It’s not often that a brand-new collegiate athletic conference skyrockets to the top of its sport. This season, the Sun Belt might do just that.
The SBC announced in April that men’s soccer will return to its docket in 2022, adding West Virginia, Marshall and Kentucky, among several others to the league. The aforementioned trio will help the SBC instantly become one of the toughest leagues in men’s college soccer, and the Mountaineers are picked to lead the pack.
There are some familiarities for Dan Stratford and his squad in the new frontier. The SBC includes two former conference rivals from the MAC, Georgia State and Georgia Southern, while both Marshall and Kentucky faced the Mountaineers as non-conference opponents in 2021.
The other four teams, as well as the league’s overall identity, are territory yet to be discovered for Stratford.
“The irony is that they’re all good teams, so you’re kind of keeping an eye on the top-25, top-50,” Stratford said. “There’s often common opponents from a regional perspective, so James Madison and ODU for example, they’re teams that we’ve seen because maybe we scouted Marshall or scouted Kentucky last season….But we know we’ll be different to what we were last year, so you’ve almost got to go back to square one.”
The new league also has an impact on what teams WVU will schedule outside of it in the future. In all sports, the challenge of finding that balance between building a good strength-of-schedule and manageable opponents is important, and it is especially important in men’s soccer, where SOS is vital to an NCAA Tournament bid.
Between WVU’s new SBC slate and the non-conference schedule, there’s no doubt that the Mountaineers have one of the stronger schedules in the nation. They could face four ranked teams on the road in their first eight games in a stretch that could make or break the team’s momentum early in the campaign.
Depending on WVU’s first run in the Sun Belt, though, a stretch like that might not be necessary.
“I think the depth of quality within the Sun Belt, we may have to reconsider from an RPI perspective exactly what that’s doing for us versus, perhaps, the MAC,” Stratford said. “Now obviously having said that, the MAC was fantastic last year and five of seven teams made the national tournament, so we’ve essentially got more of the same.”
Three Sun Belt teams, including West Virginia at No. 6, rank in the United Soccer Coaches top-25. Four made the NCAA Tournament, with WVU again leading the way after an Elite Eight trip.
The No. 1 goal for WVU’s staff is to figure out how they can replicate and improve on that while competing in the Sun Belt.
“As we move forward, to be the best you’ve got to beat the best and that’s absolutely where we want to be, but of course, as a bare minimum, we want to be in a position to make sure we’re going to make the national tournament and have a run there at the end,” Stratford said. “So we’re going to have to observe this year and see how we have to fill out our non-conference schedule.”