Back Sun Belt Off to Fast Start

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Sun Belt Off to Fast Start

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Two weeks into the college football season, the Sun Belt is shining.

"We have always felt like we are the top G5 conference and I think we have a chance to continue to prove it this year."
~Jamey Chadwell

Two weeks into the college football season, the Sun Belt is shining. A league less than 20 years old, one that has undergone dramatic reconfigurations along the way, has settled into a distinct, two-division geographic footprint and is taking major steps forward both regionally and nationally in furthering a competitive identity. Balance is emerging, young programs are maturing and, fresh off an inaugural conference championship game, a brand is developing. The product on the field has shown potential and progress alike. 

Entering mid-September, the Sun Belt has two wins over Power Five foes, a team just outside the national top 25 and just one winless member. Defending champion Appalachian State, with 41 victories the past four seasons, leads the league's expanding profile. Here is a conference, in its current form, still introducing itself to college football. The seeds have been planted; already, there is growth.    

"After watching and seeing some of these scores and what these guys are doing...it's always tough, but this this year, especially, I think you have got some really good teams in our league," explained Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell. "We are probably going to have more challenges in the league than we are out of conference. I mean, that's how good it looks."

Though ripe with new FBS names, the Sun Belt's roots, going back well beyond the formation of the conference, come with rings. Remarkably, six of the league's ten teams have won national championships, with the Mountaineers, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Monroe, Texas State and Troy having combined for 16 NCAA and NAIA titles. Appalachian State, along with the Eagles, dominated the FCS landscape before moving up from the Southern Conference to the Sun Belt, with the two traditional powers combining to claim five national championships from 1999-2007.   

A half-month into 2019, it has been league newcomers making headlines. Coastal Carolina and Georgia State, debuting in 2003 and 2010, respectively, have pulled off the two most prominent upsets of the young college football season. This past weekend, the Chanticleers defeated Les Miles and Kansas, beating one of only five head coaches in the country with an FBS national championship on their resume. The Panthers opened the season by topping traditional power Tennessee, a program with four times as many consensus All-Americans as Georgia State has seasons on the books.

History has been made as the present is still taking shape.

In addition to those signature wins, Louisiana was within one touchdown of Mississippi State late in the fourth quarter of week one and Louisiana-Monroe recently took Florida State to double-overtime, losing by just one point. While the Sun Belt is certainly no stranger to drama or wins on the big stage, see Troy over LSU in 2017 and Nebraska in 2015, South Alabama over Mississippi State in 2016, the Warhawks over Wake Forest in 2013 and 2014 or the Ragin' Cajuns over Kansas State in 2012, the proliferation of those performances has extended throughout the league.

Such triumphs, now wider in scope, have almost become an annual tradition. More opportunities of that type are on the horizon.

Furthermore, the Sun Belt has earned validation in bowl games with three consecutive winning postseasons. Included in that stretch were historic victories for Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Georgia State and a triumph for Arkansas State over current power Central Florida; over the last 29 games, the only teams to beat the Golden Knights are LSU and the Red Wolves.

"We have always felt like we are the top G5 conference and I think we have a chance to continue to prove it this year," Chadwell added.

Looking ahead, divisional races, leading up to a second-ever conference championship game, should be compelling. Storylines abound. Simply put, it's an exciting time for the Sun Belt. Former Atlantic 10 Executive Associate Commissioner Keith Gill, a former running back at Duke and the first-ever African-American commissioner of an FBS league, is ready to build on the success of his predecessor Karl Benson, continuing the development of this budding and fast-rising conference. 

Gill's active vision is one of striving for national more national prominence, all while elevating the Sun Belt, in many facets, as a whole. 

"A rising tide lifts all boats. I think at the end of the day, football is our most important asset. When we are really good at football, it think it makes sure that people realize we are a great athletic league and I think it also creates revenues and opportunities for us to pour into and invest in some of the other programs," he explained. "At the end of the day, a great football program, having great football programs is great for the Sun Belt and it's great for all of the other athletic programs in the Sun Belt and Sun Belt student-athletes."

The Sun Belt has both stability and notable momentum ahead of the start of conference play. Fittingly, the future is bright.

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