/NY6 structure in 2014, no Group of Five school has made the playoffs, nor has a G5 school earned an at-large NY6 bowl bid. The only Group of Five schools making those top-tier bowl games have come from the automatic bid handed out to the highest ranking G5 conference champion. At this point many around the sport are unsure whether or not either glass ceiling is breakable. Gill is no different.

"I think there are significant barriers there that hopefully over time come down, so that's an easier possibility, because I certainly think there have been deserving teams over the course of the last four, five years," he said. "I'd never want to say never, because I don't want to close the book on that, but I haven't seen anything that makes me indicate it is possible."

Louisiana's upset win at Iowa State and Coastal's impromptu win over BYU were not just the conference's biggest wins in 2020, but two of the biggest wins in the conference's history. The SBC will have a chance early in 2021 to make an impact, with Louisiana playing Texas in the opener and Appalachian State playing Miami in week two. The conference doesn't get many top 25 vs. top 25 games, and this year two conference games appear likely to produce that match-up: Appalachian State at Louisiana and Coastal Carolina at Appalachian State. Many have questioned why the Sun Belt chose not to pair Louisiana and Coastal Carolina, the conference's 2020 division winners; Gill said it just wasn't their time in the rotation.

"We certainly briefly talked about whether we should alter our schedule, and we decided we shouldn't," he said, adding that the conference didn't want to take an opportunity to play a top 25 from other member schools just to create the match-up.

A third top 25 vs. top 25 match-up could be berthed in the conference's annual championship game.

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