NEW ORLEANS — Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson wants the league's football programs to work on shedding their "addiction" to big-money, non-conference matchups with heavily favored, Power Five programs.
More non-league games with "peer conferences" would improve the chances of a Sun Belt team going unbeaten and getting a bid to one of six prestigious New Year's Day bowl games, the commissioner said at the conference's media day Monday.
"As nice as it is and as great as it is to win a game against one of the 'Big Five' — I don't want to minimize that — but right now, in the system that we have, competition with our peer conferences is so important," Benson said. "Those are the games that we really need to focus on."
This season, the combined schedules of the Sun Belt's 11 teams include 35 non-conference games against the other nine conferences classified in the NCAA's Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. Of those, 19 are against so-called "Power Five" teams in the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12 and Big 12. The other 16 are against teams from Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference.
"The Sun Belt's goal is to be the best conference of our four peer conferences," Benson said.
But giving up big-money games will be harder for some Sun Belt institutions than others, apparently.
Sun Belt member Louisiana-Monroe will cash in about $3 million combined from games at SEC contenders Georgia and Alabama in the first month of this season.
Last season, ULM played three SEC teams, losing all three games. But coach Todd Berry foresees going from two Power Five opponents this season back up to three in upcoming years because of recent cuts to Louisiana's state higher education budgets.
"Until we get more money from our university, we've got to play those games," Berry said. "I know that's against the conference's wishes, but they can take it up with my president."
Yet, other Sun Belt members, such Louisiana-Lafayette, have only one Power Five team scheduled. The Ragin' Cajuns, who are among the top contenders to win the Sun Belt, will get nearly $1 million for playing at Kentucky of the SEC, but the rest of their non-conference games include Akron of the Mid-American, Louisiana Tech of Conference USA, and Northwestern State of the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision.
"We have teams that have scheduled strategically," Benson said. "If the stars are aligned, they could be a 12-0 team."
Under the current bowl process, the highest rated champion of the five non-power conferences receives a bid to one of the major bowls on Jan. 1.
Ragin' Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said revenues from strong home crowds and boosters during a run of four straight nine-win seasons have given Louisiana-Lafayette more flexibility to schedule fewer Power-Five foes.
"You've got to have a win over a Power-Five team and also play very well the rest of your schedule to me to make it to a January 1st bowl. But I don't think you necessarily have to play three" Power Five teams, Hudspeth said. "We're always going to play one, at least, just because we want to play good people. We want to play on big stages and it's great exposure."
Idaho coach Paul Petrino will take his team to Southern California and Auburn this season. Petrino agreed with Benson's "peer conference" scheduling philosophy in principle, but added that it won't be easy for some schools to trim Power Five pay days.
"You want to play those leagues that are the five that we're in so you can beat them ... and then your league ends up (rated) higher than their league," Petrino said. "But I think realistically a lot the teams at our level need at least one of those money games. They pay the bills."
The Sun Belt's 11 schools are based in Alabama (Troy and South Alabama), Arkansas (Arkansas State), Georgia (Georgia Southern and Georgia State), Idaho (Idaho), Louisiana (Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe), New Mexico (New Mexico State), North Carolina (Appalachian State) and Texas (Texas State).
The Sun Belt remains open to adding a 12th member to create balanced, regional divisions to help with travel for all sports, Benson said. However, the commissioner said the league is taking a careful, deliberate approach to expansion, and he would not identify any candidates.
The league also continues to work on the logistics of creating a conference championship game. Benson said the league no longer sees expansion as a prerequisite for that because officials are hopeful the NCAA will eliminate its requirement for conferences to have a minimum of 12 teams to hold a title game.
This story has been updated to delete an incorrect reference to Louisiana-Monroe playing Kentucky this season.