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State of the conference: Sun Belt

8/4/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

The Sun Belt is one of the nation's youngest conference's in Division I-A football. Florida Atlantic starting playing Division IA in 2001, Florida International in 2002, and Western Kentucky will join the league this season -- but it's already considered a conference on the rise.

In 2007 alone, the Sun Belt managed three major upsets: Florida Atlantic defeated Minnesota; Troy defeated Oklahoma State; Louisiana-Monroe toppled Alabamal and Florida Atlantic went on to win its first conference championship.

Florida Atlantic won the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and helped the Sun Belt to $1,823,543 in bowl revenue, according to a report published by the NCAA -- third-most among the non-BCS conferences.

The increased success gave the Sun Belt an opportunity to partner with three new bowls this season, which will give the conference a better opportunity for television exposure and better recruiting. Previously, the Sun Belt was linked to just one bowl.

"This is an excellent opportunity for our football league for many reasons," said Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters regarding the bowl partnership. "It will give our teams a chance to play in regional bowl games, show that we can compete with quality opponents and prove that this league can attract crowds to games and influence TV ratings."

Now, the challenge for the Sun Belt is to balance the league. Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas and Florida International all finished with three or fewer wins. Florida International has not finished with a record above .500 since it joined the league in 2005 and North Texas, which won four consecutive conference championships from 2001-04, has won a total of five conference games since the league restructured in 2005.

Still, there's a sense that teams such as North Texas and Middle Tennessee State can regain its past form and make the league a little less top heavy and a little more competitive across the board.