MOSCOW, Idaho – The University of Idaho needed a stable Football Bowl Subdivision home for its football program. The Sun Belt Conference needed to get to 12 teams so it could establish two divisions and a championship game.
If you’re wondering why the Vandals and New Mexico State are headed back to the Sun Belt as football-only members, it’s really that simple.
“We have to be realistic and honest here,” Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said. “University of Idaho needed a conference home from a football standpoint, and the Sun Belt is providing the University of Idaho and New Mexico State with a conference home.”
Benson announced the additions of Idaho and NMSU on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, the Sun Belt announced FCS schools Georgia Southern and Appalachian State were joining the league on July 1, 2014.
For Idaho, the move brings stability, a consistent revenue source and better postseason prospects. The Vandals had been left teetering after the Western Athletic Conference collapsed last year following widespread conference changes across the country.
Those changes are still being felt in smaller leagues like the WAC and Sun Belt. But Idaho is now on solid ground.
“It’s something that we have been working toward for quite a long time since we announced our independent status back in August,” UI athletic director Rob Spear said. “It’s going to provide great stability for our football program.”
The Vandals will compete as an FBS independent this fall, while all other Idaho sports have one more year in the WAC before joining the Big Sky Conference.
UI was part of the Sun Belt from 2001-2004 before jumping at the opportunity to join the WAC. Spear said it was hard to compare the conference now to where it stood the last time UI joined.
Still, Idaho is comfortable with the Sun Belt’s contingency plans if it loses other members. Western Kentucky has been linked to Conference USA. If Western Kentucky stays, the conference will have two Petrino brothers leading programs – Paul at Idaho and Bobby at WKU.
“We’re extremely excited to get into the Sun Belt Conference,” Paul Petrino said. “It’s a great football league. There are a lot of great coaches in that league.”
The Vandals will be part of the Sun Belt’s Western Division with New Mexico State, Texas State, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe. The Eastern Division will include Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, South Alabama, Troy and Western Kentucky (for now).
Benson said the league’s members will consider a nine-game conference schedule during May meetings. As it stands, the Vandals will have four conference road games in locales that won’t be unfamiliar to a team that traveled to Louisiana Tech and Texas State last season.
“We’re used to it,” Spear said, “so I don’t think travel is an issue at all.”
The AD said Idaho will focus on nonconference games with Western schools to balance its travel. Even more importantly to Spear, Idaho is expected to see a minimum of $1 million in conference revenue in the third and fourth years after rejoining the Sun Belt.
“That’s significant,” he said, “and I think it opens the eyes of a lot of other institutions contemplating moving up.”
Spear’s ideal situation would be to see Big Sky schools form a new Western FBS conference or join an expanded Sun Belt. With changes to the BCS system and money flooding in for a playoff system, he expects FCS schools to eventually join Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in making the move to the FBS.