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Sun Belt Expansion Still In Exploratory Mode

Ever since becoming commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, Karl Benson has tried to keep up with the other league in the Football Bowl Subdivision and bring credibility to the SBC. And of course, more money.

The one thing that Benson has been working on is trying to lock down a conference championship game, which means adding a 12th team to the conference. But adding that last team has been difficult for Benson and the other SBC schools to lock down.

On a chat on Reddit on Monday, Benson said that he would like to see a conference championship game by at least 2016. But Benson didn’t mention any schools that are up for expansion.

While a football championship game would bring in much needed money and exposure for the SBC, the lack of a big television contract is also a problem for Benson. Right now, all SBC games are only streaming on ESPN3, but are not on any networks other than selected weekday games.

Many thought that Benson would have had eyes on UAB after the school announced that it would drop football early this year. But he denied in the chat that any talks — formal or informal — happened with UAB officials. And now that the Blazers are bringing football back in 2016 and staying in Conference USA, any discussion of UAB joining the SBC is pretty much dead.

Of course he’s is mostly hoping that the NCAA rules to allow conferences under 12 teams to have their own championship game, which is what the Big 12 is hoping. Because there’s no real talk about adding another school in the Sun Belt.

The schools being thrown around right now are all FCS schools — Eastern Kentucky, Coastal Carolina and Chattanooga. New Mexico State, which is a football-only member, is also being considered to join in all sports.

The Aggies are desperate to get out of the dying Western Athletic Conference for the rest of its sports after the conference dropped football after 2011 when most of its members left for the Mountain West Conference. Only NMSU and Idaho were left, and both are now in the SBC for only football.

Coastal Carolina, a school that has played football for only 12 years, has developed to be the new favorite to be added to the SBC. The Chanticleers have won over 60 percent of their games, won the Big South Conference title seven times and has made the Football Championship Subdivision five times. Last season, CCU was 12-2 and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals.

Coastal Carolina also fits geographically with Appalachian State, giving the Mountaineers a much closer rival. Although the SBC wouldn’t get a big bump in the media market category, CCU does fit into what Benson is searching for in a 12th member.

Eastern Kentucky could replace a void in the Sun Belt that was lost when Western Kentucky left to join Conference USA. But the Colonels bring in a big market in nearby Lexington with a longer legacy in the former Division I-AA, including two national titles.

If the SBC pulls the trigger on expansion, it will probably take place next year for the 2017-18 school year. But for now, Benson and the SBC will have to wait another couple of years for that football championship game that not only would give the conference big money, but big-time respect.

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