Sun Belt Championship Weekend: Bring On The Boom
An incredibly explosive Week 13 sets the stage for a championship weekend for the Sun Belt.
Week 13 was bonkers in the Sun Belt, with three teams posting more than 50 points, a QB who passed for 500 yards, and a running back that pounded 239 yards on the ground. If you enjoy outrageous offensive numbers, you might want to check in on the Sun Belt.
Yet, with all the Sun Belt’s wackiness, the outcome proved predictable. South Bama and ULM briefly rebelled, and Georgia State and Louisiana attempted a coup, but it was all for naught. Appalachian State, Arkansas State and Troy are still the Sun Belt Establishment, all three vying for a conference title on the last day of the regular season.
The question pressed to the lips of the Universe: Who wins? Let us examine the contenders, weigh the evidence and foolishly predict the outcome.
The Championship Games
Louisiana Ragin Cajuns (5-6) vs Appalachian State Mountaineers (7-4), 1:30 PM on ESPN3 at Kidd Brewer Stadium, Boone, NC. (Mountaineers are a 15-point favorite)
Mark Hudspeth attempts to salvage the Cajuns’ season by becoming bowl eligible with a win over the Mountaineers. Scott Satterfield seeks a second Sun Belt title in as many years. Both teams score 30 points per game. But the Cajuns will need more out of Joe Dillon and the defense if it hopes to be in contention by the 4th quarter.
Troy Trojans (9-2) vs. Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-3), 6:30 PM one ESPN2 at Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro, AR (Red Wolves are a 1.5-point favorite)
The Red Wolves average 40 points per game. Troy is only surrendering 17. It will be a nationally televised clash of strength in Jonesboro on Saturday night. Neal Brown seeks to avenge last year’s disheartening loss to the Red Wolves while Blake Anderson looks to deliver to Arkansas State a 6th Sun Belt title in seven years.
Three teams, three paths to victory
Appalachian State’s methodical, unrelenting grind-game
Scott Satterfield and his Mountaineers are the patient boxer who carefully bides his time, taking glancing blows until unleashing the uppercut in the final rounds. Throughout the year, Appalachian State has orchestrated a number of second-half and 4th-quarter comebacks – though one wonders if the Mountaineers were really in danger of losing those games (the upset to ULM notwithstanding).
Once again, QB Taylor Lamb (2,364 yards, 23 TDs, 148.3 QB rating) is “consistency given human form,” logging a 4th straight season of 60% completions. With only six picks on the year, Lamb is always a sure bet to lead drives with Terminator-like efficiency. But it’s the defense that wears most opponents down, surrendering only 18 points-per-game to opponents in six Sun Belt victories. The Mountaineers aren’t the top-ranked defense in the Sun Belt (that would be Troy), but it ranks among conference leaders in sacks (4th, 31) and picks (2nd, 13).
Arkansas State’s atomic-powered offense
Against ULM, QB Justice Hansen (3,193 yards, 32 TDs, 156.0 QB rating) set a school record for passing yards (520) and total yards (550) to lead the Red Wolves to a 67-50 win. Arkansas State is currently the 7th ranked passing offense in the country, with seven receivers hauling 20 or more passes. While anybody on the receiving corps can hurt you, WR Chris Murray (572 yards, 9 TDs) has become Hansen’s primary weapon.
But what makes the Red Wolves even more dangerous is the late emergence of the running game. RB Warren Wand (624 yards, 6 TDs) has turned in two consecutive 100 yard performances, recovering from a midseason ankle injury to regain his speed and tenacity. With Johnston White providing quality relief, the Wand-led run game gives Blake Anderson’s offense a dimension it sorely lacked for the season’s first three quarters.
Troy’s steel wall of defense
Tough and stingy, the Trojan defense ranks 17th nationally and has surrendered all of 21 touchdowns. In conference, the unit ranks 3rd in sacks (32) behind New Mexico State and Arkansas State while giving up only 16 points-per-game in its six Sun Belt wins (and only 19 points for its loss to South Alabama). Cornerback Blace Brown (4 INTs, one Pick Six) is as dangerous as they come, and the only team tougher in the nation than Troy in defending the Red Zone is TCU.
All Troy needs to finally regain the Sun Belt Sheriff’s Badge is something from the offense. Of its last two games, Neal Brown’s squad has delivered points, combining for 104 against Coastal Carolina and Texas State. Brandon Silvers (2,739 yards, 11 TDs, 132.2 QB rating) delivered his finest offensive output of the season against the Bobcats, firing up 4 TD passes in a 62-9 victory. With RB Jordan Chunn providing plenty of power in the backfield, it may be the Trojans offense that propels it to the championship on Saturday.
Why Appalachian State wins its second consecutive championship.
The Mountaineers conclude the season in Boone against a Louisiana – who is playing for its sixth win and bowl eligibility. But Mark Hudspeth’s team didn’t exactly rise to the challenge against Georgia Southern in Week 13, handing the Eagles its only second victory of the season. The Cajuns aren’t a creampuff, but neither are they an especially dangerous opponent. Expect Coach Satterfield to grind the Cajuns like pepper.
Why Appalachian State stumbles and fails.
Taylor Lamb is a great QB, and running back Jalin Moore is finally pouring it on, delivering 239 rushing yards and a score to bounce Georgia State from the pedestal. But that win came at a terrible cost:
Sims is second in the Sun Belt with 10 sacks, and his loss is a huge blow to an App defense that can give up chunks of yards, especially on the ground. Georgia State ranks in the basement for rushing in the Sun Belt. The Cajuns, led by Trey Rajas, ranks third. Without Sims creating havoc, Hudspeth may find a way to out-grind even the Mountaineers.
Why Arkansas State picks up its 6th championship in seven years
Here’s a fun fact: Red Wolves don’t lose games at home. Arkansas State has won 33 of its last 39 at Centennial Bank Stadium, and hasn’t lost a conference game in Jonesboro in two seasons. With an old foe coming to town, the game should draw a big home crowd for Senior Day. Blake Anderson and his team will draw power from the energy, overpowering the Trojans on both sides of the ball.
Why Arkansas State lays a big egg
The Trojans will enter the game wanting two things, 1) Its first Sun Belt Championship in over a decade, and 2) REVENGE. The Red Wolves beat the Trojans at Troy last season 35-3, knocking Neal Brown out of the AP Top 25 and ultimately out of the Sun Belt title race. Brown isn’t about to let that lightning strike twice. He’s a year wiser – and possibly angling for Power Five paycheck.
How Troy reclaims the Sun Belt Sheriff’s Badge
If feels like generations ago, but Troy used to be the power in the Sun Belt – the Trojans won five straight in the Early Zeros. Now Neal Brown has restored the program to its former glory with a killer defense that shut down everybody, including LSU. True, this is largely the same defense that allowed 208 yards of rushing and 35 points to the Red Wolves last year. But this season has hardened Troy. Brown saw how ULM picked Arkansas State’s secondary apart. Look for Silvers to ride his success against the Bobcats all the way to the multiple trips to the end zone this Saturday while the defense shuts Hansen down.
Why Troy completely falls apart (again)
Let’s face it; the Trojans have a recent history for falling short at big moments. Less than a week after being named to the AP Top 25, Troy falls to the Red Wolves at home. A season later, a game after upsetting LSU, Troy lost to South Alabama at home. Once again, the pressure is on Brown’s Trojans to seal the deal, and to do so in front of a hostile crowd against an opponent with just as much on the line is not ideal. Look for Troy to crumble again.
Big Three Tale of the Tape
Best Quarterback: Justice Hansen
Hats off to Taylor Lamb and Brandon Silvers, but Hansen is shattering school and conference records. Hansen was nearly flawless against ULM, and he should be feeling pretty cool and confident on Saturday.
Best Defense: Troy
Arkansas State may be flashier, and Appalachian State may be grittier, but that Troy defense is something special.
Best Balance: Appalachian State
You can make an argument for the Red Wolves, who have been stellar at special teams, but in the end the Mountaineers even balance of solid offense and defense makes App a nightmare on both sides of the ball.
Best Running Back: Jalin Moore
The ground game hasn’t been a primary strength for any of the Big Three, but Jalin Moore has put up some huge numbers of late, regaining the yardage lead and become the weapon worthy of the Preseason Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year.
Best Wide Receiver: Chris Murray
Currently the TD leader among receivers (9), the 5’9″ speedster is enjoying a magic season as Justice Hansen’s main man.
Best Team: Troy
You got to pick one. Troy and its 9-2 record seems to be the best team (on paper). Among the Three, the Trojans have be best win (LSU) and the most dominating unit (defense). Still, Troy is not without weakness. Silvers has only 11(!) TD passes this year, and MegaChunn seems to disappear for stretches. Give me an argument for the Mountaineers and Red Wolves, and I’ll likely agree.
Who’s emerges from the fallout?
Even with a victory over Louisiana (not a gimme), the Mountaineers can do no better than earn a share of the title – with whoever wins Trojans vs. Red Wolves. Should the Cajuns overcome the odds for a 6th victory, the winner of Troy/Arkansas State takes the title outright.
So who’s likely to take home the hardware? These three teams are evenly matched in almost every way. With all things equal, you have to go with the home teams.
Prediction: Mountaineers and Red Wolves split the title for the second straight year
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.