Appalachian State, Georgia Southern accept Sun Belt invitations

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern University announced on Wednesday they will rise to the Football Bowl Subdivision in moving from the Southern Conference to the Sun Belt Conference effective July 1, 2014.

They will leave the Football Championship Subdivision as two of the most successful programs in history, with Georgia Southern holding a record six national titles and Appalachian State ranking third with three, in addition to both being annual contenders for SoCon championships.

Although both football programs will keep their 2013 schedules intact, they will go above the FCS scholarship limit of 63 and become ineligible for either the SoCon title or a national playoff berth.

They will begin playing Sun Belt games and be revenue-sharing members of the conference in 2014 and eligible for the Sun Belt conference title, but will not be eligible to play in a bowl game. In 2015, they will become full members of the conference and be bowl eligible.

The Sun Belt is slated to have 12 full-time members when Appalachian State and Georgia Southern become members for the 2014-15 academic year, joining Arkansas-Little Rock, Arkansas State, Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas-Arlington, Texas State, Troy and Western Kentucky. All but Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington will field FBS football programs, but Idaho and New Mexico State will join the conference as associate members in football.

"This is a milestone day for Georgia Southern University, and we are very excited to be joining the Sun Belt conference," Georgia Southern president Brooks Keel told a standing-room-only crowd in the Williams Center during the official announcement.

"This decision was made with the long-term interest of our university in mind," Keel continued. "The Sun Belt will provide our student-athletes with an outstanding opportunity to compete at the highest level, and we are excited to contribute to the conference's success both on and off the field. I am equally excited about the opportunity that it will provide Georgia Southern and the more than 75,000 alumni that make up the Eagle Nation."

Appalachian State athletic director Charlie Cobb said at an on-campus news conference, "I want to stress the fact that today is a starting point for us. I'd like to repeat that, today is a starting point. If anyone thinks today's announcement is a culmination moment for Appalachian, please rest assured that the heavy lifting starts today.

"Quite frankly, our easier course of action was to stay with the status quo. However, and I say this with tremendous respect and gratitude for our past and present colleagues in the Southern Conference, when I say the status quo was not acceptable for Appalachian and it doesn't embrace the Appalachian spirit, whether it's in academics, athletics or the arts."

Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson visited both campuses to formally accept the invitations from the schools.

ASU and GSU will join the Sun Belt in all sports except men's soccer in 2014-15. The Sun Belt does not sponsor men's soccer, so the two schools will have to find another conference home for their teams.

Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino, in a statement from the conference, said, "While we're disappointed to be losing Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, the Southern Conference cannot provide the platform their football programs are seeking. We'll wish them well when they depart.

"Our membership discussions with our presidents, chancellors and athletic directors will continue as they have for the past 18 months and figure to be more focused on specific options with this most recent development. There are quality institutions interested in speaking with us regarding conference membership, and our options remain solid."

As the SoCon pursues expansion, its membership would stand at nine with Chattanooga, Davidson, Elon, Furman, North Carolina-Greensboro, Samford, The Citadel, Western Carolina and Wofford. All but Davidson and UNCG have football programs.