For the first time since the Sun Belt Conference formed in 2001, the conference could have three teams with seven or more wins.
Troy and Middle Tennessee both have seven wins heading into this weekend and Louisiana-Monroe is bidding for its seventh win this weekend against Louisiana-Lafayette.
It’s a huge step forward for the youngest FBS league. The Sun Belt Conference is likely to send three teams to bowl games this year, the most the conference has ever sent to the postseason.
The Sun Belt has just one guaranteed bowl agreement with the New Orleans Bowl, but has secondary agreements with the St. Petersburg Bowl, Papa Johns Bowl and Independence Bowl should the conferences contracted to those bowls not have enough bowl-eligible teams.
The St. Petersburg Bowl is likely to have an opening, as is the GMAC Bowl, which could try and pit the Mid-American Conference champion against the Sun Belt champion for the first time.
However, Notre Dame will get pick of the litter of at-large bowl berths and its destination likely will depend on the payout and the opponent. There has been some speculation that Notre Dame could end up at the GMAC Bowl.
While Waters said he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to his teams, he thinks all are in good shape for the postseason.
“I think if we have three seven-win teams, they’ll all go,” Waters said.
The Sun Belt bowl picture is much clearer than it was a year ago when some confusion in the secondary contract language left a couple of six-win Sun Belt teams out of luck. The Sun Belt thought six wins would get some of its teams placed, but the contracts called for seven victories. Troy played in the New Orleans Bowl as the conference champion and Florida Atlantic lobbied its way into the Motor City Bowl where it defeated Central Michigan.
“We’ve got teams with better records and not only does it help this year, but it helps down the road because your number of primary agreements you can enter into is the average of your winning record,” Waters said.
The amount of bowl-eligible teams the conference has this year will affect how many guaranteed bowl games the conference is allowed to have during the next four-year span. Each conference is entitled to as many automatic bowls as the average of bowl-eligible teams during the past four seasons. The Sun Belt currently has an average of 1.7 bowl-eligible teams during the last four-year cycle, which makes it eligible for two guaranteed bowls. If Louisiana-Monroe earns a seventh win, the conference still won’t have an average higher than two. If Louisiana-Lafayette won out and Louisiana-Monroe won its final game, then the conference would be eligible for a third guaranteed bowl, but the Ragin' Cajuns' final regular-season game is against league leader Troy.
The New Orleans Bowl already has renewed its contract with the conference and Waters said another primary and a couple of secondary contracts are still in the works, but he wasn’t ready to release potential sites. The GMAC bowl, which is currently contracted with the ACC and MAC, could be a possible primary destination.
Waters said he’s pleased with the direction his conference is heading but disappointed that it will still have the fewest number of guaranteed bowls of any of the FBS conferences. While he’s hoping to get a couple secondary bowls, he said his teams need to continue to get better so that they’re not relying on other conferences not to qualify.
“I think it’s another step forward,” Waters said. “I think the thing we all have to keep in mind is where we were just 10 years ago, and understand that this is a very competitive business and there’s a lot of tradition in this business and you’re not just going to change it overnight. You’d like for things to improve faster, but you also understand that it takes awhile.”