State of the Sizzle: Reviewing the 2017 Sun Belt Football Season
The Sun Belt regular season was a smoldering ruin redeemed by one hell of a bowl season.
The Sun Belt football season began ingloriously on a Thursday night at the Panthers’ newly christened home, Georgia State Stadium. Leading the team was freshly minted head coach Shawn Elliot, taking over for former SBC Coach of the Year Trent Miles. Cooking the books in favor of victory, the Panthers’ shrewdly scheduled FCS program Tennessee State of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Georgia State front office spent the entire summer pumping up the fan base for a special season, routinely updating construction progress on the new stadium. What could go wrong?
The Panthers likely weren’t expecting to gain only 273 yards against Tennessee State, with a mere 49 of those on the ground. Furthermore, head coach Shawn Elliot probably expected to score more than 10 points with a year-wiser Connor Manning behind center, and all-awesome wide receiver Penny Hart back in the lineup. In fact, the Panthers were probably all set to lead the charge on a golden Sun Belt season.
The Panthers fell to the Tigers 17-10, launching a season of regret for the entire conference. But the failure sparked by Georgia State’s loss would be redeemed in December, due in no small part to those very same Panthers.
Coaches to which we bid adieu in 2017
Little did we know that this was a “make it or break it” season for a trio of Sun Belt head coaches in 2017. Some we could see coming. Others raised an eyebrow. Let’s recap!
Adios: Tyson Summers
Howdy: Chad Lunsford
There was no thinner ice in college football that the ice beneath Tyson Summer’s feet, whose decision to abandon the Eagles’ precious triple option proved more unpopular in Statesboro than New Coke. Despite attempting to re-insert the TO into the offense, Summers opened the season with six straight losses before Georgia Southern had finally seen enough. The front office handed OC Chad Lunsford the reigns, who was rewarded the permanent gig after salvaging two wins from the dumpster fire.
Adios: Joey Jones
Howdy: Steve Campbell
South Bama opened the season with poundings from Ole Miss and Oklahoma State, but then head coach Joey Jones rebounded with nice conference wins over Troy and Arkansas State. But not even the stoutest Jags fan could stomach a 52-0 loss to two-win Georgia Southern, and the former Sun Belt Coach of the Year announced that he would be retiring at season’s end. Steve Campbell, fresh from leading Central Arkansas to a conference title and FCS glory, takes over a team in bad need of offensive identity.
Adios: Mark Hudspeth
Howdy: Billy Napier
Mark Hudspeth enjoyed a celebrated career in Lafayette, routinely delivering New Orleans Bowl victories while setting multiple unofficial physical strength records (head coach division). But the protein-shake ran dry for Hudspeth after a couple disappointing seasons, the last marred by off-season brouhahas that the Cajun front office likely took a very dim view. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns AD Dr. Bryan Maggard rebounded with the conference’s most intriguing hire when he landed Billy Napier, former OC from Arizona State. If Napier can find the pieces to rebuild the Cajun defense, look for Louisiana to return to relevance quickly.
Best Win of 2017: Troy takes down LSU
The media still seems perplexed by LSU’s defeat to the Troy Trojans, as if losing to an 11-2 program that featured the world’s best red zone defense is a tremendous mystery. OMG there must be something horribly wrong with the Tigers! Relax, LSU. You rebounded and got to play Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl. Troy’s excellent season was rewarded with the New Orleans Bowl and a forgettable win over…(Googles)…North Texas. Don’t worry, Power Five Overlords! Your mediocre SEC lieutenant was still given all its national TV exposure against a celebrated (and equally as wealthy) opponent. The Trojans, who out-muscled the Tigers in front of its own fans, got the Mean Green. Mission accomplished, NCAA! You showed us the money!
Any way, Neal Brown and his Trojans delivered the signature win for the Sun Belt, pounding the LSU Tigers for four turnovers and a 24-21 victory.
Worst Defeat of 2017: Troy craters against South Alabama
Yes, the Sun Belt absorbed plenty of horrendous defeats int 2017: Appalachian State’s 30-27 loss to UMASS, Georgia State’s fall to Tennessee State, and Georgia Southern’s 22-12 defeat to New Hampshire were all pretty horrible. But nothing, NOTHING, compares to Troy’s flop against the Jaguars.
After the win against LSU, Troy was primed to take the Sun Belt conch to the Top 25, raising the tide for the entire conference. Instead, it laid a green egg on its own turf, falling to the destined-to-be-canned Joey Jones 19-8. The Jags’ victory was a huge loss for the Sun Belt, removing its best team right out of the national conversation. Why Karl Benson didn’t send Joey Jones a brief case full of cash, a bottle of Seagram’s and a one-word note that said “TANK!” I’ll never know.
The Warhawks and Panthers are threatening the Sun Belt Establishment
Nearly every college football prognosticator predicted a three-way conference race between Troy, Appalachian State and Arkansas State. And that’s exactly what happened.
Except, the ULM Warhawks and Matt Viator briefly held the Sun Belt lead after Troy’s loss to South Alabama. Viator’s offense was absolutely breathtaking in 2017, scoring 33.9 points per game. Only a miserable defense prevented Viator from seriously threatening the establishment.
Also creating problems, Georgia State, who overcame its grisly defeat to Tennessee State (and then Penn State), to collect six regular season wins plus a 27-17 Cure Bowl victory over Western Kentucky. The Panthers retain the services of super-receiver Penny Hart in 2018, and if Elliot can find something resembling a run game, look for Georgia State to be in the thick of the conference race in 2018.
The Sun Belt provided some bad-ass entertainment in 2017
Yeah, the Sun Belt dropped some smelly duces on national TV this season – that Jaguars vs Oklahoma State match-up was horrendous! But the Sun Belt put together some memorable contests, too. Let’s rank them, using my mysterious criteria known only to me.
- Arkansas State vs. Troy, 32-25 Trojans
- Troy vs. LSU, 24-21 Trojans
- Arkansas State vs ULM, 67-50 Red Wolves
- Appalachian State vs Wake Forest, 20-19 Demon Deacons
- New Mexico State vs. New Mexico, 30-28 Aggies
Rank these games in any order you want, but all were legit fun. Throw the Aggies versus Mountaineers in there, too, if you like. Even the Paul Petrino 4th quarter meltdowns had value. The Sun Belt is rarely boring, unless you’re at Texas State.
Best playas in the Sun Belt, yo!
Every year, the Sun Belt announces a preseason all conference team, and usually those dudes wind up being good. But the conferences’ (arguably) most dangerous wide receiver, Jaleel Scott, emerged from beneath the Sun Belt’s radar. Who rose to touch the Sun in 2017? Hey, here are five guys PLUS five!
- Justice Hansen, QB
- Jaleel Scott, WR
- Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, DE
- Tee Simms, DE
- Penny Hart, WR
- Jeremy Reaves, LB
- Clifton Duck, DB
- Blace Brown, DB
- Marcus Green, WR
- Jalin Moore, RB
Honorable mention to Taylor Lamb, Larry Rose III, Tyler Rogers, Aaron Duckworth, Jordan Chunn, Caleb Evans and Trey Ragas. Go ahead and put those guys on the list, too. They earned it.
The Sun Belt was redeemed in the post season
The regular season was mostly a turd wrapped in the sports page of disappointment. Personally, I expected only modest returns from the five teams selected to rep the Sun Belt in the Bowl season. Instead, the SBC racked up a crisp 4-1 record, with only the Red Wolves falling. Troy dumped North Texas 50-30 in the New Orleans Bowl, Georgia State handled Western Kentucky 27-17 in the Cube Bowl and New Mexico State ended a 57-year bowl drought with a 26-20 Arizona Bowl victory over Utah State.
But Appalachian State’s 34-0 drumming of Toledo in the Dollar General Bowl was by far the conference’s most impressive post season performance. Toledo, the champion of the MAC, had zero answers for Tyler Lamb and Jalin Moore, and the App defense held the Rockets to a pitiful 146 total yards. That’s domination, my friends.
Appalachian State didn’t quite execute the storied season it was set up to deliver, but the win over Toledo solidified the Mountaineers and the Sun Belt as Group of Five ass kickers. In fact, the last two years have been pretty damn awesome for the Belt.
Pour one out for the Vandals and the Aggies
The Sun Belt shut the door on New Mexico State and Idaho upon season’s end, putting to close a cumbersome relationship made inconvenient by distance. The Vandals next suit up as an FCS program in the Big Sky, which is probably the right fit for remote Idaho. New Mexico State, on the other hand, will go it alone as an FBS Independent.
While I’ll miss Paul Petrino’s comically bursts of sideline rage, the conference will feel the loss of New Mexico State, who was a more interesting fit for the Sun Belt. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be buddies again someday.
The Final Word
If it sounds like I’m down on the 2017 season of the Sun Belt, you’re absolutely right. Great instincts! The conference finished its bowl slate strong in 2016, and I had expected the momentum to carry the Sun Belt through the subsequent season. No dice! The Sun Belt opened the season 4-8, and followed it up just three more wins the next week. The Sun Belt Big Three did indeed dominate the conference, but the Sun Belt was once again left out of the Top 25 and didn’t merit much mention in the national conversation. The Sun Belt Basement played at an FCS level, and speaking of which, the Sun Belt experienced a dismaying uptick of FCS losses in 2017.
But a second straight season of bowl domination gives this Sun Belt scribe some hope. The Power Five maybe crushing the relevance out of the G5, but the Sun Belt continues to emit pulses of heat. Clever coaches like Neal Brown, Blake Anderson, Scott Satterfield, Matt Viator and Shawn Elliot continue to build their reputations. Stars like Penny Hart, Jalin Moore and Justice Hansen will shine even brighter in 2018.
The Sun Belt doesn’t always serve the best steak, but the sizzle continues to sell.
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.