Matt Vautour: UMass to the Sun Belt? It could happen

Saturday, October 11, 2014
Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told CBS Sports that his conference and the University of Massachusetts have had discussions about the Minutemen joining as a football-only member.

It’s a pretty good bet that if it’s at the point where Benson is willing to admit the talks publicly, there’s a legitimate chance of this happening. Benson is no stranger to conference shifting. He’s the former commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference, which has had more turnover than a community college.

The Sun Belt office offered no further comment and UMass athletic director John McCutcheon didn’t answer his phone or return calls Wednesday.

UMass needs a conference. There’s no hope as an independent. From the moment the MAC elected to sever ties, the Minutemen could hope for a great offer, but the reality is they are going to have to grab the best scenario available. UMass has some nebulous potential, but right now, the Minutemen are a school that’s 2-22 as an FBS program. That’s not a record that’s going to cause league commissioners to line up.

Getting competitive in any conference is the first step toward other things.

The Sun Belt isn’t all that different from the MAC. Will most fans care more about a game with Eastern Michigan than a game against Troy? It’s a conference outside the big five, fighting for attention, money, bowl bids etc. Geography has long gone out the window. Idaho makes less geographic sense than Buffalo. But in reality, the team gets on a charter flight to go to road games. The only real difference is where it lands.

Unlike the MAC, UMass has two fledgling rivalries in the Sun Belt.

Longtime Minuteman fans already hate Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, both former opponents in I-AA/Championship Subdivision title games.

The Sun Belt is not a perfect spot. Of the seven bowl-eligible teams in the conference last year, only two went to postseason as there were 80 Bowl Subdivision teams eligible for 70 slots, a higher number than in most years. But the addition of several new bowls next year, including two with guaranteed Sun Belt affiliations, will help alleviate that to some degree.

The American Athletic Conference was always the ideal answer for UMass. Traditional geographic rivals in Temple and Connecticut and a higher profile than any of the other realistic landing spots made Minuteman fans and administrators covet an AAC invitation.

But at least publicly the new conference isn’t ready to take on new teams.

Going to the Sun Belt doesn’t make a future move to the AAC impossible. The AAC is likely to expand in one of a handful of scenarios:

1. Connecticut, Cincinnati or SMU get an invite to a bigger league. All three are holding out hope for a Big 12 bid, but as of now, that doesn’t seem likely.

2. Navy chooses not to join. There have been an awful lot of rumors kicking around for years that the Midshipmen aren’t so sure this move is right for their football program.

3. The league chooses to expand again. If Army, still an independent, decides to follow Navy into the AAC, the league would likely add another team along with it. UMass could at least be a candidate.

Other than the Sun Belt and the AAC, the possibilities were Conference USA and the Mountain West.

The MWC was never really a realistic option as that league is already well-regarded and would have little to gain by adding a fledgling program over 1,000 miles from most of its teams.

Conference USA certainly has more name value, but the schools that gave that league its former cache are long gone.

The Sun Belt would offer a place to improve and grow. For now, that’s not so bad.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage