NEW ORLEANS — The Sun Belt Conference's 11 institutions are prepared to pay more to remain part of major college football, commissioner Karl Benson said Tuesday.
In his state-of-the-conference address during the league's annual media day, Benson also expressed optimism that the five wealthiest conferences — often called the "power five" — would not insist on new rules which would unduly marginalize the other five NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.
"We've shown that the competitive gap is not as great as the economic gap," Benson said. "We want to make sure that gap isn't widened."
In the past year, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC have joined forces to push the NCAA for changes in rules that would increase financial benefits for student athletes to account for the "full cost of attendance" beyond just tuition.
Benson said the Sun Belt supports such measures — at least to a point.
"Will there be greater additional costs? More than likely," Benson said. "And yes, there will be challenges, but Sun Belt universities have invested too much not to be part of major college football in the future."
Benson said all 10 FBS conferences "can co-exist and will co-exist."
In recent months, there has been talk of a possible break-away division involving only the power five conferences — SEC Commissioner Mike Slive dubbed it "Division IV" at his league's summer meetings — but Benson said he viewed that as "sabre rattling."
"They recognize that they need us," Benson said. "They need the Sun Belt and the other conferences from a scheduling standpoint."
Benson said the Sun Belt would oppose increasing the number of scholarships per team, but added that he's been told that is not currently part of the power five's plans. If the power five succeeds in liberalizing rules regarding athlete transfers, Benson said he hoped it wouldn't be done in a way which would allow top players to be poached from the other five conferences.
Sun Belt coaches also expressed hope that the power five conferences would stop short of pushing for proposals that many other schools may not be able to afford.
"We need them to lead the way. There's no doubt about that," said Texas State coach Dennis Franchione, whose previous head coaching stops included the SEC with Alabama and Big 12 with Texas A&M. "We need them to share in leading the way a little bit, too, though. ... Somewhere along the line, they need to consider what is also best for all of college football."
Even if the competitive gap does widen between the power five and the rest of the FBS, Georgia Southern Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein said his school's recent move from the FCS level to the Sun Belt would still be worth it.
"Let's say the big five go one way and mid-majors go another way," Kleinlein said. "Then we're at level two, whereas if we had stayed where we were at, we would have been at level three."
At the very least, 2014 appears to hold considerable promise for the Sun Belt, which consists of Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State and Troy.
For the first time, representatives from the Cotton Bowl, Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl attended Sun Belt media day, knowing that the winner of the league could potentially end up in their games this season. The new College Football Playoff guarantees a spot in one of six New Year's Day bowl games to the highest-ranked league champion among the Sun Belt Conference, Conference USA, American Athletic Conference, Mountain West and Mid-American Conference.
The league also has more affiliations with smaller bowls, including the new Magnolia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.
Last season, Sun Belt was among the stronger mid-major conferences, going 8-1 against Conference USA, the Mountain West and MAC. Current Sun Belt member Louisiana-Monroe even had a victory over Wake Forest of the ACC.
Franchione predicted the Sun Belt champ would be "right in the thick" of the race for a New Year's Day bowl bid. The Sun Belt's preseason favorite is Louisiana-Lafayette, which has won the New Orleans Bowl the past three seasons under coach Mark Hudspeth, and which will be led this season by quarterback Terrance Broadway, the league's preseason player of the year.