Dissecting where Louisiana competitively stacks up in Sun Belt Conference's new era

·5 min read

The proverbial sun rose July 1, dawning on the new era of the Sun Belt Conference.

James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss were formally welcomed to the league on Friday, creating a new-look, 14-member conference amid continued realignment shakeups across collegiate athletics.

All four schools had their applications to join the Sun Belt last year. Three of the newest SBC institutions, Marshall, ODU and Southern Miss, had to go the legal route to exit its former league Conference USA to be able to join this summer and begin competition this fall.

The Louisiana Ragin Cajuns take on App State at Cajun Field in Lafayette, LA. Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.
The Louisiana Ragin Cajuns take on App State at Cajun Field in Lafayette, LA. Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.

For Louisiana, what does the league’s addition mean for it on the playing surface? In the five major sports, what affect will the new 14-team conference have on the Ragin’ Cajuns? Let’s take a look:

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Football

UL has been the class of the Sun Belt the past three seasons, putting up a program-best 34-5 mark during that stretch and are the reigning conference champions. What will the arrival of James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss mean for the Cajuns’ recent control of the league?

The expansion will slightly restructure things, with Troy now sliding over to the West Division. USM will be placed in the West as well. Despite the changes, the Ragin’ Cajuns will remain the team to beat in the West.

On the surface, JMU poses the greatest threat to UL’s present run. The Dukes have gone 33-4 at the FCS level the past three seasons, playing for one national championship in 2019. They’ve won six Colonial Athletic Association titles in seven seasons. With Sun Belt divisions staying intact, the only time Louisiana could see James Madison would be in the SBC title game, should they both make it.

Marshall football has been a consistent program in C-USA the last eight years, winning a conference championship and playing for another while stacking up seven, 7-win seasons. ODU seem to be improving under head coach Ricky Rahne but the jury is still out on what trajectory the Monarchs are on.

Baseball

Matt Deggs led the Ragin’ Cajuns back to the NCAA regionals for the first time since 2016 this year, behind a run through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. It was a remarkable close to the season. But make no mistake, the path through the Sun Belt to the conference championships and NCAA Tournaments bids has grown far more treacherous.

Southern Miss is an elite baseball program, fresh off hosting eventual national champion Ole Miss in a super regional in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles have been good for a long time and the move to a better baseball league will only make it stronger. Old Dominion has gotten really hot lately. They were a regional No. 1 seed two years ago, and were just shy of making it back to the NCAA Tournament in 2022.

The addition of USM and ODU will cause waves within an already top-heavy conference that sent three teams to regionals this season. For squads like UL, recruiting the transfer portal while developing and retaining younger talent will be vital to stave off any drop off in the race.

Softball

Louisiana is the best softball program in the Sun Belt. It’s made the NCAA Tournament 21 straight seasons.

James Madison, Marshall and Southern Miss – ODU doesn’t have a softball team – won’t hinder Cajuns softball coach Gerry Glasco and his team from continuing to dominate the league.

The Dukes will add some strength to the Sun Belt, two years removed from a Women’s College World Series run. Marshall and USM don’t bring much to the table competitively.

Men’s basketball

The Cajuns have reached the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament the last two years. With them making the title game last season before falling short to Georgia State and the automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

With the departure of Texas-Arlington and Little Rock, the Marshall and Old Dominion should be of concern as both have made the NCAA Tourney within the last four years – the Thundering Herd twice and the Monarchs once. JMU and USM have both been abysmal for some time.

ODU and Marshall’s arrival will steepen the hill for Louisiana to win the Sun Belt and make the Big Dance.

Women’s basketball

UL women’s basketball team lost in the SBC Tournament championship game two years ago and reached the semifinals last season. Garry Brodhead has found something, guiding his team to top four finishes the last three regular seasons.

The chase for a conference championship might’ve gotten a little easier for UL with the four new teams entering and Little Rock and UTA leaving. Both UTA and Little Rock have had a grip on the Sun Belt the last few years and their exit opens up the conference even more.

Old Dominion, with four winning seasons and two WNIT appearances in the last five years, seem like the one new program that could have an immediate impact. James Madison would’ve made the NCAA Tournament in 2020 had the season not been halted due to COVID-19, but it hasn’t been able to recapture that momentum since.

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Where Louisiana competitively stacks up in new Sun Belt Conference