Get Ready to Sizzle: Sun Belt Battle Royale
Five teams have a shot at winning their respective Sun Belt divisions on Saturday. Four of the five play each other. Thank you, SBC gods!
If you’re a Sun Belt football fan, Week 13 is your lucky week, brah!
Just as retiring Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson envisioned it, the first year of Sun Belt divisional play produced the intended result: meaningful and intriguing football for more teams deep into the season. Thank you, Maestro Benson!
Thanks to the Goateed Architects’ sagacity, Sizzle Fans have (LeBron Voice) not one, not two, not three, not four, but five contenders all vying for conference supremacy in the final week of the regular season. Better yet, four of those five teams are playing each other! (Whoa, who invited the Bobcats to the party?)
Last week, we checked in on each contender’s chances for a Sun Belt title, in accordance with powerful ESPN FPI. Have the odds changed? Let’s see!
|Team||Chance to win Conf. (FPI)|
*Latest FPI in bold
FPI is really losing faith in Troy, which might have something to do with the Trojans barely managing a victory against the hapless (and now coach-less) Bobcats over the weekend. Meanwhile, Arkansas State earns a bit of a bump after trashing ULM. Of course, we all know that the bedrock truth of the universe is that FPI means zip.
Let’s review this slate of excellent games
We’re gonna invite ourselves only to the games relevant to the Sun Belt title, but damn, Georgia Southern vs. Georgia State is a sweet opener (1:00 PM on ESPN+). Eagles and Panthers don’t play nice, and Georgia State has hand Georgia Southern’s number of late.
Troy v. Appalachian State, 1:30 PM at Kidd-Brewer Stadium on ESPN+
(Mountaineers -11, 81.2% FPI)
When Troy lost Kaleb Barker to a season-ending knee injury against Georgia State, the Trojans responded by losing at home to Liberty 22-16. Since then, sophomore quarterback Sawyer Smith has righted the horse, winning four straight including victories over Georgia Southern and Louisiana.
Smith has turned in the Trojans’ game most passing yards (317 v Louisiana) and least passing yards (79! v Texas State), but the strength of Troy’s offense is a run game led by junior running back B.J. Smith (1,40 yards, 12 TDs). Defensively, the Trojan Wall doesn’t sport the nation’s #1 red zone defense anymore, but 25th isn’t bad.
Troy (undefeated in SBC play, btw) will need that Wall on Saturday, with the Sun Belt’s most prolific offense (38.9 points per game) battering the gates. Quarterback Zac Thomas has proven to be more than an adequate replacement for Taylor Lamb, leading the Sun Belt is QB percentage while tossing only a ridiculous four picks. Sophomore RB Darrynton Evans has posted four 100+ yard games, leading a team that posts nearly 247 rushing yards per game. The offense can kill you in a thousand ways.
The Mountaineers greatest advantage will be Boone and its furious home crowd. Though Troy comes in undefeated in SBC play and leading the Sun Belt East standings, the loss to Liberty and the punchless 12-7 win over Texas State makes the Trojans unnervingly vulnerable. The battle between head coaches Neal Brown and Scott Satterfield will be an especially entertaining chess match.
VICTORY: Mountaineers, behind the boom in Boone
Louisiana v. ULM, 2:00 PM at Malone Stadium on ESPN+
(Warhawks -3.5, 55.1% FPI)
First year head coach Billy Napier provided exactly what the Ragin Cajuns needed after losing steam with Mark Hudspeth. While the Louisiana defense is still surrendering a miserable 34 points per game, the Cajuns offense is positively terrifying with Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell (combined 1,730 yards, 20 TDs) owning the end zone. Furthermore, quarterback Andre Nunez is completing 65% of his passes, finding Ja’Marcus Bradley nine times in the end zone (on just 30 completions). This offense is protein powered, brah!
The problem for the Cajuns is that, just as they are good at running the ball, they’re just as bad stopping the run. The run defense ranks 114th nationally, surrendering 215 yards on the ground. With only 18 sacks on the season, Louisiana isn’t getting penetration, allowing opponents to run all over them.
Fortunately for the Cajuns, the Warhawks are more an air raid than a ground attack. ULM’s rushing attack is led by the quarterback, Caleb Evans, who has 10 rush TDs on 608 yards. Apart from Evans, the legs are pretty quiet. The real danger in the Warhawks’ huddle are wide receivers Marcus Green and (if healthy) RJ Turner, who power an offense that is capable of putting up massive points.
What the Warhawks need more than offense, however, is defense. The Red Wolves sport one of the best defensive squads in the Sun Belt, but the Cajuns put 47 points on Arkansas State. ULM held Georgia Southern to 25 at Statesboro, so Matt Viator’s bunch has the capacity to keep the game manageable. A rowdy Malone Stadium would help, but Warhawks fans rarely do rowdy. ULM enters this game the favorite, but the firepower appears to be in the hands of the Cajuns.
VICTORY: Louisiana, on the backs of Ragas and Mitchell
Arkansas State v. Texas, 3:00 PM at Bobcat Stadium on ESPN3
(Bobcats +13.5, 18.1% FPI)
It seems like every time the Red Wolves win a conference championship, the Bobcats are forced to watch them celebrate. Some (not all) signs point to another Arkansas State celebration on the Bobcats logo this Saturday, as Texas State punches the clock on another miserable season.
As you likely cannot stop talking about, Texas State unceremoniously canned head coach Everett Withers before the last game of the season, naming defensive coordinator Chris Woods the interim. Woods isn’t a bad choice. Defense is a Bobcats bright spot this season, having held Georgia Southern to 15, Troy to 12 and ULM to 20.
However, the offense simply doesn’t have the juice to take advantage of the defenses’ hard work. The team’s primary rushing threat, quarterback Willie Jones III, is hurt and likely out of the game. Replacement quarterback Tyler Vitt is a freshman, doesn’t pose much of a threat to run, has thrown 10 picks, and has yet to lead the team to a victory. But he is completing 61% of his passes.
Meanwhile, the Red Wolves are rolling on both sides of the ball, led by quarterback Justice Hansen completing a crazy 77% of his passes (and tossing 10 TDs) in his last three games. Equally as hot is wide receiver Kirk Merrit, who now leads all Sun Belt pass catchers with 786 yards.
Defensively, the Red Wolves are disruptive as ever, with defensive end Ronheen Bingham leading the conference in sacks (9) and defensive back Jerry Jacobs shutting down the Sun Belt’s best receivers. Unless Texas State finds an especially sharp edge left by Wither’s departure, it looks ugly for the Bobcats.
VICTORY: Red Wolves, no mercy
So yeah, it appears I’m predicting a Louisiana/Appalachian State title game, with the Cajuns slipping in by virtue of defeating the Red Wolves earlier in the season and the Mountaineers trumping Troy on the last day of the regular season.
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.