Sun Belt rides wave of success into new era

From the Sun Belt Conference

When Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning scampered 16 yards for the game-winning, overtime touchdown against eighth ranked Arkansas on September 8, it represented a banner moment for the Warhawks and the Sun Belt Conference.

"It's a great feeling; we feel like we deserve it," Browning said after the game. "We believed the whole time, and we've believed that we could put something like this together. We knew this moment was coming."

Browning's sentiment that his teams moment had finally arrived was a common attitude not just for ULM during the 2012-13 season.

In fact, ULM's win set off a firestorm of accomplishments for the Sun Belt Conference in what would become the most successful year in conference history since the league began sponsoring football.

For the first time in league history, the SBC sent four teams to postseason bowl games. The SBC also posted a 7-2 record against Conference USA and tallied the highest non-conference win total in league history (19).  This success led to the conference having its highest ever ranking in the BCS computer poll average – finishing ahead of both CUSA and the Mountain West Conference.

League-champion Arkansas State defeated #25 Kent State in the Bowl 17-13 and Louisiana-Lafayette won its second consecutive R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl with a 43-34 victory over Conference USA's East Carolina. The SBC has won four consecutive R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl games and six out of the last seven New Orleans Bowls with opponents having come from CUSA, the Mid-American Conference and the MWC.

The 2012-13 men's basketball season saw the league put together its best non-conference RPI in four years while sending two teams to the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship.

WKU earned its second consecutive trip to the NCAA postseason after winning the SBC Championship title and the league's automatic qualifier. It was the Hilltoppers fourth appearance in the last six years and their 23rd in program history.  Middle Tennessee, meanwhile, earned an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament which marked the first time since 1989 that the Blue Raiders reached the tournament.

Notably, the Sun Belt's men's and women's basketball teams combined for a record tying seven postseason appearances this past season.

Of course, football and basketball weren't the only sports that saw success.

A Sun Belt Conference record-tying four baseball teams (Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy, South Alabama and Florida Atlantic) were selected to an NCAA Regional in 2013, marking the third time this has occurred and first since 2002.

2013 saw one of the best seasons on record for baseball as four of the league's ten teams posted 40 or more wins for the first time since the 1990 season.  Those outstanding win totals helped the SBC rank fifth in the country in RPI behind only the ACC, SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12.

In total, Sun Belt baseball teams went 163-102 during the 2013 season in non-conference action with 13 wins over top-ranked opponents in 2013, including NCAA Tournament No. 1 overall seed, North Carolina.

For the first time in Sun Belt Conference softball history, three teams earned bids to the NCAA Division I Softball Championship including Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama and WKU.

The Ragin' Cajuns got out of a bases-loaded threat in the seventh inning to win the NCAA Regional Championship over the host institution and ninth-seeded LSU, 1-0.

South Alabama won its second consecutive SBC Championship title and hosted an NCAA Regional in just its seventh-year as a program.  WKU earned its first-ever SBC Softball Championship by winning the 2013 regular season.

The SBC finished 156-123 against non-conference opponents with nine wins over the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top-25.

On the volleyball court, WKU earned its first NCAA Tournament win in school history, defeating Loyola Marymount 3-0 in the first round. It was the team's seventh NCAA Tournament appearance, a SBC best.

The Lady Toppers concluded their 2012 season with a 33-4 record and 15-0 in league play. The 33 wins were tied for the most in school history. The 2012 squad also posted the longest winning streak in school history at 25-straight wins, as it went 75-5 in sets during the streak. WKU dropped only one set in conference play.

In total the SBC posted an 86-82 non-conference record including wins over No. 10 Dayton and No. 22 Michigan.

For the third consecutive year, the Sun Belt Conference had three student athletes represent the league at the NCAA Cross Country Championships.

Joseph Chebet of WKU, who earned SBC Most Outstanding Performer, was also named an All-American after finishing 35th in the 10k race at the NCAA Championship.  On the women's side, SBC Most Outstanding Performer Katharine Showalter of Georgia State and Kristina Aubert of Arkansas State advanced to the NCAA Championship.

Sun Belt Conference men's golf saw two teams selected to play in the NCAA Championship and a total of three individuals make the field.

Georgia State men's tennis seniors Lucas Santa Ana and Victor Valente rallied to a 6-4, 7-6 (6) win against the No. 9-ranked doubles pair of junior Tom Jomby and freshman Kevin Lai (Kentucky) in the first round of the 2013 NCAA Doubles Championship.

GSU finished at No. 61 in the men's and No. 75 in the women's in the final Intercollegiate Tennis Association Rankings.  The Panther men's team won the Sun Belt title in their first year of competition.

In indoor track WKU's David Mokone, Arkansas State's Sharika Nelvis and Middle Tennessee's Ann Dudley qualified for the NCAA Championship. Nelvis finished 16th in the long jump with a 5.72m leap. She then took 11th in the 200 meters with a time of 23.53. Mokone finished in 14th in the 800 meters after earning All-American Second-Team honors.

At the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship 11 Sun Belt student-athletes were named All-Americans.  Among the highlights, ASU's Nelvis competed in the finals of the 100-meter hurdles.

Sun Belt student-athletes have a history of performing well in the class room as well.

With sights set on raised benchmarks, 96.2% of teams that will make up the 2013-14 Sun Belt Conference are performing above the future Academic Progress Rate (APR) standard of 930 as the NCAA released its latest figures in June.

Beginning with 2012-13 NCAA Championships, teams must earn a minimum 900 four-year APR or a 930 average over the most recent two years to be eligible to participate. For 2014-15 championships, teams must earn a 930 four-year average APR or a 940 average over the most recent two years to participate in championships. In 2015-16 and beyond, teams must earn a four-year APR of 930 to compete in championships. 153 of 159 Sun Belt teams are currently performing above the 930 benchmark.

Each year, the NCAA tracks the classroom performance of student-athletes on every Division I team through the annual scorecard of academic achievement, known as APR. The rate measures eligibility, graduation and retention each semester or quarter and provides a clear picture of the academic performance in each sport. The most recent APRs are multi-year rates based on scores from the 2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-2012 academic years.

While the accomplishments of the Sun Belt's student-athletes and coaches deserve great praise, so to do the league's administrators who have helped set the tone for the future of the conference.

"We have never been as strong as we are now academically and financially and I believe we are getting stronger all the time athletically," outgoing Sun Belt Conference President and Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr. said recently. "I truly believe that the best is yet to come."

A busy day in the Sun Belt Conference this past March culminated with the additions of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern as all-sports members and Idaho and New Mexico State as football playing members. All four announcements took place on March 27.

Both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern bring with them highly successfully football programs and each team will begin the process of transitioning to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) immediately. The 2014 Sun Belt football season will mark the debut of both in the league schedule and standings. Additionally, both the Mountaineers and Eagles will be able to compete for the league championship in football for the 2014 season. Both teams will first be eligible to compete in a spot for a postseason bowl game come the 2015 season.

Idaho and New Mexico State are familiar partners of the Sun Belt Conference, having been football members from the league's inaugural year of football in 2001 through the 2004 season. Both members played an integral part of forming the Sun Belt Conference for football and now add strength to the league.  Both teams will be immediately eligible to compete for the Sun Belt football championship and also for a spot in postseason bowl games.

With new members and a new mindset also comes a new logo and mantra.

The conference unveiled its new logo and brand after a nearly yearlong examination of the impact, sustainability and core values associated with the Sun Belt Conference.

"Together We Rise" is the new mantra for the conference and it is the foundation and essence of the contemporary logo that the league will now be identified with.

Understanding market place competition and the need to standout from its competition, the Sun Belt Conference began examining and defining its brand identity and the need for a complimentary logo to embody that brand.

"The unveiling of our new logo comes after months of review of how we wanted to express the 'new' Sun Belt Conference," said Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson. "It is a very exciting chance for us to display the opportunity and optimism that exists in the Sun Belt Conference as we move forward."

The league office and its member institutions worked with SME, Inc. for the project. SME is a renowned strategic brand development firm which was responsible for the rebranding of the Pac-12 Conference and Big Sky Conference among other prominent collegiate and professional sports properties.

The overarching goal of the process was to create a bold and fresh new identity built upon a foundation of unity that corresponds to the Sun Belt Conference's future success and also honors the foundation built over the past 37 years.

The Sun Belt Conference will contest the 2013 football season with eight members – Arkansas State, Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy and Western Kentucky University. UALR and UT Arlington compete as non-football members.