Home Sports College and University OPINION: The truly “rising” Sun (Belt)

OPINION: The truly “rising” Sun (Belt)

By David Rogers. September 13, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Once upon a time (and not so long ago), college football fans around the nation were saying, “Yeah, right” upon hearing that Appalachian State University’s football program was transitioning to the next level: the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).

Over decades toiling in NCAA Division I-AA that later was remonikered the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the Mountaineers had achieved just about everything they could at what was considered Division I, but still a “junior” rendition of it. After three consecutive FCS national championships and arguably the biggest upset in college football history with the 2007 win over Michigan, what was left to prove at that level of competition?

What FBS conference would even want the Mountaineers?

Nonetheless, many inside and outside of the High Country questioned the wisdom for a transition into college football’s highest level of competition. Operating out of a mostly rural market with no broadcast media to speak of and often looked at as the redheaded stepchild of the University of North Carolina system compared to UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State, how was App State going to be able to recruit four- and five-star, or even an abundance of three-star athletes to make the program competitive at the next level?

And what FBS conference would even want to send a joinder invitation to the Mountaineers? The Power 5’s ACC and SEC had storied traditions in mostly major media markets. Conference-USA might have made sense, but they had just admitted four former Sun Belts schools and were more interested in college football newbie, Charlotte, and the major media market that came with it.

The New Orleans-based Sun Belt Conference (SBC) may well have been App State’s only option for “moving up.”  In many conversations, by 2014 the SBC was considered college football’s doormat league and some of its better football programs had already departed for presumed greener pastures in other FBS conferences. Among them, Western Kentucky, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State, and North Texas — all gone to Conference USA.

Was the Sun Belt Conference scraping the bottom of the barrel?

So by adding Texas State in 2013, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State in 2014, and Coastal Carolina in 2016, was then SBC Commissioner Karl Benson scraping the bottom of the FBS barrel, just to save the conference?

That FBS aficionados would smirk, “Yeah, right” when told in 2014 that Appalachian State is now an FBS program…well, it was understandable. Of the remaining SBC teams, according to information obtained in Wikipedia, only Troy had an all-time win percentage over .500. Adding App State, Georgia Southern, Coastal Carolina, and Texas State — each with historically more wins than losses, even if achieved at lower competitive levels — was perceived by many as beefing up the conference’s cachet, especially after losing the aforementioned schools to C-USA.

How times have changed.  Former Sun Belt Commissioner Benson and his staff that crafted the league’s reorganization emerged as prescient, even genius. Behind a “Together We Rise” tagline, the Sun Belt has indeed gotten better — and it is an improvement that is not just represented in the Mountaineers’ four consecutive SBC championships, five straight bowl wins since becoming bowl eligible, two road wins over Power 5 teams (North Carolina and South Carolina) in 2019, overtime losses to highly touted Tennessee (2017) and then #5-ranked Penn State (2018), and a current #23 ranking in BOTH of the coaches and media national FBS polls. Tennessee (SEC) and Penn State (Big 10) compete in Power 5 conferences.

Consider:

  • This weekend:
    • App State defeated Charlotte (C-USA), 35-20
    • Louisiana toppled then #23 Iowa State (Big 12), 31-14, on the road
    • Arkansas State overcame Kansas State (Big 12), 35-31, in Manhattan, KS
    • Coastal Carolina surprised Kansas (Big 12), 38-23, in Lawrence, KS
    • Texas State took UTSA (C-USA) to double OT before losing, 51-48
  • Last week:
    • South Alabama dropped Southern Miss (C-USA), 32-21
    • Arkansas State dropped a highly competitive game to Memphis (AAC), 37-24
    • Texas State lost by a mere TD to SMU (AAC), 31-24, after being deadlocked, 14-14 at halftime
    • With its upset win, South Alabama was named the Football Writers Association of America (of which Blowing Rock News is a membr) college football team of the week
  • The Sun Belt posted a 3-2 bowl record in 2019 (wins by App State, Arkansas State, Louisiana)
  • The Sun Belt posted a 3-2 bowl record in  in 2018 (wins by App State, Georgia Southern, and Troy)
  • FINALLY, Louisiana leap-frogged App State in the Associated Press media poll announced today, to #19, and to #21 in the national Coaches Poll. (APP is #23 in both polls), This may be the first time the Sun Belt has had two members in the top 25.
  • In the CBS Sports rankings, App State was listed at #25, Louisiana at #43, Georgia Southern at #52, Arkansas State at #53, Georgia State #59, Troy #61, Louisiana-Monroe #69, Coastal Carolina #70, South Alabama #74, Texas State #75.

Anymore, the smirks and “Yeah, right” comments are pretty much gone. The Sun Belt still has a ways to go, but top-to-bottom and in several of its sports — most notably, football — it is indeed “on the rise.”

 

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