Sun Belt expansion: Southern Miss, Old Dominion join conference with Marshall, FCS power expected to follow

The latest domino in the realignment bonanza has fallen, and the future of Conference USA is severely in doubt. Old Dominion announced Wednesday that it has accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference with the move coming no later than July 1, 2023. The Monarchs join Southern Miss, which announced its move to the Sun Belt on Tuesday.  

“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. 

The addition might not be the final move in Sun Belt realignment. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reported last week that, in addition to Southern Miss and Old Dominion, the Sun Belt could also look to add Marshall from Conference USA, along with potentially adding FCS power James Madison as a transitional member. Adding JMU, another Virginia school, would be immensely attractive to ODU. 

Southern Miss announced it would join the Sun Belt Conference on Tuesday, setting off a second wave of departures from Conference USA. The Golden Eagles’ move will also come no later than July 1, 2023. 

“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 move begins to leave the future of Conference USA 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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