Those rumors, first stirred by the addition of Coastal Carolina as a full member in 2017, were amplified by the release of Idaho's self-deprecating PowerPoint and New Mexico State essentially asking the Sun Belt to keep both them and Idaho around.
Today, the rumors were confirmed and then some in a shocking manner: via teleconference.
Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson and Texas State/Sun Belt President Dr. Denise Trauth called the emergency teleconference just minutes after the official Sun Belt Twitter released the news that the Sun Belt's conference schedule would be delayed until further notice.
It turns out that Idaho and New Mexico State are departing, and the Sun Belt will be moving on as a 10-team conference after 2017. The conference will split into two five-team divisions, and play a championship game "as early as 2017, but definitely in 2018" on the campus of the higher seed, according to Commissioner Benson. It is yet to be announced if there will be an eight or nine-game schedule past 2018.
The championship game is very important to the Sun Belt, with Benson saying that out of the "autonomy five" and the "five other conferences," only the Big 12 and the Sun Belt did not have a championship game.
Benson added that in order to be considered for the College Football Playoff, the conference realized it would have to hold a title game, which he said was made easier by the championship game deregulation vote.
Trauth echoed his statements.
"It became very apparent that the presidents and chancellors in the conference were unified in moving forward as a 10-team football league. The sentiment was evident for sometime... Our leadership felt that... it was only fair to make this announcement sooner rather than later. We recognize that [NMSU] and Idaho need to move down the road, so we decided now was the time to make the announcement." ~Dr. Denise Trauth, Texas State University/Sun Belt President
According to Benson, massive expansion in recent years, a look at economic models between a 10-team and a 12-team league and the potential for a defined geographical footprint were ultimately the deciding factors. There was no formal vote in regards to keeping either institution in place.
Idaho and New Mexico State, both orphaned by the dissolution of the WAC football sponsorship only a few years ago, were independent programs until joining the Sun Belt in 2014 as affiliate members. New Mexico State was a former full member of the Sun Belt back in the 1970's, while Idaho joined as a member in football in 2001 before moving to the WAC in 2005.
Of the two programs, New Mexico State seems to be in the better situation, thanks to Aggievision's nationwide streaming service and proposals for expansion of facilities revealed in their PowerPoint to Sun Belt Members.
NMSU also has the third-largest school by enrollment numbers in the Sun Belt (29,768,) and would be the program more suited to life as an independent, although their plan is yet to be cemented.
Idaho, on the other hand, finds itself an independent program once again for the second time this decade, and will likely have to move back down to the FCS level to survive.
Idaho has the second-smallest enrollment in the Sun Belt (12,312), and according to a recent piece in the Washington Post, less than 48 percent of Idaho high schoolers go to college, which means less school funding and less money rolling in for the school. Moscow's remote location, combined with the presence of Boise State nearby, forces Idaho into a bad situation that will surely be met with divisiveness in the fanbase.
Idaho President Chuck Stabler expressed his thoughts via press release earlier today.
Here is the full statement from Idaho President Chuck Staben on Sun Belt's decision to vote Vandals out. pic.twitter.com/XLcXzyqXbZ— Dugar, Michael-Shawn (@MikeDugar) March 1, 2016
Idaho will also hold a press conference at 1:15 p.m. MST regarding their program's future.
Speculation has both of these programs dropping to the FCS level, with Idaho linked to the Big Sky Conference and NMSU being an independent. Something to look for with both programs is the Louisiana tax debacle. If the Southland Conference is adversely affected by school closures or mergers, NMSU could be a fairly attractive addition on at least a temporary basis in football.
An announcement regarding the Sun Belt 2016 and 2017 schedules will be released within the next 48 hours as soon as the Sun Belt and ESPN can finalize dates.