It’s the 2020 Sun Belt football season. Enjoy it while you can.
Where’d we last leave Sun Belt football? I don’t remember because it was 5,000 years ago when we were all pleased/aggravated by Appalachian State’s final College Football Playoff rankings and the Sun Belt took three out of five in the Bowl season.
I attended the Camellia Bowl with my brother (@ThisIsRexSteele) and my Dad – a chilly, moist affair that saw the Red Wolves triumph over the FIU Panthers 34-26. Because of the rain and cold, many of us crammed into the cozy hospitality tent located in the end zone.
I miss cramming.
Slow-forward though a deadly pandemic, civil unrest and a political climate so toxic it makes it an act of bravery to poke your head out the front door. The NBA postponed playing the rest of its season (before resuming inside the world’s happiest bubble), the Olympics were outright canceled, and the entire nation was forced to Zoom. The world has changed radically.
Not radically enough for the Sun Belt, tho! Like C-USA, ACC, the American and our rich cousin the SEC, the Sun Belt opted to don a mask and plow through the season unfettered, though creative rescheduling was required.
For example, Arkansas State traded UAPB and Michigan for UCA and Kansas State. Appalachian State lost its games with Wake Forest and Wisconsin, and replaced them with Charolette and Marshall. Coastal Carolina doesn’t get to beat up on Kansas in Conway, and FCS Campbell is warming its soup with #SunBeltHeat, scheduling three Belt opponents this year.
Question the wisdom of launching a full schedule during a pandemic on your own time, Dear Reader. Your laments fall on stubborn ears. There is opportunity to mine! For example, the Sun Belt will be three weeks deep into its schedule before the SEC plays a single game of its incestous 10-game schedule. Already, this reality has bore sweet fruit, as ESPN has granted September 5th’s Arkansas State vs Memphis with a juicy primetime slot. Hell, even Texas State vs. SMU is getting flagship coverage!
That’s not all. The SBC decision to stay the course has been a boon for rosters as well:
— Matthew Kenerly (@MattK_FS) August 21, 2020
The iron is hot, my friends, and the Belt is striking.
Sun Belt vs. COVID-19
When the MAC tossed the towel on 2020, some expected everyone else to follow. Instead, we got a potpourri of responses, ranging from the Mountain West, PAC 12 and Big 10 also ceding the to health concerns, to guys like the SEC and the ACC playing conference-only scheds, to rebels like the Sun Belt playing an entire season as though we were made of antibodies.
“The enterprise is so valuable to the society, to the community, to the student-athletes and everyone who participates in it,” SBC Commissioner Keith Gill said on The Paul Finebaum Show, “that if we can find a way to safely play, following the advice of our medical professionals, we should.”
Considering how our nation is in desperate need of distraction, I forgive Gill’s hyperbole. It would be nice to have a season. And yet, just as I write this:
Georgia Southern temporarily suspends football practice after a small number of players tested positive for COVID this week
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) August 27, 2020
This has happened recently to Appalachian State, too, and Georgia State was hit with even more disturbing ramifications. If the Major League Baseball season is any indicator, we should expect cancellations and postponements all year long in the Sun Belt, if not a downright sudden cancelation of the season. I’ve been wrong before.
Sun Belt Coaches Dig Mountaineers and Cajuns
College football coaches aren’t exactly free thinkers. Like most years, Sun Belt coaches picked the top two teams from last season to be the top two for this season. Honestly, tho, there’s little reason to believe we’ll see a slow-down from Appalachian State or Louisiana, with both programs returning big pieces.
Cajuns have lost a ton of talent on the offensive line (Max Mitchell notwithstanding), but much of that high-powered offense returns, lead by second-team Sun Belt selection Levi Lewis and that crazy over-powering RB tandem of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Regas.
As usual, the Mountaineers look solid on both sides of the ball, and starting QB Zac Thomas was named the SBC Preseason Offensive POY. It’s too bad the Mountaineers are denied out-of-conference games with Wisconsin and Wake. Appalachian State is the Sun Belt Sheriff, and the outcome of those games could have been quite a feather in the Sun Belt’s sweatband.
The usual contenders – Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and Troy – are expected to create trouble, but look out for a maturing South Alabama squad led by linebacker Riley Cole. I have a feeling about Steve Campbell’s guys.
The AP Top 25 Preseason Poll Was Dumb
The Big 10 and the PAC 12 are not playing football this season, but that didn’t stop the Associated Press from sucking up to its programs. Like magic, eight teams from those conferences were selected to be among the best 25 in the nation, even though they won’t play a single snap in 2020.
Adding salt to the paper cut, only two G5 programs were included on the list, proving that you can eliminate half the field in college football and still find a way to screw the Group of Five out of respect.
Signifying very little, the Sun Belt’s Appalachian State received 26 votes. The real question is, will the AP recognize and reward programs that play a full (or nearly full) schedule that includes non-conference opponents? Or will it continue to be a tool to keep blue-blood programs relevant?
I’m predicting “Tool.”
Let’s Pick Some Cool OOC Games
Thanks to the pandemic, the Sun Belt had the majority of its marquis P5 games canceled. Only three are on the slate. However, many of the Sun Belt’s most intriguing match-ups are against peer conference foes:
Arkansas State vs. Memphis, September 5
Coastal Carolina vs. Kansas, September 12
Louisiana vs. #23 Iowa State, September 12
UAB vs. South Alabama, September 26
ULM vs Louisiana Tech, November 21
The Cajuns are the only SBC program opening the season with a ranked opponent on their schedule (nice work, AP), which stacks the deck for the SEC, BIG 12 and ACC. What’s new? However, the Red Wolves take on Cotton Bowl contender Memphis to open the season, and the Cajuns are more than capable of downing Iowa State. ULM and Louisiana Tech provide some solid in-state rivalry, as does UAB and South Bama.
Does anybody in the Belt have a Cotton Bowl schedule?
These days, it’s hard to define a Cotton Bowl Schedule. As usual, though, the Sun Belt will have to perform exceptionally against their limited OOC plate if we have any hope of seeing the SBC in the national conversation past Week 3. As it stands, nobody in the conference is boasting an impressively strong schedule.
Sure, the Cajuns have #23 Iowa State to consider, but they play only 11 games and the rest of its non-con is comprised of two FCS opponents. Appalachian State, the Sheriff of the Sun Belt, was lucky to scramble up Marshall and Charlotte, but only a Biblical thumping of both will move the needle much.
They’ll need to rely on the halo effect of last season’s triumphs. ULM has some interesting matchups with Liberty early on and a late-in-the-year dust up with Louisiana Tech. I don’t expect the Warhawks to sniff the Top 25, tho. Something to consider: BYU appears on both Troy and Texas State’s schedule, both games played in Provo. A win for either the Trojans or the Bobcats might make ripples. (Psych! Nothing can save the Bobcats.)
Arkansas State’s schedule is ranked fairly high in the conference, depending on what weird metric you prefer. and the non-con isn’t awful: Memphis, Kansas State and Tulsa, plus an FCS death match against a very capable Central Arkansas team. Coupled with away games at Louisiana and Appalachian State, and the Red Wolves have a narrow path to the Top 25.
Three Non-All SBC Players to Watch
Not everybody can be named All Preseason Sun Belt (I wasn’t), but here are three guys to look for anyway.
Shai Wertz, QB, Georgia Southern
Dahu Green, WR, Arkansas State
Maureese Wren, LB, Texas State
While We Were Sleeping, The Sun Belt Released A Horror Upon Us
Pretty much in the same sly manner an Olive Garden waitress slips you the check, the Sun Belt discreetly unleashed this monstrosity upon a cringing public.
We're excited to unveil our new logo today! Check it out: pic.twitter.com/eNC8cBQG5a
— Sun Belt (@SunBelt) May 14, 2020
Listen, just because I’m a marketing and advertising expert doesn’t make me qualified to pronounce this logo a sad representation of mankind’s failure. But for God’s sake, this looks like a logo for soybeans.
Hey, Who’s Gonna Win the Sun Belt?
Sun Belt coaches have weighed in, and though I usually chortle at their conclusions, I can’t find much to criticize today.
It appears that Appalachian State, with home games against Troy, Louisiana and Arkansas State, have a well-paved path to another Sun Belt East title. Georgia Southern, who torpedoed Appalachian State’s magic Cotton Bowl dreams last season, get the Mountaineers at home. The Eagles are hitting a stride with Chad Lunsford and a fully-matured Shai Werts, and they are equipped to make a challenge.
In the West, The Cajuns are picked to repeat, and they might. Billy Napier is the thirstiest coach in the Sun Belt (my opinion), and the team returns some compelling pieces. But Louisiana lost three NFL quality studs to the Draft in April, and two of those guys were offensive linemen. Will the running game be the same?
With South Alabama still seeking its identity, ULM tumbling like Jack Ritter over a couch, and Texas State being Texas State, only Arkansas State appears to have the firepower upend the Cajuns. The two play in Lafayette on November 5.
If we’re still playing football, that is.
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.