- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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A morbid mood fell over the Sun Belt Conference in the fall of 2001, consuming both the league commissioner and the member institutions.
"I was about ready to cut my throat," commissioner Wright Waters recalled of the Sun Belt's first football season in Division I-A. "I was starting to think that we might not be able to do this."
The biggest cause for Waters' doomsday outlook was the aptly labeled "body-bag game," an inevitable undertaking for financially strapped Sun Belt schools. Several Saturdays that fall, Sun Belt teams would walk into the cavernous stadiums belonging to BCS conference schools, take their beatings and crawl back to their campuses.
The scores were predictable: Florida 55, Louisiana-Monroe 6; Kansas State 64, New Mexico State 0; Washington 53, Idaho 3; Georgia 45, Arkansas State 17. Before zipping up the body bags, the hosts would always slip in an envelope containing a sizable six-figure guarantee check. Thanks for playing.
"Our people were so dependent on them," Waters said.
The Sun Belt is coming off arguably the best weekend in its brief history. Things kicked off Friday, when Troy thumped Oklahoma State 41-23. The next day, Florida Atlantic outlasted Minnesota and Arkansas State beat SMU.
There were two standard "body bag" scores -- Middle Tennessee's 44-0 loss to No. 2 LSU and Louisiana-Monroe's 54-14 thrashing at Texas A&M -- but the spotlight shifted away from the carnage.
"I've seen just as many bodies in the bags of our opponents as I've seen in our bags," Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger said.
Added Waters: "It's no longer about, 'Can we survive?' It's about how good we can be."
The nonconference success galvanized the league, but the fact that all three Sun Belt wins came at home or near it (FAU played at Dolphin Stadium in Miami) was an even bigger achievement.
"I don't know if we've had a weekend where we've had this many nonconference D-I home games on the schedule," Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts said. "Obviously, that's crucial to us winning."
This season, the Sun Belt is playing five home or neutral-site games against BCS conference teams, matching the amount from the previous three seasons. The league's three true home games against BCS teams eclipses the number from the last three years (two).
On Oct. 6, Middle Tennessee will host Virginia and Florida Atlantic faces the Big East's South Florida at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.
The explanation for the increase in home games is simple. Before the Sun Belt could gain respect from outsiders, the league had to start respecting itself in scheduling.
"We're getting a little bit more demanding as a conference that we'll play you, but you have to come to our place in return," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said.
Attendance increases around the league have allowed a more steadfast approach with scheduling. The league averaged only 13,377 fans in 2001, with Louisiana-Monroe bringing in a paltry 7,781 per game.
The league average actually dropped to 13,126 in 2002 but has climbed every year since. In 2006, the Sun Belt averaged 18,054, with Louisiana-Monroe bringing in 18,594. This season, there have already been four crowds of 22,000 or more at home games.
"We've gone as a league from trying to balance our budgets at somebody else's campus to trying to balance them at our campuses," Waters said.
The guarantee games at BCS schools are still there, as are the lopsided scores.
Sun Belt teams have already visited LSU, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Penn State, Arkansas, Louisville, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Miami and Clemson this season. The league has been outscored 650-284 in BCS matchups, with five teams losing by 36 points or more.
But overall, league athletic directors are taking more of a hard-line approach.
"We're still playing too many of those games, but we're in that transition period where rather than playing four games, now we're playing two games," Waters said. "We're starting to understand better to play two of those games at $800,000 than four of those games at $300,000."
The league is also using its location as a tool for scheduling BCS teams and improving its own personnel. With a footprint that rests in the fertile recruiting soil of the South and Southeast, the Sun Belt has a decided advantage over other nonguaranteed conferences.
The additions of Florida Atlantic and Florida International in 2005 have made the Sun Belt a more appealing road destination for BCS teams.
"They like to be down here recruiting in the offseason," Schnellenberger said. "They like to show their wares [in Florida] because over 370 young seniors next year are going to sign Division I scholarships to play football somewhere.
"The 11 state universities signing about 18 a year will end up signing about 135, 140 out of that 370. [The others] have to look for a scholarship someplace, somewhere."
Many more of them are winding up at Sun Belt schools.
"There are five great recruiting areas in this country: Southern California, that coal-steel belt through Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, Louisiana, Texas and South Florida," Waters said. "We've got three of those in our league, so we may not get the blue-chipper that's going to LSU, but there's a bunch of other athletes in Louisiana. Same thing in Florida.
"You start looking at the rosters of our schools and all of a sudden Arkansas State has kids from Florida; Middle Tennessee has kids from Florida. That wasn't true seven years ago."
Sun Belt schools are luring more BCS teams away from their stadiums, but getting true home games remains a challenge. Last year Middle Tennessee had to play Louisville in Nashville and Arkansas State played Oklahoma State in Little Rock.
Missouri visited Troy in 2004 and lost 24-14, but last year the Tigers played a neutral-site game against Arkansas State. The Indians were the home team. In Kansas City.
"I don't particularly like the neutral-site games," Stockstill said. "They need to come to our place."
I don't know if we've had a weekend where we've had this many nonconference D-I home games on the schedule. Obviously, that's crucial to us winning."
Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts
Roberts generally opposes 2-for-1 contracts in favor of home-and-home series like the ones Arkansas State has scheduled with Southern Miss and Memphis. Both FAU and FIU have played logical neutral-site games at Dolphin Stadium and at the Orange Bowl.
"I grew up in Alabama," Waters said. "What's a neutral site to play Alabama? There probably isn't one. If you play LSU in New Orleans, is that a neutral site? I don't think so. I don't know what a neutral site really is. Somebody's always got an advantage. But I'd rather play at a neutral site than on their campus, I guess."
Neutral-site games are one of many challenges still facing the Sun Belt. Another is to get home games with the dominant conference in the region.
Waters said the SEC "clothed us and fed us" after Hurricane Katrina forced the Sun Belt to abandon its operations in New Orleans. But so far, Mississippi is the only SEC team to visit a Sun Belt campus, and that was back in 2001.
"Those guys are not coming to our stadiums yet," Waters said. "We've got a great relationship with them, but the Big 12 has been the one that's been willing to come to our place."
Another chore for the Sun Belt is elevating its weaker programs. Five of the league's eight teams remain winless this season.
Louisiana-Lafayette is a squatter in ESPN.com's Bottom 10, and Louisiana-Monroe is on the waiting list. Meanwhile, Florida International has renewed its lease after taking ownership of the nation's longest losing streak (15 games).
Bottom line: The Sun Belt needs more weekends like the last one, when teams capitalized on their home games.
"There was a sense of urgency," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said of his players. "Being on the road twice and losing to two SEC teams was part of the motivation, wanting to put your best foot forward, especially at home. It didn't matter who came.
"There's a little respect there, hopefully, for the league."
Waters wants a lot more three years from now. When the league launched, he set 2010 as a target date for full-blown success.
"Our objective by 2010 is to be the best nonguaranteed league out there," he said. "You measure that by playing these people and winning these games."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.
4hKevin Stone, ESPN.com