James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti went on The Jim Rome Show earlier this week, and the Dukes’ head coach made a bold proclamation.
“We want to play in the College Football Playoff,” Cignetti said.
The claim, given the likely expansion of the current four-team field, might not be as crazy as it seems on face value. The highest-ranked Group of Five champion seems poised to earn a spot in a 12-team field, and realignment figures to weaken the American Athletic Conference, which experts often peg as the G5 league with the best teams.
Could the Sun Belt soon become the top dog?
The argument for the Sun Belt
It’s easy to argue for the Sun Belt becoming an elite Group of Five conference. A combination of quality programs – Appalachian State headlines the group – and regional rivalries make for a sustainable model. Fanbases care about conference opponents, something that’s not always evident in other leagues.
A growing geographic disparity – Temple and North Texas will be in the same conference next season – isn’t ideal for engaging college football fans.
When fans care about the games, it’s easy to engage everyone from donors to alumni to students to recruits. The games feel like they matter throughout the season, not just closer to bowl season.
Perhaps the best argument for the Sun Belt’s future outlook is the outlook of other Group of Five leagues. The AAC is losing three of its best programs (UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati) and adding a hodgepodge of C-USA teams. C-USA is losing that hodgepodge, which admittedly includes solid programs like UTSA and UAB, and adding Liberty and unproven programs the league hopes perform well at the FBS level. Both leagues are weaker after the most recent round of realignment.
While the current league is solid, the Mountain West could lose teams to the Big 12 or Pac-12 in the future. This year, the conference isn’t largely in the New Year’s Six picture with San Diego State and Fresno State struggling.
The MAC, while tremendous fun, lacks the consistent quality of other Group of Five leagues.
With other leagues weakening, the Sun Belt dramatically improved by adding JMU, Old Dominion, Marshall, and Southern Miss this offseason. Those teams pair well with Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, and others.
ESPN’s Football Power Index includes eight AAC teams in its top 75. Of those eight, three are leaving for the Big 12 next season, including the conference’s two highest-rated teams in Cincinnati and UCF. C-USA has three teams, but two are leaving for the AAC. The MAC doesn’t have any teams in the top 75, and the Mountain West has two.
The Sun Belt puts five teams in the top 75, and that group doesn’t even include undefeated Coastal Carolina, which checks in at No. 80. The league will immediately be thrust toward the top of the Group of Five once the American loses its three star programs.
The bottom line
Look, the AAC and Mountain West will still have plenty of good football teams in the upcoming seasons. The Sun Belt can’t lay claim to being the best Group of Five league without ever having put a team into a New Year’s Six bowl game. Do that, or put a team into the expanding College Football Playoff, and the Sun Belt’s argument strengthens.
“Potential” is an overused word in college sports. The Sun Belt undoubtedly has the potential to become the best G5 league, and fans should be excited about the possibilities that lie ahead, but potential doesn’t always become reality.
The opportunity is there for several leagues to thrust themselves into the national spotlight, especially once UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati depart the AAC. Want to be the best conference outside the Power Five? Prove it on the field.
If I had to bet on one conference to take the G5 throne from the AAC, though, I’d have a hard time convincing myself to bet on any conference other than the Sun Belt.