NEW ORLEANS — Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Keith Gill did not need to do a lot of convincing with the league’s football coaches at the conference’s annual Football Media Day on Thursday.
Gill enumerated how Sun Belt football has made huge strides over the past few years during his opening “State of the Conference” address, but the league’s 10 head coaches did not need to hear that. The seven returning coaches had experienced it first-hand, and the three new coaching faces picked up on that message quickly.
“This was always a very, very strong conference,” said first-year ULM head coach Terry Bowden. “When you played a Sun Belt team, you knew right off how good this conference is. And when you see the success the conference has in bowl games, to have the record we have in bowl games tells you where this conference is.”
One of Gill’s messages was the Sun Belt’s Football Bowl Subdivision-leading .692 winning percentage in bowl games over the last five years, along with an FBS-leading 21 non-conference victories last season. The Sun Belt also went 3-0 against Big 12 Conference opponents in 2020.
“The resume speaks for itself,” said Louisiana head coach Billy Napier, whose team will be going for a fourth-straight West Division title. “When you talk about what this league has accomplished over the last couple of years, the Power Five wins, the non-conference wins and the bowl winning percentage, there’s so much momentum and there’s credibility across the country.”
Louisiana and Coastal Carolina shared the 2020 Sun Belt title, after the league championship game was cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak. That did not deter the poll voters and the College Football Playoff committee, who each put the Ragin’ Cajuns and the Chanticleers in their final listings – a first in Sun Belt history.
“The state of Sun Belt football is strong,” Gill said. “It’s the strongest in our history. And the 2021 season could be even more sensational with possibly three teams ranked nationally in the preseason.”
One of those is certain to be Coastal Carolina, which went through the regular season undefeated and came within an overtime bowl-game loss to Liberty from the first perfect season in league history. That came after Coastal was picked to finish fifth – last – in the East Division entering the 2020 season.
But Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell, honored on Wednesday with the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award by the Football Writers Association of America just prior to the start of Media Day festivities, warned against anyone making assumptions about the 2021 season.
“We know the Sun Belt’s going to be challenging,” Chadwell said. “This league from top to bottom is as tough as I’ve ever been around. Any team in our league has a chance to go out and beat you every week and earn the opportunity to play for a Sun Belt championship. That’s what we’re going to work hard every week to do.”
Not surprisingly, the Chanticleers were tabbed as the East Division co-favorite alongside App State, which won four-straight Sun Belt titles from 2016-19.
“It’s an exciting time to be a part of this league,” Napier said. “(Former commissioner) Karl Benson had an incredible vision, the championship game, the divisional format. How that has all grown has been great to see. And Keith Gill with his leadership, certainly last year was the biggest challenge of all, and he did an exceptional job.”
During the season of COVID, the Sun Belt was able to complete a full season, including playing 39 of its 40 regular season conference games.
“Last year at this time, the football season was in jeopardy,” Gill said in his Thursday remarks. “But this year we’re gathered in traditional fashion, and we welcome those participating by video conference. Like the 2020 football season, we’ve taken advantage of the pandemic to strengthen many of the things we do.”
One new strengthening Gill announced Thursday was the conference’s extension of its media rights deal with ESPN, one that now runs through the 2030-31 academic year. The agreement results in a more than 50 percent increase in Sun Belt games appearing on ESPN’s linear networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU), with 40 percent of the new opportunities set for Saturday broadcasts. The conference had a 135 percent increase in viewership during the 2020 season, with seven games surpassing one million viewers.
“This is the best Group of Five league in the country in my opinion,” said Troy coach Chip Lindsey, “and that’s because of the quality of coaches and players we have throughout the entire league top to bottom. It’s outstanding. It’s a challenge every week.”
Butch Jones, one of the league’s three new coaches after taking over the Arkansas State program, credits the league’s administrators for much of that success.
“This league has great players and great coaches,” Jones said, “but the last three or four years, what has made the difference in the Sun Belt, from me following from afar, is really the commitment by the institutions. When you look at the commitment all the institutions have made from a facility standpoint, a scheduling standpoint, the hiring of all these great coaches, recruiting budgets, I think that’s drastically changed the landscape of the Sun Belt Conference.”