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Defense Wins (Sun Belt) Championships

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Troy and Appalachian State had the two best defenses in the conference, in 2017, and now they share the title.

Defense wins championships.

It’s one of the core tenets of football, and held especially true in the Sun Belt, this season.

Troy and Appalachian State had the two best defenses in the conference, in 2017, and now they share the title.

For Troy, it started up front. The run defense was not just the best in the SBC, but amongst the best in the nation. They finished top ten in the country in yards per carry allowed, rushing yards per game allowed, percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, and rushes of both 10+ yards and 20+ yards allowed.

Defensive linemen Seth Calloway, Jamal Stadom, Baron Poole II, Marcus Webb, Antione Barker, and Trevon Sanders all had at least six run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, with no higher than a 31.3% allowed success rate.

The linebacking corps had an even more pronounced volume of production against the run, due in part, of course, to the line, with Tron Folsom, Sam Lebbie, and Justin Whisenhunt all tallying double digit stuffs, alongside allowed success rates below 33%.

Similarly effective at getting after opposing quarterbacks, Troy boasts one of the top five standard down sack rates in the country. 13 different Trojans got in on that action at one point or another, throughout the campaign.

On the backend, Kris Weatherspoon’s contributions cannot be overstated. One of the most versatile players in the game, he is as much a terror against the run as he can be shutdown corner or a sure-tackling high safety.

Speaking of sure tacklers, Cedarious Rookard missed only three all year, putting him in the midst of college football’s elite, aside from his own ability against the pass.

Add in Blace Brown, Jalen Harris, Marcus Jones, and Kamryn Melton, and there was truly no good way to attack Neal Brown’s defense, this year.

With Appalachian State, it’s almost the inverse, where the success starts in the secondary.

Clifton Duck had one of the best freshman seasons in America, last year, and built off that momentum, as a sophomore.

He and junior Tae Hayes presented, arguably, the most formidable cornerback duo in the conference.

Safety A.J. Howard, meanwhile, similar to Troy’s Weatherspoon, did everything that was asked of him, proving his efficacy in myriad capacities.

The coverage ability, specifically, allowed the Mountaineers’ front seven to pressure opposing passers at a mind boggling rate.

On pass rushes between the tackles, there was not a more productive player in college football than Tee Sims. It’s really not even close. Even whilst playing alongside Sims, Okon Godwin was one of the three most efficient pass rushers in the Sun Belt.

Maintaining an aggressive style when they got their opponents off schedule, Appalachian State finished in the top 20, nationally, in passing down sack rate.

Believe it or not, Sims was nearly as effective against the run. He and Godwin, particularly, along with inside linebackers Eric Boggs and Anthony Flory, all of whom, at least, neared double digit run stuffs, made it borderline impossible to move the ball North-South.

Altogether, as a beneficiary of the well placed confidence in the defensive backfield, Appalachian State’s defensive prowess was as much a result of pure talent as it was a sort of symbiosis.

The two best defenses in the conference sharing the Sun Belt title is not a new phenomenon. It literally happened just last year.

As the conference moves towards an actual championship game, this will cease being the case. Instead of the two best, though, it will probably keep being the best.

You know what they say… Defense wins Sun Belt Championships.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP