The Sun Belt likes to conclude its business early, with three of its five bowl tie-ins taking place this Saturday – Day 1 of Bowl Season. This isn’t a bad set-up. By December 16th, rabid college football fans are starved for pigskin, giving viewers a good reason to tune in. Viewership shall be rewarded! While the Sun Belt has endured what one might generously call a “down season,” the conference’s storyline metrics remain high.
The best storyline is one that somebody (the Sun Belt, ESPN, both?) orchestrated behind the scenes – setting up three bowl games between current and former Sun Belt members. Welcome back to the Belt, Mean Green, Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders. We can’t say we missed you, but it’s kinda fun to see you again.
December 16: Sun Belt Defector Bowls
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Troy (10-2) vs. North Texas (9-4)
1 p.m., ESPN
In life, with victory comes the spoils. In the Sun Belt, the spoil is a trip to the New Orleans Bowl. Conference co-champ Troy Trojans take on CUSA runner-up North Texas, and it feels like the Zeroes all over again. Between 2001 and 2010, the Mean Green and Troy won nine conference titles between them. The two programs ruled the Sun Belt with an iron fist of steel. Sadly, North Texas demographics beguiled Conference USA and the Mean Green bolted.
Both teams endured seasons of mediocrity before arriving to meet at this glorious point, fully restored and ready to resume fisticuffs. The Mean Green are powered by a potent offense led by sophomore quarterback Mason Fine (3,749 yards, 28 TDs). North Texas puts up 36 points per game. And they need every point, as the defense surrenders 33 and is mushy against both the pass and the rush.
Troy, on the other hand, brings to bear a ferocious defense that smothered the Sun Belt into submission, allowing opponents only 18 points. The Trojans are especially strong between the 20s, fielding the nation’s 1st ranked red zone defense. The Trojans simply become a brick wall at the goal line. If Fine wants to pad his stats on Saturday, he’ll need to hook up with his main man Jaylen Guyton (764 yards, 9 TDs) for long yardage plays. Otherwise, best of luck.
The Trojans are a 6.5 favorite to win. I think Fine is a fine QB, but the Trojans defense is unbreakable. Look for Troy to more than cover the spread.
AutoNation Cure Bowl
Western Kentucky (6-6) vs. Georgia State (6-5)
2:30 p.m., CBSSN
Camping World Stadium
The Hilltoppers were once a fine Sun Belt team that never won a conference title. True success didn’t find Western Kentucky until it bailed for CUSA, where the program suddenly became an offensive juggernaut blessed with coaching talent like Willie Taggert, Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm. Now the equally savvy Mike Sanford takes the helm, and while the record is a pedestrian 6-6, the offense is still at full speed.
Senior quarterback Mike White was brilliant again for the Hilltoppers, adding 24 TDs and 3,826 more yards to his stellar college career. What’s missing from Western Kentucky is a reliable run game and a potent pass rush. Senior DL Derik Overstreet leads the team with only two sacks. The offensive rings up 26 points per game. The defense surrenders 26 points per game. How can the Hilltoppers not be 6-6?
Georgia State features some of the same problems (lack of a run game, not much of a pass rush) and identical strengths (solid quarterback play under Conner Manning). What the Panthers also have is one of the nation’s most underrated wide receivers, Penny Hart. But if WKU can contain Hart, it will likely have enough offense to overcome the Panther’s decent-but-not-spectacular defense.
ESPN FPI likes Western Kentucky, but Georgia State is somehow favored to win by 6.5. The Panthers are tougher away from home, but I suspect Mike White will be too much heat for the Georgia State secondary to handle.
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
Middle Tennessee (6-6) vs. Arkansas State (7-4)
8 p.m., ESPN
Once upon a time, Middle Tennessee was an amusing Sun Belt basketball school that sometimes played football. Today, the Blue Raiders are still amusing on the hardcourt (ask Ole Miss), but they’ve also matured into a better-than-solid G5 football program under head coach Rick Stockstill.
The Blue Raiders season was derailed with a shoulder injury that cost starting QB Brent Stockstill six games. The MTSU offense is noticeable sharper with Stockstill behind the wheel, scoring 10 more points per game. However, an asset that won’t be appearing at the Camellia Bowl is All-American wide receiver Ritchie James, who broke a collarbone against Marshall.
James would have been immensely useful this Saturday because you beat the Red Wolves with big plays against its secondary. Now Stockstill will have to avoid Ja’Von Rolland Jones and the A-State front seven without James hauling in passes. Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee puts out a pretty good defense, but Justice Hansen and his pals at wide receiver should find enough success to grind the Red Wolves’ old foe into submission.
The Red Wolves are a 4 point favorite, and while the return of Stockstill makes Middle Tennessee better than its 6-6 record, look for the Arkansas State monster defense to come out slashing.
December 23rd: Revenge Bowl
Dollar General Bowl
Appalachian State (8-4) vs. Toledo (10-2)
7 p.m., ESPN
Surprise! The Toledo Rockets were never in the Sun Belt. However, the MAC champ certainly feels like a Sun Belt program when it comes to the off season. This is Toledo’s third straight bowl to face a Sun Belt opponent, with this year’s Dollar General being a rematch of last year’s Camellia Bowl.
In the 2016 Camellia Bowl, the Mountaineers and Rockets traded leads the entire game before Appalachian State decided it with a 4th quarter field goal, securing the 31-28 victory for the Sun Belt. The rematch brings back many of the principle players, with quarterback Logan Woodside returning to lead the Rockets and and the ever-consistent Taylor Lamb back for the Mountaineers. Both quarterbacks are the highest rated passers in their conferences, bringing nearly identical stats to the table (27 TDs, 6 picks for Lamb; 28 TDs, 5 picks for Woodside). If you want to see two of the most skilled QBs in the Group of Five at work, the Dollar General Bowl is well worth your nickel.
The quarterbacks will receive the spotlight, but the defenses will likely decide the game. The Mountaineers’ 39th ranked defense is good at applying pressure, but Scott Satterfield’s leading defender, Tee Sims, is done for the year with a torn biceps. He wasn’t missed during the season ender against Louisiana, but the Mountaineers will likely feel Sims’ loss against Toledo’s stout offensive line.
The Rockets are an 8-point favorite over the Mountaineers, which seems fair given the loss of Sims. But I think this game will play much closer.
December 29: The Double Aggies Bowl
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl
Utah State (6-6) vs. New Mexico State (6-6)
5:30 p.m., CBSSN
The Sun Belt unceremoniously bounced New Mexico State from the conference, and the Aggies responded with six wins and its first bowl berth in 57 years. Eat that, Benson! Doug Martin and his Aggies can drop the mic on the Sun Belt by besting geographically sensible Utah State, a team that finished 5th in the Mountain West Mountain Division.
The Aggies of Utah State are rebuilding around freshman QB Jordan Love, who began the season behind senior Kent Myers. At 6’3″, 215lbs, Love is developing to become both a dangerous passer and runner. Senior running back LeJuan Hunt provides a little thunder in the run game, chalking up 10 TDs this season and contributing to Utah State’s 31 points per game.
Neither team is much for defense, which plays into Tyler Rogers hands. With wide receiver Jaleel Scott gobbling up Rogers’ prolific output, and Larry Rose III taking advantage of Utah State’s suspect run defense, New Mexico State can go toe-to-toe with Utah State. Expect a ton of points.
New Mexico State is a 4-point favorite over Utah State, and that sounds good to me. I also expect both teams to break 40 points.
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.