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The Mid-South Conference and The Sun Conference are merging to form the largest football conference in college sports.

Conference officials announced Thursday that beginning with the 2017 season, the Mid-South Conference will include 20 teams which will compete in three divisions. The new, expanded football conference will allow three teams to earn an automatic bid to the NAIA Football Championship Series.

“The stature of the new conference is very impressive with institutions that have strong academic programs as well as athletic programs,” said Kevin Jones, athletic director at Warner University. “It instantly gives this conference depth and credibility and it will help in recruiting. This will be the strongest conference in the nation. It gives our Sun Conference teams the benefit of keeping our rivalries going, and opens up competition for us. Scheduling was always a battle as we have been traveling to CA, TX and others to AZ and the northeast. It will save us time and money. We will have less open dates and we are playing very impressive NAIA teams. It’s an honor to be in this conference.”

Others, including Dr. Michael Carter, president of Campbellsville University and chair of the Mid-South Conference board of directors, share in the excitement.

“I could not be more excited about the expansion to create the largest football conference in the country. This opportunity to promote student athletes who are learning how to be Champions of Character and the importance of values based education is important to each school in the Mid-South Conference,” shared Dr. Carter.

The new conference will include the Mid-South Conference’s 13 members: Bethel (Tenn.), Bluefield (Va.), Campbellsville (Ky.), Cincinnati Christian (Ohio), Cumberland (Tenn.), Cumberlands (Ky.), Faulkner (Ala.), Georgetown (Ky.), Kentucky Christian, Lindsey Wilson (Ky.), Pikeville (Ky.), Reinhardt (Ga.), and Union (Ky.).

They will be joined by six teams from The Sun Conference: Ave Maria (Fla.), Edward Waters (Fla.), Point (Ga.), Southeastern (Fla.), Warner (Fla.) and Webber International (Fla.). St. Andrews (N.C.) is scheduled to begin football in 2017.

“This merger strengthens our commitment to our football institutions and their student-athletes,” said Mid-South Conference Commissioner Eric Ward. Ward said the expanded football conference will make it easier for schools to schedule football games, as well as bring together institutions with similar values.

“While the driving force behind this venture is to alleviate the difficulty of scheduling, there are a number of other benefits that will be realized by expanding this football conference,” Ward said. “This merger will also increase our football footprint with like-minded schools who share our mission to provide a competitive experience to all student-athletes.”

The Sun Conference Commissioner, Mark Pope, echoed Ward’s sentiments in creating the new football conference.

“Throughout our discussions, Eric and I realized that our respective member institutions were remarkably similar in values, character and strategic vision with regard to football,” said Pope.  “We were impressed with the Mid-South’s focus on football as its core product.”

Pope continued, “I see this new merger as the beginning of a remarkable new chapter in college football. Given the tremendous interest in football in the Southeast, I expect that several other institutions will consider adding this sport, now that they know they will have a conference which guarantees a full schedule of games.”

Football coaches in the expanded MSC are equally as excited about the 2017 season.

“We are already fortunate to be part of one of the top NAIA football conferences in the nation,” said Lindsey Wilson football coach Chris Oliver, chair of the Mid-South Conference football coaches. “This merger will only strengthen and expand the reputation of MSC football.”

Founded in 1987, the Mid-South Conference split into East and West football divisions in 2005. The expanded football conference’s divisions will be called the Appalachian, Bluegrass and Sun. Each division will have its own identity, producing a division champion that will earn an automatic bid into the NAIA Football Championship Series.

When the new football arrangement takes place in 2017, teams will play each school within a division once and play four non-division games against other Mid-South Conference teams.

The Mid-South Conference’s new football divisions are:

Bluegrass Division: Bethel (Tenn.), Campbellsville (Ky.), Cincinnati Christian (Ohio), Cumberland (Tenn.), Georgetown (Ky.), Kentucky Christian, Lindsey Wilson (Ky.).

Appalachian Division: Bluefield (Va.), Cumberlands (Ky.), Point (Ga.), Pikeville (Ky.), Reinhardt (Ga.), St. Andrews (N.C.), Union (Ky.).

Sun Division: Ave Maria (Fla.), Edward Waters (Fla.), Faulkner (Ala.), Southeastern (Fla.), Warner (Fla.), Webber International (Fla.).