WKU Leaves Sun Belt, James Madison Or Liberty May Join
By Zackary DuFour
Western Kentucky is the latest school to leave the Sun Belt Conference for Conference USA.
The Hilltoppers will most likely be replacing Tulsa, who will be moving to the soon-to-be-renamed Big East. The move comes amidst a wave of realignment that has seen schools like FIU, Middle Tennessee, and North Texas leave the Sun Belt. Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson seemed nonplussed by the news, saying the move is “not a surprise.” It seems that WKU was attracted to Conference USA because of the conference’s larger number of bowl contracts: five guaranteed bids compared to the Sun Belt’s two (New Orleans Bowl and GoDaddy.com Bowl). After completing the 2013-2014 season, the Hilltoppers will make the move.
WKU was to be part of a six-team Sun Belt Eastern Division in 2014, which now leaves the conference scrambling to find another team. It seems like FCS powers James Madison and Liberty are the leading contenders to fill up the now-vacant spot.
If either school decides to make the leap to the Sun Belt, that means that 10 FCS teams in the last year will have joined the ranks of the FBS. While this does have ramifications for the overall future of the FCS, the move would serve nicely for the Sun Belt. The addition of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State was a great move for the conference. Adding more fresh blood to a conference that desperately needs it can only be a good thing. Still, in the short term, it's highly doubtful either team would make a serious run in the conference.
James Madison, now a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, has traditionally been an FCS power, winning a championship in 2004. Still, in the last few years their success has faltered. They were 7-4 in 2012, finishing sixth in conference play.
Liberty, by contrast, has won the Big South championship five consecutive years. That success coupled with the recent renovations that the university has made to its athletic department means that Liberty may be the most attractive option if the Sun Belt decides to lift a school from the FCS.
While it’s arguable whether or not Conference USA is a stronger league than the Sun Belt, this move undeniably weakens the Sun Belt’s prospects. If James Madison or Liberty enter the Sun Belt for 2014, that will mean the conference will have four teams playing FBS football for the first time. Those teams coupled with the shortcomings of WAC evacuees Idaho and New Mexico State indicates that the Sun Belt may have just seen a large blow to their competitiveness.