Written by Justin Prince.
The college football season officially started when a handful of teams hit the gridiron this past weekend in week “zero.” It was a good appetizer for fans who have been craving college football since the Georgia Bulldogs claimed the national title back in January. But an appetizer is all it was, and most fans are still hungry for a bigger plate of gridiron action.
Fans won’t have to starve much longer though, as this Saturday shows off the first full slate of games. Needless to say, it’s an exciting time of year for football fans, a statement that is especially true for Thundering Herd fans this year.
Not only does Marshall kick off the season at home against Norfolk State, but the Herd officially starts its season in its new home: the Sun Belt Conference (SBC).
Conference realignment has shaken up the entirety of college athletics; and for some schools, it didn’t necessarily work out for the better (here’s looking at you, Western Kentucky). Marshall couldn’t have ended up in a better place than the SBC, which is not a statement I thought I would ever make.
Conference USA raided the SBC nearly a decade ago and took what was seemingly the league’s best teams like the WKU Hilltoppers and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, along with large market teams like Florida Atlantic and Florida International, and it looked like the SBC was dead in the water.
Now, in 2022, the Sun Belt may arguably be the best group of five (G5) conference in all of college football. Propelled by several strong seasons from its own new additions such as Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State as well as the success of longtime members like Louisiana, the SBC has been gaining ground on other G5 conferences, even surpassing the Mid-American and Conference USA.
With the latest round of conference shuffling, the Sun Belt is now in position to claim the top G5 spot. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) has been decimated by the loss of Cincinnati, Central Florida, and Houston. It replaced them by adding six Conference USA schools. These additions brought the AAC some massive media markets like Houston (Rice), San-Antonio (UTSA) and Miami-Fort Lauderdale (Florida Atlantic).
CUSA responded by adding New Mexico State, Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, and Liberty. Other than Liberty, who has had some recent successes and a huge endowment, none of the other additions really seem to move the needle for the conference’s level of competition or exposure. The Mountain West and the Mid-American Conference made no changes but they are both strong leagues. Having Boise State and other solid teams like Colorado State and Fresno State in your conference keeps you among the top of the G5.
At the same time, the Sun Belt was making its own moves. But rather than go after large markets and “untapped” potential, the SBC decided to go a more old-fashioned route and focus on smaller college towns with strong traditions. At a time when college football is morphing more and more into a monstrous corporate entity seemingly concerned only with television contracts and marketing, the SBC made the decision to do the opposite. While most conferences are stretching from coast to coast and forcing its members to travel thousands of miles for games, the SBC decided to keep things regional, concentrating on contiguous states in the Southeast.
This throwback approach by the SBC to conference realignment resulted in the conference strengthening an already competitive league by adding teams that fit its geographic footprint, but it also brings long traditions of success. This strategy resulted in the SBC adding Marshall, Southern Mississippi, and Old Dominion from Conference USA and Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse James Madison. This not only further threw dirt on the grave of CUSA but also swelled the potential of the SBC, while maintaining an existing league that is extremely fan friendly.
The Thundering Herd will get to renew an old Southern Conference rivalry with Appalachian State, which is already off and running thanks to two hard-fought games between the schools in the last couple of seasons. MU will also get the opportunity to clash regularly with the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana, a team I think most Herd fans will have no problem loving to hate after last year’s cheap shot in the New Orleans Bowl.
It’s clear that the SBC is a step up from the most recent version of the CUSA that Marshall couldn’t get out of fast enough, and it is head and shoulders above the corpse of what Conference CUSA is to become. As a fan, the most exciting thing—other than the better quality of opponents that will be coming to Huntington annually—is the TRAVEL. Pretty much every game on the schedule is a game that is drivable, something the Herd faithful haven’t been able to do since our days in the MAC. But this time, instead of going to cold and depressing places like Kalamazoo, Michigan and Akron, Ohio, Marshall fans can travel to southern coastal cities buzzing with attractions and beautiful weather.
The new conference and new level of competition will certainly bring more exposure (and TV revenue) to the Thundering Herd athletic programs than we could’ve ever hoped for in CUSA or even the MAC. Time will tell whether the SBC is stronger than the American, but things are looking good so far.
In the carousel of conference realignment, many teams got left in worse situations or facing uncertainty about the future. Marshall ended up in paradise. Now, all the Thundering Herd has to do is win and thereby usher in the next chapter of gridiron greatness.