Sun Belt expansion: Marshall follows Southern Miss, Old Dominion in joining league from Conference USA


Marshall has become the third Conference USA institution to join the Sun Belt Conference, the league announced on Saturday. Marshall has joined Southern Miss and Old Dominion as part of a C-USA exodus, and the three institutions shifting to the Sun Belt join six others that previously announced departures from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. 

The Thundering Herd previously noted that they would not make a decision on realignment until hiring a new university president. Former Intuit CEO Brad Smith was announced as Marshall’s 38th president on Thursday, clearing the way for the school to make a decision. 

“Marshall is well positioned for an exciting future in the Sun Belt Conference,” President-Elect Smith said in a statement. “Our brand, our athletic programs and our incredible fans earned this opportunity. This is a strong move forward for our university, our athletes and our fans.”

Marshall has been a member of Conference USA since 2005, winning three division championships and the 2014 conference crown since joining the league. The Thundering Herd hired former Alabama associate head coach Charles Huff to lead the program in 2021. He is 4-3 in his first season. 

Additionally, sources tell CBS Sports that FCS power James Madison expects to join the Sun Belt after the Dukes’ board approved a plan to explore FBS football. The decision requires state approval, but is not expected to be an issue. Adding James Madison — which was also targeted by Conference USA — gives Old Dominion and Marshall a natural travel partner. 

The addition of four schools would give the Sun Belt 14 football-playing institutions. 

Old Dominion and Southern Miss publicly announced their decisions to leave for the Sun Belt Conference earlier this week. The schools will make the move no later than July 1, 2023. 

“While C-USA has proven to be an excellent home for ODU Athletics during our transition from FCS to FBS, and we thank the C-USA membership and leadership for such an outstanding partnership, the chance to enhance the overall athletic experience for the student-athletes, fans and alumni of ODU in the SBC with regional rivalries represents the perfect opportunity for the continued growth and evolution of ODU athletic programs in our pursuit of national prominence,” Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig said in a statement. 

Old Dominion joined Conference USA as it transitioned to the FBS level during the 2014 football season. The program played football for a brief period in the 1930s, but ultimately folded before restarting a football team at the FCS level in 2009. Bobby Wilder led the program from inception until 2019, posting a 77-56 record between FCS and FBS, including a 10-win season in 2016. 

The program has struggled since the breakout season, however, posting an 11-32 record since 2017. Former Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne took over the program in 2020, but ODU opted not to play football during the pandemic season. A move to the Sun Belt — along with the potential rise of James Madison from the FCS ranks — gives the Monarchs significantly more regional partners in the Carolinas and Georgia. 

“We are thrilled to welcome Old Dominion University to the Sun Belt. ODU brings a host of strengths to our conference. They are competitive across all of their sports, have a strong brand and are supported by a great fan base,” Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said in a statement. 

Southern Miss announced it would join the Sun Belt Conference on Tuesday, setting off a second wave of departures from Conference USA. 

“Today is a great day for Southern Miss. I want to thank Commissioner [Keith] Gill and the Board of Directors within the Sun Belt for their faith in our institution and our ability to add value to the conference,” said Southern Mississippi athletic director Jeremy McClain. “We are excited about adding our rich tradition of success and passionate fan base to a conference that values those attributes, and look forward to working together to continue to elevate the Sun Belt on the national stage.” 

Southern Miss has been a member of Conference USA since the creation of the league in 1995. The Eagles were once a nationally-relevant power under head coach Jeff Bower, posting a 21-2 record in conference play from 1996 to 1999. The program has five Conference USA football championships under its belt, with the last one coming in 2011. 

It is interesting that the Sun Belt chose to add despite the fact that it hasn’t been poached by other conference in the latest realignment wave. This round of realignment started in July when the SEC announced that it is adding Texas and Oklahoma out of the Big 12. The Big 12 responded by poaching UCF, Cincinnati and Houston out of the AAC, as well as independent BYU. The AAC then added six programs out of Conference USA — Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA. 

The future of Conference USA is now severely in doubt. Dodd reported that Conference USA could be looking toward FBS independents like Liberty, UConn and UMass, or FCS programs that may be looking to jump to the FBS level. 

“To say that [Conference USA] is not wounded would be to deny [reality],” a source close to the discussions told Dodd.

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