Last year, I cheerlessly wrote that the Sun Belt was “college football’s black hole.” This was not hyperbole, y’all. The SBC went a horrendous 13-34 against out-of-conference competition, with 69% (tee hee) of those wins coming at the expense of the FCS. That’s terrible. The conference’s best wins came against a very good 11-3 San Diego State team, and Western Michigan, who finished the regular season 7-5. Furthermore, there were zero victories over P5 opponents. To underscore the Sun Belt’s lack of brilliance: only three players from the conference were drafted to the NFL. Egh.
But I had optimism. Fresh off the NFL Draft depression, I reevaluated the situation and discovered that the bulk of Sun Belt talent remained tucked in the Belt. Here’s what I wrote in the Spring:
Take a look at the conference’s offensive and defensive statistic leaders in 2015. Of the top six signal callers (Taylor Lamb, Nick Arbuckle, Brandon Silvers, Matt Linehan and Fredi Knighten), only Knighten and Arbuckle were seniors. Eight out of the top ten sack leaders return, including leading sacker Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. The SBC’s top three RBs of will also return in 2016, as will its leading interceptor (Latrell Gibbs), TD scorer (Matt Breida), and wide receiver (Penny Hart).
Sun Belt talent is just hitting its stride.
Yeah, that wasn’t a bad point, even though Latrell Gibbs ended up academically ineligible for 2016 and Penny Hart broke his foot early in the season. There were still plenty of playmakers remaining on Sun Belt rosters. Suddenly, the gloom of the Sun Belt’s miserable OOC performance and NFL Draft failure evaporated.
Was my optimism rewarded in 2016? Like nearly everything with the Sun Belt, the Heat is a mixed bag open to interpretation. Yes, we improved the win-loss record, but not by much. Sure, we collected a few solid wins. We were also clobbered too many times. Hey, let’s just go ahead and break it down.
The Sun Belt went 17-25 in out-of-conference play
You don’t need to be The Count to see that the win improvement was less than a handful of fingers. Still, 17 wins is better than 13. It’s just not that much better. It could have been much better, because –
Arkansas State and Georgia State went a combined 1-7 out-of-conference
If you want to point any blaming fingers, you guys, point them at the Red Wolves and Panthers. Arkansas State, the Sun Belt champion, opened the season with a 31-10 home loss to Toledo and wrapped up its winless non-con season with a humiliating 28-23 loss to in-state FCS opponent Central Arkansas. Georgia State, who earned its first bowl appearance in 2015, barely fared better. Like the Red Wolves, the Panthers also suffered a home loss to a MAC opponent, Ball State. At least Georgia State had the wherewithal to beat its FCS opponent, UT-Martin.
But South Alabama and New Mexico State delivered some sweet solids
The Jaguars and the Aggies were given some pretty tough OOC assignments at the start of the season, and they delivered (plus one). New Mexico State hand’t defeated its Mountain West doppelganger, New Mexico, since 2011. But the Aggies delivered a sandy 32-31 victory for the conference. And nobody really expected South Bama to duplicate its success against the Aztecs after upsetting them in San Diego last year. Too bad! The Jags trounced #19 San Diego State 42-24 in Mobile. For added pleasure, the Jags went ahead and delivered the conference’s only victory against a P5 program, too. (This might be a good time to take a look at a chart.)
The Sun Belt’s misery against the Power Five remains miserable
Because I love you, I charted #SunBeltHeat so you can better appreciate its flaming burnout.
|Conference||W||L||Best Win||Noble Defeat||Embarrassing Loss|
|MW||3||4||South Alabama 43, #19 San Diego St. 24||Arkansas St. 20, Utah St. 34||Louisiana 10, Boise St. 45|
|MAC||2||3||Appalachian St. 45, Akron 38||Georgia St. 21, Ball St. 31||Arkansas St. 10, Toledo 31|
|CUSA||2||1||Troy 37, Southern Miss 31||NA||New Mexico St 22, UTEP 38|
|AAC||0||2||NA||Louisiana 39, Tulane 41||Texas State 3, Houston 64|
|SEC||1||7||South Alabama 21, Mississippi St. 20||Appalachian St. 13, Tennessee 20||Texas State 3, Arkansas 42|
|ACC||0||3||NA||Troy 24, Clemson 30||Appalachian St 10, Miami 45|
|PAC 12||0||2||NA||NA||Idaho 6, Washington St. 56|
|Big 12||0||1||NA||NA||ULM 17, Oklahoma 59|
|Big 10||0||1||NA||Georgia St. 17, Wisconsin 23||NA|
|FCS||8||1||NA||NA||Arkansas St. 23, Central Arkansas 28|
|Independent||1||0||Troy 52, UMASS 31||NA||NA|
The Sun Belt went a sour 1-16 against the Power Five, which is one better than last year. However, we were an okay 8-10 against peer conferences/independents, and our record against the FCS might have been sterling were it not for the Red Wolves. Still, the Sun Belt was supposed to take a step up against the Power Five in 2016. But…
The Sun Belt blew too many chances against the Power Five
The Sun Belt can’t say it didn’t have opportunity. Last week, Georgia Southern pulled within a TD of Ole Miss in the fourth quarter. Troy was a successful onside kick away from a shot at trumping Clemson. Appalachian State started the season by falling to Tennessee in overtime. Georgia State had a 17-13 lead over Wisconsin with 11:36 remaining in the 4th quarter before eventually falling 17-23. The Sun Belt pulled defeat from the jaws of victory again and again in 2016.
Peer-2-Peer, the Sun Belt held its own
Nobody will write an epic poem about going 8-10 against Group of Five conferences. But how can you not applaud Texas State’s upset over Ohio? Or South Alabama’s thumping of nationally ranked San Diego State? Appalachian State’s dismantling of the Akron Zips was fun, too. Even Idaho’s 33-30 win over UNLV was bad ass. But the Sun Belt was also a disappointing 0-2 versus the American. With Mike Aresco shamelessly billing the conference as the P5’s sixth Beatle, posting wins against the American is critical to spurring the Sun Belt’s growth.
The 4-4 Red Wolves are 4-0 in conference; the 4-5 Jaguars are 1-4 in conference, so WTF?
What does it mean when a Sun Belt team that went 0-4 out of conference is undefeated in Sun Belt play? Do you reverse the obvious conclusion when you remember that the team that upset Mississippi State and #19 San Diego State was just bested by ULM? The Sun Belt cannot be defined, quantified or predicted. You may as well attempt to fold a piano in half or try to explain that last season of X-Files to your children. It’s not possible.
Conclude this column, damn you!
Had Arkansas State and Georgia State contributed a few meaningful degrees to #SunBeltHeat, we’d likely be heralding a new Golden Age of the Sun Belt. But they failed miserably and as it stands, the Sun Belt ranks a disappointing 9th as a college football conference, according to Colley’s Conference Rankings. But that’s not to say that the Sun Belt hasn’t shown improvement over last season. This year, we have more meaningful wins and more teams rising to the public eye than in seasons’ past. Chill out, Beltophiles. The Heat is just warming up.