Back Here Comes the Sun Belt

Here Comes the Sun Belt

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Entering the stretch run of the season, a strong argument can be made that the Sun Belt is the nation's top Group of Five Conference.

For the first time in conference history, the Sun Belt has two nationally-ranked teams: undefeated Coastal Carolina at 15th and one-loss Louisiana at 25th in the latest AP Poll. Then there is traditional power Appalachian State, which has won at least a share of four consecutive league championships, listed amongst the first five in the others receiving votes category in the Coaches Poll. Add in Georgia Southern, fresh off back-to-back bowl appearances, and the Sun Belt has multiple brand names leading the charge.

The Chanticleers, Ragin' Cajuns, Mountaineers and Eagles are currently a combined 23-4. They are helping to headline a league that is now part of the national narrative. 

It wasn't just a week one statement, with three wins over Power Five teams, that got college football talking. Nor is it only the Sun Belt's new placement in the polls. The league has been on a multi-year rise, with the individual efforts over programs all across the footprint building a common, collective strength. From Karl Benson to Keith Gill, the first African-American commissioner of an FBS conference, the Sun Belt has been on a forward, expanding track under prominent, proven leadership. This is a league with a positive purpose.   

While Louisiana over nationally-ranked Iowa State, Arkansas State over Kansas State and Coastal Carolina over Kansas came with national headlines, such success was nothing new. Appalachian State defeated both North Carolina and South Carolina in 2019, along with Georgia State topping Tennessee and the Chanticleers beating the Jayhawks a full year prior. In recent years, Troy knocked off LSU and Nebraska, South Alabama upset Mississippi State and, in their final FCS season before joining the FBS, Georgia Southern upended Florida. A number of Sun Belt teams have also taken P5 foes into overtime.  

Overall, the league won an all-time high 25 non-conference games a year ago.

Bowl games have been a platform for college football's hottest league. Conference-wide, the Sun Belt has had a winning record in four straight postseasons, boasting the best winning percentage of any FBS league in that span. Only the SEC won at a higher rate this past season. Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Louisiana and Troy all have bonus wins in recent years, a testament to the talent and depth in the league. There is at least a chance that undefeated Coastal Carolina, bowl eligible for the first time in school history, could play its way into an historic New Year's Six bowl bid. 

The Chanticleers have been one of the stories of this college football season. They have been played within two touchdowns just once, in a three-point win over fellow ranked Sun Belt foe Louisiana. Coastal Carolina leads the league in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Quarterback Greyson McCall ranks 7th nationally in passer rating, while lineman Tarron Jackson is tied for fifth in the country in sacks. Entering mid-November, the Chanticleers are the last undefeated team in the Carolinas and one of the game's few remaining unbeatens, period. 

In terms of the rest of the top tier of the conference, Appalachian State has lost only a close game to 16th ranked Marshall, Louisiana has just a three point defeat on a late field goal to Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern's two losses have come to the Ragin' Cajuns, on a walk-off 53-yard kick, and the Chanticleers. The Sun Belt East has been especially fascinating as no team in the division is under .500. Troy has a 48-17 win at Middle Tennessee on its resume. Georgia State beat East Carolina 49-29. 

It will be fun to watch the finish to the regular season. Coastal Carolina will host Appalachian State later in the month and will open December against undefeated Liberty, fresh off a win over Virginia Tech. Louisiana will wrap up its regular season in Boone in a rematch of the two Sun Belt Championship Games. The Mountaineers still have upcoming contests with the Chanticleers, Ragin' Cajuns and rival Georgia Southern. Winners of four of five, the Eagles' final three games await as Army, Georgia State and Appalachian State. League-wide, the possibilities are many. 

There is a lot of football left to be played. It is likely to be great football, too.

Around the conference, there are reasons for optimism. Young programs are settling into their own. The Sun Belt, at-large, is too. A league with geographical cohesion across the southeast now has an emerging new foundation with its two division format and spotlight conference championship game. Memories are being made. Natural rivalries are developing. History is taking shape. College football is taking notice.     

Entering the stretch run of the season, a strong argument can be made that the Sun Belt is the nation's top Group of Five Conference. Coastal Carolina may be poised to challenge the status quo even more. With bowl games on the horizon, the league moves forward with a recently-finalized contractual agreement that comes with five tie-ins for the next six seasons. The Sun Belt also marches on with a growing national reputation and numerous programs on the rise. The future, for the conference, has never been more exciting.

Clearly, the Sun Belt has momentum. Whether Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday, you can see it on national television every single week. The #FunBelt is making new fans. The league is making an impression.

Already, the Sun Belt is on the rise.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports