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The Rising Sun Belt

By Jim Johnson
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According to OAYP, the Sun Belt is the nation's most improved conference from the end of 2018 to now.

The Sun Belt is the most improved conference in college football this year.

The numbers, at least according to my OAYP advanced metric, back that up.

From the end of 2018 to now, no league’s average OAYP score has seen a bigger leap. However, before we dive into why that’s the case, let’s take a look at the national landscape:

By average OAYP, the best conference in the FBS last season was the SEC. It really wasn’t even close, either. With a mean 1.19 score, the Southeastern Conference was a remarkable 0.68 points clear of its next closest competitor, the Big Ten. This season, though, it has taken a marked step back. In fact, it suffered the largest regression of any of the ten conferences, going from 1.19 to a 0.81 -- a net 0.38 drop.

Three teams saw at least a 1.0 point improvement -- LSU, Tennessee, and Florida -- but that was counteracted by four teams dropping by more than a point -- Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt -- the latter two of which slipped by more than two points.

Moreover, while Auburn joined the three big movers among the teams that got better, all ten of the other teams in the league showed at least a modest regression. Now, it’s still arguably the best conference in the country, but the overall regression, coupled with an improved Big Ten, actually has it at #2 in the conference rankings.

Ohio State, OAYP’s #1 team in the nation, Wisconsin and Minnesota pulled most of the Big Ten’s weight as far as improvement, but their 0.83 mean score is enough to place them slightly ahead of the SEC going into bowl season.

The Big 12 checks in at #3 in the overall conference rankings with a mean 0.3 score, led by the nation’s second most improved team, Baylor, while the Pac-12 sits in the fourth spot and holds the title of most improved power conference, largely on the backs of Oregon State, Oregon, and Utah.

Then, interestingly enough, the AAC, which has taken to calling itself the sixth power conference, may actually have some data to back that claim. With a 0.09 average OAYP score, the American Conference does in fact edge the ACC’s 0.03 score for the #5 conference ranking. The ACC suffered the second biggest regression this season, only behind the SEC, down 0.15 points from 2018.

The AAC, on the other hand, is the second most improved conference, only trailing the Sun Belt. That said, part of the reason is because they weren’t even the best Group of Five league a year ago. The Mountain West owned that moniker, but the league stagnated in 2019, and was surpassed as a result, falling to #7 overall and #2 among the G5’s.

The Sun Belt was actually the #4 G5 league in 2018, with the MAC taking the #3 spot, but the MAC, too, failed to improve, and slipped to last place this season.

That leases C-USA, jumping out of the last spot, with some modest improvement, into the #9 spot, while also boasting the nation’s single biggest improver, Western Kentucky.

Here’s how it all looks in full:

So how did we get here?

For one, three teams improved by over a point -- Louisiana, Georgia State, and Coastal Carolina -- the first of which actually improved by over two points, with Georgia State coming very close to joining them, and South Alabama just barely missed that 1.0 improvement mark.

Granted, that’s the same number of “big risers” as the SEC, which suffered the nation’s greatest regression, but the Sun Belt has four fewer teams than the Southeastern Conference, which is equivalent to about 10% more “big risers”. Beyond that, while most conferences had a more even distribution between risers and fallers, only three of the ten teams in the SBC got worse in the eyes of OAYP: Georgia Southern, Arkansas State, and Troy. Plus, of those, Troy was the only one that dropped by more than a point.

Here are the Sun Belt teams by degree of improvement:

1. Louisiana +2.05
2. Georgia State +1.97
3. Coastal Carolina +1.04
4. South Alabama +0.94
5. App State +0.74
6. Texas State +0.69
7. ULM +0.39
8. Georgia Southern -0.29
9. Arkansas State -0.35
10. Troy -1.06

What Billy Napier has done with the Ragin’ Cajuns is nothing short of remarkable. They haven’t yet been able to get over the hump against App State. Boasting OAYP’s #1 offense in the conference (#22 in the FBS), and the #2 defense (#29 FBS), Louisiana has made incredible strides on both sides of the ball. The extent to which they’ve gotten better may fly a little bit under the radar because they more or less accomplished the same thing they did last year, winning the West but falling in the title game, but the actual on-field product has come leaps and bounds.

Same goes for Georgia State. The Panthers were the lowest ranked team in the Sun Belt at the end of 2018, per OAYP, and the #126 team in the country. The defense still has some work to do, but Dan Ellington, Tra Barnett, and one of the better offensive lines in the conference, helped them to a much improved offense, and subsequently a much improved overall rating.

Coastal Carolina, meanwhile, made a lot of their progress on the defensive side of the ball. I thought they would still be a year away, but that defensive line led by OAYP’s #1 Sun Belt interior defender, Tarron Jackson, saw to it that 2019 would be the beginning of what could be a meteoric rise.

Even in the middle of the ranking, South Alabama, Texas State, and ULM helped cushion the performance dips from Troy, A-State, and Georgia Southern. And, heck, even App State got better, which was a pleasant surprise.

Now, it is worth mentioning that, obviously, the season isn’t over yet. With only non-conference games left (duh, that’s how bowls work), there’s still plenty of potential for shuffling. With the American Conference breathing down the Sun Belt’s neck in the improvement category, a strong postseason showing will be imperative in order to carry that crown into the offseason.

Granted, if the SBC’s recent bowl record is any indication, that won’t be a problem:

*Last three years*

1. Sun Belt: 11-5 (.688)
2. Big 12: 14-10 (.583)
3. ACC: 18-14 (.563)
4. Big Ten: 15-12 (.556)
5. Mountain West: 10-8 (.556)
6. Conference USA: 12-10 (.545)
7. SEC: 17-17 (.500)
8. AAC: 8-13 (.381)
9. Pac-12: 7-15 (.318)
10. MAC: 2-15 (.118)

Plus, four of the five Sun Belt teams in the postseason are favored in their respective bowl games -- Georgia Southern by 6, Arkansas State by 3, App State by 17, and Louisiana by 14 (Georgia State is a 7-point dog to Wyoming) -- so continued dominance in December and January won’t exactly be a surprise.

There’s still a long way to go to catch the ACC as the best G5 conference, but the Sun Belt is no longer anywhere near the bottom. The Mountain West is even comfortably now within striking distance, and bowl season could very well serve as a big step in the direction of closing that increasingly small gap.

Capitalize on those five opportunities over the next month, and the Sun Belt can comfortably walk into 2020 as the fastest rising conference in college football.

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