Photos by: Sean Smith
SM2 Sports Director Austin Lindsey
After Southern Miss’ failed attempt at conference realignment in 2013, many in the Southern Miss fanbase saw no way out of Conference USA.
Thanks to the college powerhouses of Texas and Oklahoma shaking up the college landscape this summer, it provided Southern Miss a way out. The trickle-down effect in college athletics allowed schools to move up or get left in the dust.
The irony of the move to the Sun Belt Conference is that many viewed the move from C-USA to the SBC as a downgrade just three years ago. This belief changed when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the United States and changed college rankings. Due to many conferences not starting their regular college season on time, the SBC positioned itself as a threat in the Group of Five. The period gained the SBC national recognition for its fare against Power Five opponents at the beginning of the 2020 season.
The move allows Southern Miss to eliminate its hefty travel expenses in C-USA, which had the highest travel mileage out of any group of five conferences. The SBC gives Southern Miss the ability to regain a higher attendance through regional rivalries, something Southern Miss has missed in the past decade.
Southern Miss now has potential regional rivals in South Alabama, Troy and Louisiana. Though Hattiesburg is not a huge media market, the Southern Miss fanbase is a force in Group of Five Division I football with an average attendance of approximately 25,000.
The SBC has prided itself on adding strong fanbases into its conference and Southern Miss fits the mold. The decision to leave C-USA was long overdue after the conference’s failed TV deal with non-main outlets and CBS Sports. The Sun Belt TV deal with ESPN running through 2031 gives viewers easy access to its games gaining new fans.
In joining the Sun Belt, Southern Miss has to win to strengthen its brand beginning with the football program finding its way.
SM2 Reporter Dima Mixon
Since being a charter member of Conference USA, Southern Miss has been through the ups and downs with the conference. This week seemed to be a major down for the conference and this time, Southern Miss won’t be sticking around as C-USA has lost half of its teams in the past week.
On Monday, reports came out that Southern Miss, Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison would be joining the Sun Belt. The move has been speculated over the past week, but with the confirmation, Southern Miss will be joining the Sun Belt conference, with play starting in 2023.
This is an excellent move by Athletic Director Jeremy McClain for two reasons. First, the Sun Belt over time has become a better football conference than C-USA. Coastal Carolina went undefeated in 2020. Appalachian State has been an excellent program over the past few years. Lousiana Lafayette has become one of the better non-Power Five schools in America. Not to mention that South Alabama in the past two years, has dominated Southern Miss.
Second, the conference makes more sense geographically for Southern Miss. Southern Miss will be joining the Sun Belt West; the other teams in that division are Louisiana, Texas State, South Alabama, Louisiana Monroe, and Arkansas State.
All of the teams are within driving distance of Hattiesburg outside of Texas State, which makes much more sense in the grand scheme of things. If you have been a lifelong Southern Miss fan, you may recognize some of these teams, which means old rivalries will be restored. Southern Miss, Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison will make the Sun Belt a 14-team conference worth watching.
SM2 Reporter Jackson Howell
Southern Miss has officially joined the Sun Belt Conference, according to reports from Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports and Brett McMurphy of Action Network. Southern Miss was a founding member of the conference and the longest-tenured football program. After Conference-USA has been gutted of talent throughout the last decade, this was a necessary move for the future of Southern Miss Athletics.
C-USA lost six teams to the American Athletic Conference and now, Southern Miss, Marshall and Old Dominion to the Sun Belt. This leaves C-USA with five teams after it has already been decimated.
Former members of C-USA that have achieved success elsewhere include, UCF, TCU, current #2 overall football team Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston and Louisville. Most of these went to the AAC, which was founded in 2013. TCU went to the Mountain West and eventually the Big 12, and Louisville went to the Big East and eventually the ACC. There is a proven track record that leaving C-USA for a better conference leads to more success.
While the AAC has been the most successful Group of 5 conference, especially in football, the Sun Belt is on the rise. Teams like Coastal Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette and Appalachian State are perennial Group of 5 football contenders. South Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy are among those who are close to Hattiesburg in distance. According to Pete Thamel, this will help Southern Miss save approximately $400,000 yearly in travel expenses.
It is an absolute no-brainer for Southern Miss to join the SBC. Despite being loyal to C-USA during its 26-year tenure, it would have been foolish to stay on the sinking ship. C-USA is actively trying to rebuild the conference, but none of the potential additions can make up for those it has lost.
SM2 News Director Charlie Luttrell
This is 2021 and there’s no more time for hesitance. For Southern Miss, the choice was to jump on the lifeboat going to Cancun or sink with your ship to who knows where. Metaphorically speaking, Conference USA is that sinking ship and Southern Miss’ 26-year ride on that ship was long overdue.
After numerous alignments and a stagnant outlook, fans grew tired and bored of C-USA. The interest was no longer there in the fanbase, and within the programs in the conference. After seeing six teams jumping to the American Athletic Conference, it was evident how necessary a move was for Southern Miss to avoid the potential disasters of staying in the remains of a salvaged C-USA.
It was a shot that Southern Miss had to take because there simply wasn’t another time to wait. Southern Miss is one of the only two remaining members of C-USA that has stuck with the conference since its founding. The other member, UAB, also just chose to leave for the AAC. A move has been long due and the Sun Belt Conference just makes too much sense.
Sure, the media contracts aren’t much of an improvement from C-USA like the schools leaving to AAC are getting, but the benefits are in the details.
Instead of spanning over the vast spread of C-USA, the school can slash traveling costs with the much more compact geographic location of the SBC. While Southern Miss’ budget is admirable, it isn’t the biggest in the C-USA or Sun Belt Conference. Where cuts can be made without sacrificing is a huge improvement for the program.
And it’s arguable that South Alabama is one of the school’s fiercest rivals in the past years, especially with two losses in football and contested matchups in baseball. Fans have much more to look forward to with the excitement of facing new teams but also facing teams that mean something to them.
Paired with interesting matchups against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and more, Southern Miss has plenty of prospect in joining the SBC.
This is just one step in the equation for Southern Miss, but it’s a step in the right direction. When we spoke to Director of Athletics Jeremy McClain on 4th Street Sports Show, he made it clear that Southern Miss would be put first as realignment talks warmed up.
“We’re going to put ourselves in the best position possible to reach our ceiling, so whether that’s in C-USA, or whether other opportunities arise that could put in a better position, we just have to take care of business on the field, on the court, fundraising, all of the above…so that when the time does come, we’re ready to take advantage,” McClain said.
And just like that, McClain and Southern Miss took advantage of the situation.