NEW ORLEANS, La. — It was another hot steamy day in New Orleans. Routine for many around here as they wipe sweat from their brow, dodge the inevitable afternoon storms, and get ready to do the same again tomorrow as the sizzling summer steams toward August.
For the handful of Mountaineers in the Big Easy Monday, the backdrop of the 2013 Sun Belt Media Day provided a glimpse into the future. Over 100 journalists from various outposts around the country convened to pepper coaches and student-athletes with questions regarding the approaching season for Appalachian State’s soon-to-be new conference home.
While media gatherings like this are often the same in their annual regurgitation of great lines like, “take it one day at a time,”, “our league has great coaches,“ and “this kid has great potential,” this year’s stage gave Appalachian a new platform to tell its story. Sure, there were Michigan questions. Those will always be there from now until the very last media day. But, there were new faces and new reporters hearing about the unselfishness of the Apps senior class, the mystique of The Rock, the reputation a program gains when it wins three-straight National titles, and what to expect from the ravenous Mountaineer fan base.
After constantly referring to media guides and fact sheets to find the answers to simple questions that are second nature when referring to current Southern Conference alliances and storylines, it’s safe to say that there is a Mountaineer nation-wide learning curve that will be traveled over the next year. Here are a few tidbits to start with, as App State fans begin to bone-up on the Sun Belt:
- For starters, find your best path to New Orleans, as the league’s association with the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and its basketball tournament’s move to The Crescent City’s Lakefront Arena will provide the opportunity for multiple trips to the French Quarter each year. There are discussions to further strengthen the destination partnership between the Sun Belt and New Orleans through the relocation of other championships and additional scheduling opportunities.
- The Gang of Five is a group of conferences that include the Sun Belt, Mountain West, The American, Conference USA, and the Mid-American Conference. This association of schools will see its highest rated champion enter the College Football Playoff beginning in 2014. Teams will be slotted by a selection committee to determine their placement in the four-team playoff or their inclusion in other top-tier bowl games to be played annually on December 31st or January 1st.
Appalachian’s move to the Sun Belt times up with the beginning of the College Football Playoff era. Once bowl eligible, Appalachian will have a clear path toward accessing a slot in the major bowl structure. The conference as a whole has an opportunity to tack on additional revenue annually based on the league’s overall performance against its fellow Gang of Five members.
Because strength of schedule will be one of the criteria the new College Football Playoff selection committee will use to judge teams toward inclusion, Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson and league Athletic Directors will meet this week to discuss the development of a non-conference scheduling model that will suit a program’s individual maturity, but also maximize the opportunity for the entire league to benefit from its members playing, and winning, marquee non-conference games. Soon, the Sun Belt is also expected to announce future conference schedules for 2014, '15, and beyond that will include an eight-league game model.
- The Sun Belt title race for 2013 will at least start in Louisiana, with Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette tying for the top spot in the league’s pre-season poll. The two teams meet November 30th in what could be a league-title defining late-season showdown.
The better battle between the two may occur off the gridiron, however, as both schools simply want to be referred to as “Louisiana.” A similar battle has occurred in the Peach State as Georgia State and Georgia Southern tussle over who is the preferred GSU of choice. Appalachian State and Arkansas State are doing their part to lessen the nationwide ASU saturation, as neither school wants to be referred to by that moniker. A-State is the choice in Jonesboro while App State is the new identifier in the High Country.
- Rivalries for Appalachian could develop earlier in the league than many may think. Appalachian and Troy met in the 2000 season twice — a regular-season matchup in Boone followed by a Mountaineer playoff win in Troy en route to the school’s second semifinal run. Trojan Head Coach Larry Blakeney still remains, and remembers many of the details from both battles. Due to the large App State fan base in the Atlanta area, and the Mountaineers desire to continue to continue their aggressive recruiting in that region, expect a rivalry to develop with Georgia State. The Panthers play in the Georgia dome, and are entering their first season under Head Coach Trent Miles, the program’s second Head Coach.
As the Appalachian-Georgia Southern rivalry gets a shot of adrenaline due to their tandem move to the FBS, a few other battles within the current league structure carry similar weight. The Battle on the Bayou is an annual tilt featuring Monore and Lafayette, a series the Ragin’ Cajuns command a 25-23 lead heading into the 49th meeting. Lafayette has enjoyed a competitive rivalry with Arkansas State, a battle that sounds similar to the old App State-Furman clash given both teams’ rise to prominence within the league recently. Their clash may not be the most prominent college-football battle in the State of Alabama, but Troy and South Alabama have developed a football chapter to a fierce rivalry that has long lingered between the two schools.
- It was very clear that both Appalachian Head Coach Scott Satterfield and Georgia Southern Head Coach Jeff Monken are treating 2013 as any other season, mostly to do right by their successful senior classes. Both coaches prefaced any talk of their eventual first snaps as Sun Belt members by first acknowledging their goals for the season ahead, which included “winning the Southern Conference,” though they are not able to technically do so.
- The Sun Belt is aggressive with its use of the “Media Day” platform. In addition to the live ESPN3 coverage of the event, four outlets broadcast shows from “radio row,” that included sit down interviews with the majority of the league’s head coaches. Monroe Head Coach Todd Berry was among the first to address the media Monday morning, gathering informally with a group of media at around 9:45 a.m. He was the last to be interviewed by one of the originating radio shows just before 5 p.m. The league told its coaches to be here and work the room. “There are only 10 conferences at the FBS level and we want our event to look just like our fellow conferences,” said Benson. The Sun Belt staff went the extra mile to make sure everyone had access to those they needed to help tell the league’s story for the coming year.
- We learned a few other things, too. Don’t try to put gumbo on a plate, as you will raise an eyebrow among a room of locals. Always look to the sky for the afternoon shower. Aside from that, we learned the Sun Belt is a mix of schools that desire to be as competitive as they can be, and they feel the league’s platform could allow them to gain a level of national prominence, should they prove successful. It’s a model Appalachian has been able to take advantage of in its old home, and sticking to that same path will help the Apps be successful amongst a sea of new faces.