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06-30-2009, 12:59 PM
Don't Sleep on the Sun Belt
Conference commish sees a league getting stronger with each upset

-> http://nebraska.statepaper.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2009/06/30/4a4971406db45

by Samuel McKewon

June 30, 2009

Wright Waters hasn’t heard any of the jokes about Nebraska’s football team being an honorary member of the Sun Belt Conference in 2009. Hasn’t read critiques of NU’s decision to host three of the league’s programs – Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette – in September.

“But I hope their players are reading those articles,” chuckled Waters, the Sun Belt’s commissioner since 1998. “I hope their coaches are reading them. I hope they’re overlooking all three of them. We’ll slip in there and play them as hard as we can.

“For our kids, going to somewhere like Nebraska is our World Series, Super Bowl, BCS Championship game. If (NU) is overlooking them, that’s all the better for us…if we go up there and win a couple games, those people criticizing it are going to look foolish.”

Waters isn’t issuing any kind of guarantee, other than he’ll be in attendance for one of those games in Lincoln. And he’s quick to mention he’s “appreciative” of the three shots NU is giving the Sun Belt. But he is also suggesting the Huskers be mindful of a league that’s developed a minor reputation over the last five years for scaring and slaying major conference opponents.

“Let’s play the games,” Waters said, “and then talk about quality.”

Entering its ninth year as a football league and its 34th year overall, the Sun Belt is comprised of nine teams that previously played in a variety of conferences and divisions. Some wandered the Independent wilderness.

Only one – Louisiana-Lafayette, former Southwestern Louisiana – has consistently been a Division I FBS program. Others, like North Texas, Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State – spent time in the former Division I-AA. Florida Atlantic and Florida International just started teams in the last decade. Western Kentucky is now “post-transition” as a league and Division I FBS member, having gone through the painful conversion to top-flight college football.

The infant years of Sun Belt football league were rough. North Texas coasted to four crowns, going 25-1 inside the conference, while losing, often quite badly, to teams non-league foes (65-0, 52-21 and 37-14 losses to Texas, Colorado and Baylor in 2004 come to mind). FIU was best known for a bench-clearing brawl at end of a loss to Miami. New Mexico State, Idaho and Utah State did little for the league’s profile other than become fodder for the Pac 10, and left after the 2005 season for the WAC, where they haven’t been any better.

“If I had it to do over again, I would go back to the first year of our league (2001) and say ‘All right, don’t play anyone you can’t beat,” Waters said. “If we had done that, people would have marveled at what a great league this was.”

It wasn’t until Troy beat No. 19 Missouri on ESPN in 2004, that “we were taken seriously,” Waters said.

And while Troy has had its share of clunkers, too – a 56-0 loss at Nebraska in 2006 – it’s helped the Sun Belt’s profile tremendously, beating Oklahoma State 41-23 on ESPN in 2007- that’s game behind the benching of OSU quarterback Bobby Reid, and Coach Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant – and taking Florida State, Georgia, LSU to the fourth quarters in other years. The Trojans staked a 31-3 lead on the Tigers in Baton Rouge – at night, no less – last year before collapsing in a 40-31 loss. Troy, along with Fla. Atlantic, are co-favorites for the Sun Belt this year.

Louisiana-Monroe joined the party by upsetting Alabama 21-14 in 2007. Florida Atlantic beat Minnesota, too. Last year, Middle Tennessee beat Maryland 24-14 and Arkansas State, one of NU’s opponents, sent Texas A&M into a spiral with a season-opening 18-14 win in College Station.

“Every year, there’s a sign that we’re getting better,” Waters said.

Waters said he’s finally seeing some of the acceptance that the Sun Belt’s had for years in college softball and baseball, where the league routinely sends two teams to the NCAA Tournament. Attendance at Sun Belt home games has doubled. The TV package is better. Players hailing from Sun Belt schools – most notably All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware – are doing well in the NFL. And some major conferences are beginning to embrace the idea of home-and-home games with Sun Belt schools.

A debate within the league, Waters said, is whether the Sun Belt should continue to take major paydays from Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and ACC programs – the Pac 10 and Big East tend to pillage other leagues for lesser opponents – or try to set its sights on competing more directly with Conference USA, the WAC and the Mountain West.

The Sun Belt continues to court mid-level conference schools, while attempting to appeal to the recruiting interests of major conference schools.

To this end, Florida Atlantic and Florida International may prove, long-term, to be quite helpful.

“Minnesota went to (Florida Atlantic) two years ago,” Waters said. “For Minnesota, it was a recruiting trip to South Florida.”

It was also a loss for the Gophers.

“At the end of the day, this is college sports,” Waters said. “This is not selling widgets, we’re competing. You report the scores every day, so there’s nowhere to hide. The best way to improve the quality of your league is to win games.”

An upset by one of the Sun Belt Three would be another major boost to the league’s profile.