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Already a long-time leader in innovation and progressive thinking in the world of intercollegiate athletics, the Sun Belt Conference also continues to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with on the playing field.

The Sun Belt is in its fifth decade as a vibrant and vigorous part of the collegiate landscape, and has never shied away from taking a leadership role among conferences in its efforts to provide better experiences for its member schools, its student-athletes and coaches, and for its fans and followers. After all, this is the league that inaugurated college basketball’s shot clock and was the first to partner with a fledgling cable television entity whose ESPN moniker was unknown at the time.

Innovation is a great thing, but the just-completed 2016-17 athletic season also showed that the Sun Belt Conference takes a back seat to no other league in its competitive balance and in proving itself deserving of its status a member of the NCAA’s highest conference tier.

At no time was league athletic success more obvious than during the 2016 football season, when the Sun Belt broke out and fulfilled much of the promise that league founders and its members envisioned when the league inaugurated the sport just after the new millennium.

Last season, Sun Belt members participated in six bowl games, a 50 percent increase in the league’s former high-water mark and only a decade removed from a “one-bowl league” moniker in its formative years. More importantly, Sun Belt teams didn’t just get to bowl games … they won them, again in record numbers.

The league finished 4-2 in the postseason, with more bowl wins than leagues such as the Big Ten and Pac-12. Only two leagues (the ACC and the SEC) won more games, and only the ACC’s 8-3 bowl record ranked higher than the Sun Belt’s winning percentage. Had ACC member Clemson not won the College Football Playoff Championship game, the Sun Belt would have shared the country’s best bowl win ratio.

The Sun Belt also had the most wins and best win percentage among the “Group of Five” peer conferences, including victories over teams in the two top-rated leagues in the final computer rankings.

“The bowl season definitely validated the very strong regular season that we had,” said Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson. “It proved what we’ve been saying all along. The overall credibility of the Sun Belt is on the rise, and our members and fans that have been expecting to see positive results out of the league are now seeing that.”

The postseason wins by Arkansas State over Central Florida in the AutoNation Cure Bowl, Appalachian State over Toledo in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, Troy over Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl and Idaho over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl helped the league double its previous single-season bowl victory high (two). Appearances by Louisiana in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl – a bowl partner of the Sun Belt for the 16th straight year – and by South Alabama in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl helped make the Sun Belt a highly visible part of the bowl season.

The wins by Appalachian State and Arkansas State on the Dec. 17 start of bowl season meant the Sun Belt had matched its previous record for bowl wins by sundown on opening day.

“Our teams stepped up this year,” Benson said. “To go from two bowl games to five bowl tie-ins in a five-year period, for our teams to deliver like they have, and to throw television in there for the huge growth of people watching Sun Belt football, we had a banner year and it all came to a pinnacle in the bowl season.”

The bowl success was the crowning jewel of a season full of football successes for a conference that only began the sport in the 2001 season and became the first and still only already-existing league to inaugurate football. The Sun Belt ranked third in the final conference computer rankings among the “Group of Five” - ranking well ahead of the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA, and giving the league a significant financial boost through payouts from the College Football Playoff. The league also moved into third among the five in the four-year average computer ranking of conferences.

Troy became the first league school to crack the Associated Press Football Top 25 during the season, reaching No. 25 on Nov. 14 as part of a five-win improvement over 2015. South Alabama also provided a milestone with a victory over a nationally-ranked opponent when the Jaguars topped No. 19 San Diego State on the road in early October.

All that success comes as the league finalizes its football transition this season, with Idaho and New Mexico State’s football-only memberships ending at the conclusion of the 2017 season and new league member Coastal Carolina becoming a full-fledged football member this fall. Next year, the Sun Belt will compete in football divisions for the first time and will stage its first-ever championship game at the end of the 2018 season.

“We are very excited going forward in football,” Benson said. “Having our championship game next year only increases what we already have going. The footprint of this league was done to ensure long-term success and sustainability, and with the membership structure we now have in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, that footprint is set up for even more success.”

The Sun Belt gained much notoriety and notice during the past football season, but that was by no means the league’s only hallmark during the past year. Men’s basketball – the league’s symbol of success in its formative years – had its highest conference RPI in more than a decade with a No. 13 national finish, and conference members found success in several NCAA postseason events.

Those league successes have been more public in recent years, in part because the Sun Belt itself has been progressive and in the forefront of “new media” and internet-based advancement. The league continues to adapt to the ever-changing world of collegiate athletics and continues the process of evolving to better serve its membership, keeping the pledge it made at its founding to be a league of opportunity. Athletic and academic programs who have shown progressive thinking and the desire to improve have always found a home in the Sun Belt.

Opportunities also extend to the league’s student-athletes, for whom Sun Belt institutions are leaders in providing career services and the tools to assist in the pursuit of personal goals. Sun Belt members all employ fulltime academic advisors and have on average nearly two dozen tutors for academic support.  During the recent 2015-16 academic year, Sun Belt member institutions awarded over $50 million in scholarships to more than 3,100 student-athletes, while also providing life experiences such as team building, domestic and foreign travel, community service, mentoring and recognition through honors and awards.

Individual opportunities also extend between the lines and on the fields and courts of competition. The Sun Belt had 40 players on active NFL rosters during the past season, with representation on 23 of 32 NFL clubs. The league became one of seven conferences nationwide to have back-to-back first-round selections in the NBA Draft when Louisiana’s Elfrid Payton went No. 10 overall to the Orlando Magic in 2014 and Georgia State’s R. J. Hunter was the No. 28 pick of the Boston Celtics the following year.

The Sun Belt has nationally-respected programs in nearly every NCAA sport offering and remains a fixture on the national scene while remaining heavily involved in the conduct and competition of college athletics. But it also provides opportunities for success on many unique and different levels. In athletic parlance, the Sun Belt has “upside,” and its motto of “Together We Rise” is just as applicable now as when it was founded as a home to some of the nation’s premier mid-major basketball programs.

In its very first year, one of those programs reached the pinnacle of NCAA men’s basketball competition when UNC Charlotte earned a berth in the Final Four. That type of success set the bar very high, but the league’s four-decade history is sprinkled with landmark success in all seasons.

In the spring, baseball and softball continue to put the league in the national spotlight with deep runs in postseason play and high visibility in national polls. Louisiana’s baseball team ranked No. 1 nationally in the final third of the 2014 season and reached the NCAA Super Regional round in 2014 and 2015, while its softball team has advanced to Super Regional play five times in the last six seasons including a trip to the 2014 Women’s College World Series. More recently, new member Coastal Carolina reigned supreme at the pinnacle of college baseball, winning the College World Series only one year ago in the 2016 season.

Just as important as on-field success, the Sun Belt’s commitment to academic excellence remains a league symbol. The league’s record book for grade-point averages and academic honors is a constantly-changing document, seemingly with each year’s success outdoing the previous year. This past spring, a record 23 league programs were recognized for outstanding performance in the classroom, with those teams earning NCAA Public Recognition Awards for APR scores in the top 10 percent nationally.  It was the third consecutive year the Sun Belt has broken its record for teams honored.

The strength of any league is its membership, and the Sun Belt added to its strength when Coastal Carolina joined in all sports except football in July 2016. CCU is in the middle of a transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision and will be in its first year of full FBS membership in 2018, but will compete for the Sun Belt football championship this season even though not eligible for postseason play until 2018.

Coastal joins Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Louisiana, ULM, South Alabama, Texas State and Troy to give the league 10 football members and enable the Sun Belt to inaugurate divisional football play and stage a conference championship game in 2018. Little Rock and UTA compete as Sun Belt members in all sports other than football, helping give the conference a mix of the “old” and the “new.” Long-time league members, including charter member South Alabama’s distinction in being a Sun Belt member since its founding in 1976, continue to have success, and a solid corps of conference newcomers continue to make their marks on league and national levels.

The “old” and “new” mix also gives the league vitality and diversity among its membership across the South. The mix of regions and regional cultures provides a rare opportunity for student-athletes and staffers to experience many environments, and the chance to experience that diversity without leaving their own campuses. The Sun Belt is also noteworthy for its attempts to make each of its championship events in every sport a special moment in the lives of its student-athletes and its many fans and followers.

Many individuals from Sun Belt institutions have brought distinction to their alma maters, and not just in athletics. For every All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware (Troy) and NFL Man of the Year Charles Tillman (Louisiana), and for every World Series MVP David Freese (South Alabama) hailing from Sun Belt schools, there are also U.S. presidents (Lyndon Johnson, Texas State), business icons (Chick-fil-A president Daniel Cathy, Georgia Southern), nationally known entertainers (Tim McGraw, ULM and Ludacris, Georgia State), and even royalty (Miss America Debbye Turner, Arkansas State).

These proud alumni, as well as those who represent the dozen league institutions, are proof that the Sun Belt Conference is a league of excitement, a league of opportunity, and one that continues to provide the promise of success with each coming sunrise.