As the power conferences work to secure spots in the most desirable bowl games, the Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt also are trying to expand their postseason lineups.
Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson said he wants his conference to add one more bowl to the two it has already. The MAC currently has deals to send three of its team to bowl games, but Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said he expects that number to grow.
All major college football conferences are in process of negotiating with bowls to put together postseason lineups for 2014 and beyond. Current deals expire after this season.
The MAC has averaged nearly six bowl-eligible teams over the last five seasons, including a record seven last season, and Steinbrecher doesn't ever want to see a member left out of the postseason when it is eligible. That happened to Temple, when it went 8-4 in 2010.
"I have not found a big upside to not having sufficient guaranteed spots for my bowl-eligible teams," Steinbrecher said Thursday. "It makes for a very stressful conclusion to the season."
The MAC currently has deals to send teams to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise and GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
It also has deals to be the backup plan for some of the bowls that ESPN owns. Those deals, along with a couple of other spots opening up because the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference not being able to fill all of its spots, allowed the MAC to have seven teams playing in the postseason.
"We were strategic in some ways and fortunate in others," Steinbrecher said. "That's hard to do and there were a lot of reasons that came to be."
Steinbrecher said that as the power conferences grow and try to add more bowls to their lineups, it increases the chances they won't be able to fill those spots with eligible teams. In most cases teams need at six victories and a .500 record to be eligible for the postseason.
"If you're a bowl with a selection in the bottom third (of a power conference), you better be thinking about plan B," Steinbrecher said.
Seeing the success of the bowl game in Boise has also led to discussion among MAC schools that maybe a postseason game in a smaller city in the league's footprint could be viable down the road.
"There's a lot of folks out there that have some interest," he said. "Does it make sense? Can you get a community to buy into it?"
The Sun Belt currently has deals with the New Orleans Bowl and GoDaddy.
A third is likely to come in the form of a new game being worked on in Little Rock, Ark., with Conference USA providing a possible opponent.
Benson hopes as that as the Sun Belt improves, and it is undergoing another membership overhaul in the next two seasons, it will attract more bowl partners. For now, though, he sees value in being in what he calls "the at-large pool," being able to fill spots left open when a bowl doesn't have an eligible team available in its contracted conference, and no plan B.
"In my history in the WAC," said Benson, who led the Western Athletic Conference for more than a decade," ''fairly regularly we were able to place teams outside contracts."
Last season, the Sun Belt was able to get Louisiana-Monroe into the Independence Bowl via that route, and had a chance to move Arkansas State into the Liberty Bowl.
Benson said his priority will always be to get his league champion into the best possible bowl game, even if that means going outside of contracts. But he is also realistic and knows the Sun Belt will likely be playing most of its bowl games against what he calls its "peer conferences" — the group of five that also consists of The American Athletic Conference (former Big East), the Mountain West, C-USA and the MAC.
"We want the right team in the right place against the right opponent," Benson said, "and as much flexibility as we can have with our bowl partners."
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