Sun Belt Answers! Looking Back At The Questions That Haunted Us At The Start Of The Season
The season sets on the Sun Belt with much to improve on for 2018.
When the Sun Belt finished the 2016 bowl season 4-2, it seemed like a promising tipping point for the conference. The newbies were maturing. The quality of play was maturing. The big wins were coming. Fans realized early in the 2017 season – perhaps as early as Week 1 – that the conference was still a work in progress.
Personally, I made a number of wise predictions and observations for Sun Belt programs to start the season. Now we can revisit these questions, and pretend I knew the answers all along.
Troy lost all-star offensive line Antonio Garcia to the NFL, but most of roster from the 2016 10-win season remained intact. That year, Neal Brown stumbled twice in-conference to lose a share at the Sun Belt title. This year, a wiser Brown used an even better defense from last season to close escrow on the Sun Belt, snagging the title with a last-game win over Arkansas State.
Answer: To be determined
The Panthers’ new venue – a nice baseball-to-football renovation of Turner Stadium – was both a blessing and a curse to Georgia State. The Panthers opened the season against contracted bodybag Tennessee State and were beaten 17-10. New head coach Shawn Elliot would only lead the team to a single home victory this year. However, Elliot did provide enough road wins to get the Panthers into a bowl game. But did new Georgia State Stadium win hearts and minds? Homecoming against Troy did attract a record 23,913 home crowd. That’s a positive. But that ugly loss to Tennessee State killed a great deal of momentum.
The Bobcats finished 2017 1-7 in Sun Belt play – a one win improvement over last season. Working with a roster comprised mostly of freshmen, it was another bottom-of-the-barrel performance from Withers and Texas State. Does Withers survive the off season? Good question.
Joey Jones and the Jags took out Mississippi State and #25 San Diego State last season, but faltered miserably in conference. Yet, some (me) thought South Bama might finally be on the verge of putting together a complete season. This year, we were treated to a sort-of reverse South Bama, which suffered miserable OOC losses to Oklahoma State, Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech, but also collected upset Sun Belt wins over Troy and Arkansas State. Still, it was a lousy 4-8 season for South Alabama, and it cost Joey Jones is job.
Answer: Depends on your perspective
The season started miserably for Georgia Southern with a blowout to Auburn, and didn’t really look much better even after the programmed canned beleaguered HC Tyson Summers after a lopsided loss to UMASS. The Eagles turned to assistant Chad Lunsford, who managed to salvage a couple wins for the program before the season ended. Fans are pretty high on Lunsford, who was named Summers permanent replacement. Is 2017 just a hiccup in Eagles’ history? Or are we at the start of a long decline? Maybe!
Answer: Sort of!
The Warhawks finished 2017 the same way it finished 2016: 4-8. But this felt like a much more competent ULM team. Viator gave Memphis all it could handle to open the season, embarrassed Auburn for a half, and delivered an upset victory of Appalachian State. Sophomore quarterback Caleb Evans will be a better-than-solid fixture behind center, and if Viator can find something resembling defense, the Warhawks will be challenging the Sun Belt Establishment soon.
Answer: They did not
Things looked promising against Nebraska, when Blake Anderson and Arkansas State fell by only a score to the Cornhuskers. But then a home tilt was wMiami was canceled before SMU throttled the Red Wolves in Dallas. At least Arkansas State managed to put away its in-state FCS opponent this year, but it was another disappointing out-of-conference experience for the Red Wolves in 2017.
Up to the next-to-last week of the season, the Cajuns had a shot at the Sun Belt title, led by a resurgence in the running game. But Mark Hudspeth failed to muster enough hot sauce at the end of the season, falling to Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, which led to his unceremonious dismissal by Louisiana brass. Now the Cajuns get to enjoy a coaching search in its quest to regain Sun Belt relevance.
Answer: No and Yes
Overall, it was a missed opportunity for the Appalachian State Mountaineers, who gained another share of the Sun Belt title but also fell short on it’s OOC schedule with losses to Georgia (acceptable), Wake Forest* (unfortunate), and UMASS (unacceptable). Many predicted Scott Satterfield’s bunch to be the Sun Belt’s best, but it was Troy that collected the signature season with its 10-2 record and road win against LSU. But, hey, another title is another title.
* An earlier version of this post cited Georgia Tech, not Wake. The man responsible for this unforgivable error has been reassigned to cover the Alabama Senate race.
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.