The Sun Belt has reached melting point, and it’s glorious, y’all
In its first year of divisional play, the Sun Belt ain’t disappointing. In fact, it’s on fire.
When the Sun Belt reformatted the conference for divisional play, nobody could have predicted that it would set in motion a series of events that altered the very principles that govern both time and space. Yet, here we are, my pigskin physicists, sitting in our Man Labs and constructing theoretical postulations of a South Alabama victory over the Cajuns in Week 12.
No number of PhDs could have predicted that a Red Wolves team who began conference play 1-3 could still have a legit shot at winning the West. Or that a rejuvenated Georgia Southern would not only seize command of the East, but then find themselves out of contention two games later.
Who’d have believed that Georgia State, Coastal Carolina and Texas State would ultimately settle the conference in 2018? Not as winners, of course, but as malcontent upsetters with juuuuuuuust enough talent to put a dent in the Sun Belt Universe.
According to ESPN FPI, this Sun Belt is the Mountaineers to lose, even though they are currently looking up at Troy, the only team in the SBC without a conference loss. However, the Trojans finish the year in Boone, where FPI gives Appalachian State a 78.3% chance to win.
|Team||Chance to win Conf. (FPI)|
Of course, once the East is one*, there’s still the West to consider. Though clearly weaker than their eastern cousins, the West has melded into a three team race, with Arkansas State given a slight FPI edge despite a loss to the Ragin Cajuns. But the Cajuns finish the season in Monroe to face arch rival ULM, who is is given a 55.1% chance to win. Should the Red Wolves dispatch the Warhawks in Jonesboro on Saturday, boom goes the dynamite, right?
The X Factors
Zac Thomas is back. Kaleb Barker is not.
Troy’s fantastic quarterback Kaleb Barker is out for the remainder of the season, placing the offense in the hands of sophomore Sawyer Smith – who isn’t bad. After all, he passed for a TD and nearly 300 yards in a knockout win over Georgia Southern.
Meanwhile, returning from concussion is the Mountaineers’ Zac Thomas, who shook off the dust by throwing for 247 yards and a pair of scores against Texas State. Despite missing time, Thomas is the highest rated QB in the Sun Belt. Thomas will be the key to Appalachian State leading the Mountaineers past Sawyer Smith and the Trojans.
ULM and Appalachian State finish at home (against contenders)
While Arkansas State has to manage Texas State for the season’s final week, ULM gets Louisiana and Appalachian State receives Troy. The Mountaineers and Warhawks enjoy home surrounds, which FPI certainly likes. But is it enough?
We’re seeing Peak Blake Anderson right now
Since managing only 9 points against Appalachian State, the Red Wolves are averaging 44 points per game, with QB Justice Hansen and RB Marcel Murray seemingly finding their strides. We’re seeing something familiar in Jonesboro – a late season, “oh shit we gots to win” push.
A third big time rusher emerges at Louisiana
When the Sun Belt’s second leading rusher, Trey Ragas, went down with a leg injury against Georgia State on Saturday, the Cajuns just plugged in another fantastic running back. Raymond Calais Jr. tallied 186 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the Panthers. With Calais, Ragas (who is expected back) and Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana has a 1-2-3 punch that’s hard to counter.
Georgia Southern will feel this for a long time
When the Eagles defeated #25 Appalachian State, they were undefeated in conference and seemingly ready for a AP Top 25 visit of their own. Then ULM put 44 points on an Eagles pass defense that was among the best in the country, followed by Troy putting up 454 total yards in a 35-21 thumping.
It’s too bad for the Eagles, who finish the season with breathers against Coastal Carolina and Georgia State. Had Georgia Southern managed a win over Troy or avoid the upset to the Warhawks, the Eagles would have been poised to be Eastern champions.
*Typo, but I left it because that’s sort of clever, if you think too hard.
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.