Updated: Sun Belt will add football title game

The Sun Belt Conference will host a title game for football, starting in 2018.

With the recent decision of the Big 12 to have a title game, the Sun Belt was the last FBS conference to not have one.

“This is truly an historic day in the relatively short history of Sun Belt football,” conference commissioner Karl Benson said on Wednesday. He said he has been trying to make a championship game work since he joined the league in 2012.

Benson said the final vote occured in a meeting room in a hotel near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

There are discussions to host the game at the site of the team that finishes with either the best conference or division record, or the highest ranking.

The conference couldn’t have a title game in the past because it didn’t meet the NCAA mandate of having at least 12 members. That rule was recently rescinded.

“Having a Sun Belt Championship will create a memorable experience for our student-athletes to compete in a championship game,” Georgia State football coach Trent Miles said in a statement sent from the athletics department. “It also provides an opportunity for the conference to showcase its top two teams on a national stage while bringing the Sun Belt in line with all the other FBS conferences.”

The conference will have 10 teams in 2018 — a total that Benson said that he doesn’t see expanding to 12 — but he said officials have yet to decide if the league will split into two divisions, with each first-place team meeting in the title game, or if the top two teams in the conference’s final standings will meet to decide the champion. If the conference doesn’t split into divisions, the league must play nine conference games. It currently plays eight.

With the decision not to renew the memberships of far-flung schools Idaho and New Mexico State, splitting the conference wouldn’t be difficult, with the exception of deciding the fifth team in the potential Western division.

The natural fits are Texas State, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe. If you were to continue to move from West to East, the next fit would be South Alabama in Mobile, Ala. But it wouldn’t make sense to break up the Jags from Troy, which is also located in southern Alabama.

It also wouldn’t make sense to ask Coastal Carolina, the newest member, to travel across the region for its road games if it were considered for the Western division.

The advantages of hosting a championship game include the potential of a nationally televised event and increased revenues from sponsorships, tickets and merchandise sales. Those details are being worked on.

But championship games don’t come without issues, notably a potential lack of attendance.

The 2014 MAC game had an attendance of 15,110 and the 2015 game had 16,425. The 2014 Conference USA game had an attendance of 23,711 with 16,823 the next year. The Mountain West had 26,101 in 2014 and 20,959 last year.

There’s also the potential issue of an undefeated Sun Belt team being upset in the championship and costing the conference an opportunity for one of its teams to play in a prestigious New Year’s bowl.