On July 22, the Sun Belt held its 2021 Football Media Day. After the event was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s conference was an in-person affair, running full force in New Orleans, Louisiana.
At the start of the conference, Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill took to the podium to both discuss last season's successes as well as share his optimism for the seasons to come. However, Gill does not believe the threat of COVID-19 is in his “rearview mirror” just yet.
“COVID-19 will continue to be a challenge and ask all of us to do our part to eliminate the threat,” Gill says. “I know that talk about masks, social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols is something that we want to put behind us, but we can't. We must remain vigilant. The public health crisis created by COVID-19 is not over, and the danger is real. The Delta variant is something that worries me and certainly threatens to disrupt the 2021 football season.”
Gill also announced that, if a team can not participate in a conference game due to COVID-19 complications, their game will not be rescheduled. Instead, these games will result in forfeitures that will count towards the team’s record and conference standing.
Although the Sun Belt will not require athletes to get the COVID-19 vaccine, unvaccinated athletes will be required to stay in a testing cadence, while vaccinated athletes will not.
“The programs and teams that are fully vaccinated will have a competitive advantage,” Gill says. “The Sun Belt will not mandate vaccinations, but I want to encourage in the strongest terms possible for everyone to get vaccinated, so we can put a stop to this awful disease.”
Despite the prevalence of the pandemic during the 2020 season, Texas State was the first FBS team to complete a full, 12-game season. Hoping to continue the trend, Head Coach Jake Spavital says the team has brought many educational resources into the program to encourage athletes and staff to get vaccinated. According to Spavital, these efforts are working.
“We have the vaccine available for all of our kids and we have a lot of educational classes; a lot of doctors are coming through, a lot of dialogue within our program,” Spavital says. “Our administrators do an unbelievable job. You look at our athletic trainers - we were the first team to finish the season without any hiccups in our season last year, we listened to the medical professionals the best we for all of us to get the vaccine… Every single day more and more are getting vaccinated, it’s important for all of us to get the vaccine.”
In 2020, the Sun Belt experienced success on the field as it had the most non-conference wins in the FBS, won four of five bowl games and had two teams (Coastal Carolina and Louisiana) finishing the season ranked in the top 20.
Despite the conference’s fruitful 2020 season, Texas State’s 2020 campaign proved more disappointing; they finished the year 2-10 overall and 2-6 in the Sun Belt. Despite losing four games by one score or less, the Bobcats are ranked fourth out of the five teams in the West Divison in the preseason coaches poll. According to sophomore running back Brock Sturges, the team has not paid much attention to the poll.
“That’s something we don’t really look into,” Sturges says. “We just have to focus on what’s going on in our building; we know what we have in our locker room, we know the competitiveness, and we know the teammates and the love we have for each other. We’re going to go out, and we’re going to compete, and we’re going to be ready to play this season.”
The Sun Belt will also expand its partnership with ESPN, resulting in a 50% increase in the number of its games broadcast on ESPN and its affiliate networks. The deal will run through the 2030-31 academic year.
“This new agreement is a recognition of our success and value,” Gill says. “It will expand our reach and provide a vast amount of exposure for our members which will allow them to showcase the incredible athletic and academic accomplishments,”
Currently, all of the Bobcats’ games are scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN+, ESPN3 or Watch ESPN. Texas State will open its season on ESPN+ against the Baylor Bears at 6 p.m. on Sept. 4 at Bobcat Stadium.