NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The long-awaited reunification of old Colonial Athletic Association foes Old Dominion and James Madison appears imminent.
After news broke earlier this week that the Sun Belt Conference was looking to expand by four teams, with ODU, JMU, Marshall and Southern Mississippi as its top choices, multiple reports on Friday say that the conference was closing in on the deal and an announcement is expected early next week. CollegeAD was the first to share the news on Friday morning.
The move could be a death blow to Conference USA, which would be down to just 5 football members with the loss of ODU, Marshall and Southern Miss. The conference officially lost 6 other members on Thursday when UAB, UT-San Antonio, Rice, North Texas, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic were accepted to the American Athletic Conference. Reports say they’re still trying to negotiate with Liberty University to keep the conference afloat.
The ODU Board of Visitors is expected to meet Monday morning. ODU would have to pay $3 million to Conference USA as an exit fee.
The move would put the Sun Belt at 14 teams in football and beef up an already strong gridiron conference that features ranked and recently ranked teams in Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Louisiana (other current football members are Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Troy, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Arkansas State and Texas State.
Marshall, a longtime FCS/I-AA power, went 7-3 in 2020 and ranked in the top 25 before losing in the Conference USA championship game. Southern Miss. has hit a rough patch in the past two seasons, including a 1-6 record so far this year, but has a strong football history.
JMU, which made national headlines during its Women’s College World Series run this year, has won two national championships at the FCS level (2004 & 2016) and appears ready to hit the ground running as a competitive team in the Sun Belt (Marshall, App State, Coastal and other Sun Belt members were also FCS/I-AA powers).
ODU has struggled overall since its move from FCS to FBS but the Monarchs have a newly built stadium and a new head coach in Ricky Rahne, who’s trying to breathe life back into the program. The return of an in-state rivalry with JMU should bring a big boost.
Outside of football, the moves should also improve the Sun Belt’s basketball, particularly in women’s hoops with the addition of long successful programs in ODU and JMU. ODU and Marshall have solid men’s hoops and JMU’s team is on the rise after a No. 1 finish in the Colonial last season and a new $100 million-plus arena. Southern Miss. and ODU both have top 25 baseball teams and JMU has one of the top college prospects in Chase DeLauter. The Dukes also have nationally competitive teams in women’s lacrosse (2018 NCAA champion), field hockey and men’s soccer in addition to their softball team (which would love to play fellow mid-major power Louisiana).
Marshall’s men’s soccer team is the reigning NCAA champion, and they, JMU and ODU will have to figure out what to do since the Sun Belt doesn’t sponsor men’s soccer. The Sun Belt also currently doesn’t have field hockey, women’s lacrosse or swimming and diving, but the new additions can likely find homes for those sports elsewhere.
The big thing for JMU and the Conference USA adds, in addition to getting into what could be the premier Group of 5 football conference, is the Sun Belt’s deal with ESPN. The conference’s games are on the network’s channels or streaming on ESPN+ and regularly take the primetime slot, with the small downside (for in-person attendance at least) of those games being on weeknights.
Conference USA’s broadcasts have been limited to CBS Sports Network and streaming on Facebook. JMU has had games on regional NBC Sports channels, but many contests are on the subscription service FloSports.
And under commissioner Keith Gill, the first Black man to be commissioner of a FBS conference, the Sun Belt seems to be stable for the long-term. They avoided any poaching from other conferences in the latest round of realignment and have found success in picking passionate fanbases even if they don’t come from major media markets.
Could ODU and JMU, who had two memorable games in the Monarchs’ short FCS/Taylor Heinicke era, soon be the Sun Belt game of the week on ESPN? At this point it seems all but certain.