South Alabama and Troy usher in new trophy game in Battle for the Belt

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A new title belt will be on the line this week when South Alabama and Troy battle for a championship-style belt this Saturday. The trophy is fitting considering South Alabama and Troy each play in the Sun Belt Conference.

“In the hearts of students, Troy has always been our biggest rival.  The ‘Battle for the Belt’ is the culmination of those passions,” said South Alabama Student Government Association President Ravi Rajendra.  “The introduction of the trophy to the rivalry will offer a new way for Jag Nation to connect with our football program. The concept behind the Belt stemmed from our student body and was accompanied by insight from our football team; the football team really liked the concept of a wrestling belt, and the Belt also plays off of the Sun Belt Conference of which both Troy and USA are members.”

At l;east this rivalry trophy was mutually agreed to by both sides, unlike UConn’s made-up rivalry with UCF.

“The reason behind this upcoming week is not to tear two group’s leaders apart, but to solidify our separate yet unified University spirits and drive towards excellence,” added Heath Barton, President of the Troy Student Government Association.  “We encourage everyone at these two schools who have launched some of Alabama’s greatest individuals to enjoy coming together, as one, to partake in one of the state’s greatest rivalries.”

Troy leads the all-time series 2-1, and South Alabama won last year’s meeting. Saturday will mark the Sun Belt opener for each school.

There is no word on whether UAB will crash the game with the Money in the Bank suitcase, but it sure would be fun to see.

Minnesota gives Fleck 1-year extension, plus raise

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MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck had his contract extended Wednesday by an additional year with a $1 million raise in annual salary, after the latest round of big spending by Big Ten rivals.

The new seven-year deal will run through the 2029 season, the university announced without releasing terms. Fleck will now make $6 million per year, a person with knowledge of the contract confirmed. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the deal had not yet been finalized.

Last week, Nebraska hired Matt Rhule and Wisconsin hired Luke Fickell to put them in the top tier of head coach compensation in the conference. In terms of average annual value, the 42-year-old Fleck is eighth in the Big Ten behind Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Rhule, Fickell, Penn State’s James Franklin, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. All seven of those coaches make $7 million or more per season.

The Gophers (8-4) play Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29. They’re 3-0 in bowl games under Fleck, who was hired away from Western Michigan in 2017.

Minnesota tied for second place in the Big Ten West Division this year, behind Purdue. Fleck is 43-27 overall with the Gophers, including 26-26 in conference play. They’re 0-6 against Iowa and 3-3 against Wisconsin, their primary rivals.

Fleck’s winning percentage is third-best in program history among coaches with 45 games or more, behind Henry Williams (1900-21) and Bernie Bierman (1932-41).

“What P.J. and his staff have done in a short amount of time is remarkable,” athletic director Mark Coyle said in a statement distributed by the university. “He has recruited and developed some of the best student-athletes to ever play at Minnesota and his team continues to excel academically, athletically and socially.”

This is the fifth time in six years on the job that Fleck’s deal has been adjusted to keep up with the competition, as power conference coach contracts these days rarely have less than five years on them at any time. Minnesota extended his deal a year ago, too.

In that iteration of his contract, the termination fees Fleck would owe Minnesota if he were to hop to another program were bumped way up. Those numbers landed at $7 million in 2023, $5 million in 2024, $4 million in 2025 and $3 million in 2026. Details about those figures in the new deal were not immediately available.

Virginia players granted extra year of eligibility

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to Virginia players whose eligibility has expired in the aftermath of the slaying of three members of the team, the school confirmed.

Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler were killed last month as they returned to campus from a field trip to see a play in Washington, D.C. A former player at the school, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., is facing three counts of second-degree murder and other charges in the shooting. A fourth player, Mike Hollins, and student Marlee Morgan were injured in the shooting.

Virginia canceled its final two games of the season after the shooting, and the team and university community memorialized the victims in a nearly two-hour service on campus. Team members also traveled to each of the three funerals held for their teammates.