Central Arkansas wide receivers Jarrod Barnes (2) and Lujuan Winningham celebrate Winningham's game-winning touchdown catch during the Guardian FCS Kickoff Classic last August in Montgomery, Alabama. Central Arkansas is one of three new members coming to the ASUN Conference, which also announced that it will begin sanctioning football at the FCS level.

The ASUN can now call itself a football conference. 

The announcement was made Friday as Central Arkansas, Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky were introduced as the three newest members of the conference.

The move brings the ASUN membership to 12 effective July 1. It will allow teams to break into two divisions and become more regional in travel and competition, but the biggest thing is it will bring football into the mix.

With the three new members joining Kennesaw State and North Alabama, the ASUN -- based in the Cumberland area of Cobb County -- will have five football-playing members beginning this fall.

Kennesaw State has been a member of the ASUN since joining NCAA Division I in 2005, but is football team has been an associate member of the Big South Conference since it launched in 2015.

"We realized one of the biggest things we needed for stability and sustainability was to focus on football," ASUN commissioner Ted Gumbart said during Friday's announcement, which was streamed on ESPN+. "It's been a primary reason why people either enter or depart other conferences."

Central Arkansas will be moving from the Southland Conference, while Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State will be coming in from the Ohio Valley Conference.

For Jacksonville State, this will be its second stint in the ASUN. When the Gamecocks first became a Division I program in 1998, their first conference affiliation was with what was then the Trans America Athletic Conference.

The TAAC was renamed the Atlantic Sun in 2001, and Jacksonville State remained there until 2003, when it moved to the OVC so all of its teams could be under the umbrella of one conference.

With five football-playing teams, it leaves the ASUN one team short from earning an automatic bid for its champion into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. While a fourth new team was not added Friday, it sounds as if the conference will continue to expand sooner than later.

"We could feel the conference landscape changing and we wanted to be in front of it, not left behind," Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague said in a release. "We are thrilled to begin a new football league and all the opportunities it brings. We appreciate the leadership at Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State and their support in navigating this successful transition. We're also proud that Kennesaw State and the University of North Alabama are already ASUN members and will join our three new programs to make five football programs in the ASUN.

"Our goal is to form the top FCS league in the country, and we have five football-playing members that are a super foundation for us to reach that. Our ultimate goal is to have seven or eight football playing members."

Gumbart said the conference is committed to finding a sixth member, and if there are other programs that meet the conference criteria, a seventh or eighth football member could also become a reality. Gumbart alluded to there being a second phase of expansion, but for now, he wants to celebrate Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State. 

"The goal is to be the best conference in FCS," Gumbart said. "We're going to be picky, and we feel like we have something special to offer to others."

Uncertainty remains on if the ASUN football members be playing under the ASUN umbrella during the 2021 fall season. In order to be granted an automatic bid to the playoffs, the conference has to apply to the NCAA for it by Feb. 1.

The ASUN could play this first year with five members and without an automatic bid, or because of the partnership the ASUN has with the Big South, it would be possible all five ASUN football-playing members could play a year as associate members of the Big South before adding anymore teams.

It could set up a powerful 12-team Big South field in the fall, with Kennesaw State, Jacksonville State, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Charleston Southern, Monmouth, Campbell, North Carolina A&T and Robert Morris all competing for a conference title.

There is potentially another option as well.

STATS, a website that covers the FCS, reported that the three new ASUN schools could also play this season as associate members of the newly formed football arm of the Western Athletic Conference, which, like the ASUN, currently does not have enough teams to be granted an automatic bid. 

Gumbart said in a separate interview with the website that any football decisions moving forward would be made with the best interests of the five programs.

"They're all being still looked at," Gumbart said. "In any case, we're going to print ASUN standings with five schools and pick a player of the week and promote ASUN football, and all of those programs will have the ASUN logo on the field. There will be a little bit of a transition to protect schedules and protect (automatic qualifying), but we're really pleased that we have great partners that are willing to work with us."

STATS reported that an announcement clarifying what will happen with the 2021 ASUN football schedules, affiliations and partnerships will be made Feb. 23 at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. 

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