By Bennett Conlin
“We told you so!”
Sun Belt fans earned the right to utter that phrase all weekend. Throughout the offseason, fans of Sun Belt teams told anyone who would listen how excited they were for the new-look league. The additions of JMU, Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss figured to improve the on-field product and add to the regional rivalries that make the league electric.
While not a Power 5 league in name, the Sun Belt has what makes college football great. The league consists of good teams with tradition and engaged fans. It’s a stellar combination.
Through two weeks, SBC fans are rightfully beaming.
Marshall gave Notre Dame a run Saturday afternoon, although the Thundering Herd looked poised to lose a close one when trailing 15-12 with about 10 minutes left and the ball inside their 10. Marshall needed an incredible finish to leave South Bend victorious.
The Thundering Herd delivered. Marshall marched 94 yards for a touchdown and added an interception return for a touchdown to take a 26-15 lead. Marshall ultimately won 26-21.
Appalachian State went to Texas A&M, and the game was competitive throughout. But surely the team that brings in top recruiting classes each season would pull away from the Mountaineers, right? Nope. Appalachian State left town with a 17-14 win and a date with ESPN’s College GameDay.
While the sun had set in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Sun Belt wasn’t quite done with its day.
Georgia Southern ended Scott Frost’s tenure, upsetting the Cornhuskers 45-42 to cap off the day. The team transitioning from a triple option threw for 409 yards and added another 233 on the ground. That’ll do.
It was a nearly perfect Saturday for the Sun Belt.
With the wins came a truckload of media coverage. ESPN, The Athletic, SB Nation, The Washington Post, etc. all gave the Sun Belt deserved credit. Sun Belt fans spent the summer preaching about the league’s future, and people are beginning to see why.
Better days ahead
Old Dominion was picked to finish last in the Sun Belt East, yet the Monarchs defeated Virginia Tech 20-17 to open the season. Georgia State looked competitive against South Carolina and North Carolina despite losing each game, as the Panthers will be a tough out this fall.
Given the top-to-bottom strength of the Sun Belt, the league will have legitimate chances throughout the coming seasons to take down Power 5 opponents. This weekend will hardly be the last time a Sun Belt team beats a quality Power 5 team. Hey, could JMU beat Louisville in November?
With the MAC being a fun but average G5 league and C-USA lacking quality teams, it leaves the Sun Belt competing mostly with the AAC and Mountain West at the G5 level. With playoff expansion likely on its way, the Sun Belt is uniquely positioned.
The best teams in the Mountain West could be targets for Pac-12 and Big-12 expansion. The best teams in the AAC (Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF) are already leaving for the Big-12. While each of those leagues will lose top teams, the Sun Belt maintains strong membership. Who knows, the SBC could even opt to add another team or two.
In 5-10 years, major Sun Belt wins might come in December during the College Football Playoff, rather than early September. The future is bright for the SBC, and this weekend only showed a glimpse of what the league can achieve.