BOONE — A Belk Bowl appearance seemed like a pipe dream for the Appalachian State football team.
That was, until it wasn’t.
Multiple sources, associated with both the Charlotte-based bowl game and the school, indicated to the Journal on Friday that Appalachian State is getting consideration for a potential open slot created by a lack of SEC teams available to fill the league's tie-in.
Much would need to fall into place for that to be considered for the Mountaineers (11-1), who will play Louisiana in the Sun Belt Conference title game on Saturday.
First, the Belk Bowl would be more likely if App State wins its second straight conference championship game. Should the Mountaineers lose, Louisiana would go to the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 21, and the Mountaineers likely would end up in the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 6.
But if App State wins, its potential to attend a bowl game without Sun Belt affiliation increases, allowing Louisiana potentially to bump up to New Orleans.
Then, the Southeastern Conference needs to do its part. The SEC has nine teams eligible.
If four SEC teams are scooped up for New Year’s Six bowls, openings could be created among bowls with SEC tie-ins. The New Year’s Six get first picks on Selection Sunday, then the remaining bowl games jockey for matchups at mid-afternoon.
App State's Belk Bowl hopes could get a boost if Georgia beats LSU in the SEC title game. Then, likely both would be taken for the four-team playoff.
The Sugar Bowl, one of the New Year’s Six games, has an SEC tie-in and automatically gets the highest-ranked SEC team remaining. That would leave the potential for the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl to take an SEC team, but those games are filled by at-large teams based off the final College Football Playoff rankings.
The Citrus Bowl then gets the next SEC pick. After that, the SEC next fills a pool of six bowls: Outback, TaxSlayer, Music City, Texas, Belk and Liberty.
If whichever team plays in the Citrus Bowl is the fifth SEC team selected, the SEC would have only four remaining teams eligible for its six tie-ins. If the SEC doesn’t have enough teams, the first bowl that wouldn't be filled is the Liberty Bowl. The Belk Bowl could be another if all of that shakes out.
The SEC typically listens to each bowl’s preferences, but the conference ultimately decides who goes where.
App State would be a logical choice in Charlotte. The city features one of the city’s largest alumni bases, with Boone roughly an hour-plus away. The Mountaineers are already slated to play East Carolina in Bank of America Stadium during the 2021 season, the first leg of a four-game series between the two programs.
Ultimately, sources said, it comes down to how much wiggle room the Sun Belt Conference has in its five bowl contracts: New Orleans, LendingTree, Camellia, Cure and Arizona.
The Sun Belt said in October that there was no waiver process for a school to attempt to play in another bowl and that the only exception the conference would make would be for a New Year’s Six game, which is the Cotton Bowl this season.
Keith Gill, the Sun Belt commissioner, addressed the growing Belk Bowl-App State connection today during the Sun Belt title game media day. The contracts, Gill said, are pretty inflexible.
“What we’ve navigated is we’ve got five bowl partners that we’re working with, and at the end of the day, that’s where our teams will be, in our contracted bowls,” Gill said. “I think what the rumors do, it’s certainly great discussion for people on the message boards and those kind of things, and they can kind of complicate things, but at the end of the day, that’s what those things are. They really are rumors.”
That said, Gill cannot account for the maneuvering ESPN can do. The network owns 14 of the 40 bowl games, broadcasting almost all of those.
Either way, whether App State ends up in the Belk Bowl, the New Orleans Bowl or any other Sun Belt tie-in, Gill said the conversation is beneficial.
“I mean, it’s great for the whole league,” Gill said. “I really do believe in FBS football; a rising tide lifts all boats. And I think the success that you see with App in terms of their ranking, in terms of their two big wins over A-5 (Autonomy Five, another phrase for Power Five) opponents this year, over North Carolina and South Carolina.
“Just the consistency of the play, I think that helps our league. That showcases the quality of Sun Belt football, which we all know.”