July 25, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson won't rule out Big 12 expansion plans affecting his own conference.

Still, Benson called the Sun Belt's planned membership ''perfect'' in terms of geography, and he stressed that he envisions a period of stability in which member institutions will enjoy budding regional rivalries and see their football programs prosper.

''I truly hope that we can focus on 2016, what we know, what we can control, what we can achieve - and not get bogged down in speculation and rumors about conference membership,'' Benson said Monday in his state-of-the-Sun Belt address at the conference's annual preseason football media day. ''Obviously, if the Big 12 or SEC or ACC made that phone call to a Sun Belt president or chancellor, he or she would be foolish not to have that discussion.

''However, I've said more than once that I will know that the Sun Belt has reached a level of sustainability and stability when a phone call comes from the president or chancellor of one of the Sun Belt's peer conferences to a Sun Belt president or chancellor, and the answer will be, ''Thank you very much, but my university is very happy where we are.' That's exactly where I believe the Sun Belt is today.''

Football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State are leaving the Sun Belt after 2017. Coastal Carolina, now in transition from the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, becomes a full football member in 2018. At that point, the Sun Belt will have 10 teams in seven Southern states: Alabama (South Alabama and Troy), Arkansas (Arkansas State), Georgia (Georgia Southern and Georgia State), Louisiana (Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe), North Carolina (Appalachian State), South Carolina (Coastal Carolina) and Texas (Texas State).

''All you have to do is look at the map,'' Benson said. ''It's perfect, it works and we believe in long run it will allow the Sun Belt to grow and thrive and prosper.''

Stability is something the Sun Belt, now entering its 16th season as a Division I FBS conference, hasn't had in a while. Five teams - North Texas, Middle Tennessee, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Western Kentucky - have left the Sun Belt since 2013. Since then, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State have joined, while longtime member South Alabama moved up to FBS in football and Coastal Carolina joined with its football upgrade now in progress.

But Benson hopes the Sun Belt will begin a new era of stability by 2018, when the league also will host its inaugural championship game.

Benson has said the conference likely would be split into two five-team divisions, with each division winner meeting in the title game. But as of Monday, he said the conference still has not decided whether it wants to go that route, or simply have every team play once - meaning nine league games - with the top two meeting in what would be a rematch for the championship. The difficulty with the latter option is that it would limit teams to three non-league games.

''Without finalizing it, it appears that we would be headed toward the divisions just because we have so many game contracts that go beyond 2018 that call for a fourth non-conference games,'' Benson said. ''If we made the decision to eventually go to a single division and play nine conference games, it would take several years to phase that in.''

This season, the Sun Belt will have tie-ins to five bowl games, with the newest being the Arizona Bowl in Tucson. The league also has agreements with the New Orleans, GoDaddy (Mobile, Alabama), Camellia (Montgomery, Alabama) and Cure (Orlando, Florida) bowls.

Benson applauded member institutions for financial commitments in the form of stadium and practice facility improvements in recent years, and said those investments have paid off in the form of growing exposure and revenues for the league.

While stopping short of getting into specifics, Benson said Sun Belt revenues have increased tenfold in the past three years, meaning that member institutions now receive distributions exceeding $1 million annually from the league.

Benson also reaffirmed his commitment to a strategy he stressed a year ago of scheduling fewer non-conference games against BCS programs and more against ''peer'' conferences, even though that path effectively reduces individual programs' revenues by cutting back on the number of big paydays they could get from playing at BCS schools.

This season, the Sun Belt is reducing BCS opponents by two while playing two more non-league games against similar mid-major programs.

''That strategy is working,'' Benson said. ''That's the model, that's the non-conference strategy that we need, to allow our football programs and our student athletes an opportunity to succeed, an opportunity to achieve, an opportunity to rise in standings, rise in the polls.''

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AP College Football: http://collegefootball.ap.org

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