Southern Miss has made the correct — and probably long overdue — decision to exit Conference USA and enter the Sun Belt Conference. Credit: Southern Miss Athletics

The Sun Belt Conference announced the league’s 2022 football schedule Tuesday. As expected, Southern Miss is prominently featured, playing eight Sun Belt opponents.

But Conference USA released its ’22 football schedule two weeks ago, listing Southern Miss as a conference member playing eight CUSA foes.

Rick Cleveland

Here’s the deal: Will Hall, the Golden Eagles coach, expects to have, as he puts it, “night and day” more talent and depth next season than he had last year. He does not, however, have nearly enough depth to play 16 conference games in two different leagues, often playing two games on the same day in two different stadiums. 

Something has to give. It will. 

My guess: Southern Miss will play its first game as a new Sun Belt member at Troy on Oct. 8. Louisiana Tech, the team CUSA lists as Southern Miss’s opponent that day, will have to find someone else to play or will have an open date.

All this ultimately will be decided in the courts where Southern Miss – and Marshall and Old Dominion – apparently will have a strong home-court advantage. Marshall, located in Huntingdon, W.V., and Old Dominion, located in Norfolk, Va., are both leaving CUSA for Sun Belt. So it is that CUSA must litigate against the three schools in the courts in those schools’ respective states. Good luck with that.

As one lawyer put it, “That would be my worst nightmare as a litigator.”

Predictably, all three schools already have received favorable temporary restraining orders. All three have another court date scheduled in coming days. If there are no delays, USM’s next court date would be March 7 in Forrest County Circuit Court.

Said Bob Gholson, general counsel for Southern Miss, when asked about the case: “I can’t comment on an ongoing legal matter.”

Jeremy McClain, the school’s athletic director, says he can’t comment for the same reason. 

Hall, the football coach, said this: “We’ve always thought we were going to play in the Sun Belt this next season. Look at the schedule and you’ll see why. We are now a part of one of the best, if not the best, group of five conferences in the country. We can’t wait to get started. We’re playing in a league with a bunch of teams in our area, games our fans can get to.”

Hall’s team will open with its four non-conference opponents: hosting Liberty and Hugh Freeze, playing at Miami (Fla.), hosting Northwestern (La.) State, and playing at Tulane. The league schedule includes road games against Troy, Texas State, Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Monroe. Conference home games will be with Arkansas State, Louisiana, Georgia State and South Alabama.

In the Sun Belt, Southern Miss will fly to two conference football games, at most, a year (probably one in alternate years). That will be a huge savings from the much more spread out CUSA. Those savings will multiply in other sports such as basketball, baseball, softball and other spring sports. Long-time readers of this column know I’ve advocated for this move for years. It just makes sense. 

Conference USA bylaws call for departing teams to give 14 months notice. Southern Miss, Marshall and Old Dominion all notified the league office last December (November in Marshall’s case) they would become Sun Belt members on July 1. They did so knowing that by leaving early they would forfeit their share of the conference proceeds for the current school year and the next. (Last year’s share was approximately $1.5 million). So USM will forfeit approximately $3 million for leaving early. CUSA wants the three departing schools to pay further damages.

The league wants those damages assessed and arbitrated in Dallas, where the conference office resides. The three departing schools want to mediate any additional damages in their home states. That’s where it now stands.

Seems to me CUSA is simply putting off the inevitable – and putting its remaining members in a bind as well. Now, if not long before now, is when schools usually make travel arrangements for the coming season.

This much is certain: The sooner Southern Miss can put CUSA in its rearview mirror, the better.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.