Is the Sun Belt Conference Moving Up?

David HedlindAnalyst IIJuly 27, 2008


In the hierarchy of college football conferences there has been one constant: out of 11 conferences, the Sun Belt conference is No. 11.

The Sun Belt is where teams making the step up from FCS start. Florida Atlantic and Florida International made the jump in 2005 and Western Kentucky will play its first full Sun Belt schedule in 2009.

The schools that make up the Sun Belt conference, are largely viewed as the warm-up schools for much of the SEC and other conferences.

In 2007, things didn’t change much for the Sun Belt, they were still used as warm-up games for a good number of BCS schools. They did manage to take a step up though. They were able to get wins over more BCS conference schools in a single season than they had before.

In 2007 the Sun Belt teams earned wins over BCS conference teams from the Big 12, Big 10, and even the mighty SEC.

Compare that to 2006, when no Sun Belt team was able beat a BCS school. The last win over a BCS school was in 2005 when Middle Tennessee State beat Vanderbilt 17-15. Going from one win, to zero wins, to three wins is vast improvement.

Conference USA managed only two wins over BCSschools. Along with a .500 record against Conference USA, arguably the next conference above the Sun Belt, and it could be said the Sun belt was better than Conference USA. The question of course now is, can they keep it up?

I don’t think it matters that none of the teams they beat from BCS conferences had finished the regular season higher that .500.

What mattered was the fact that the Sun Belt teams were moving in the right direction to no longer be viewed as an easy win for the other conferences. They were showing that they can play football and if you don’t take them seriously from now on, they will jump on you and never look back.

Troy hosted Big 12 opponent Oklahoma State on Sept. 14, 2007. Troy came in to the game 0-2 while Oklahoma State was 1-1.

Troy was led by senior quarterback, Omar Haugabook, who threw for a career high of 371 yards and a touchdown. Haugabook added 49 yards on the ground and two rushing touchdowns en route to 41-23 victory.

It wasn’t just Haugabook who came to play that day. Senior running back Kenny Cattouse rushed for 62 yards on 12 carries.

Receivers Kennard Burton and Gary Banks both had five receptions for 77 and 66 yards, respectively. Troy put up 562 total yards of offense compared to 432 for Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma State’s production came from running back Kendall Hunter, who ran for 125 yards on 16 carries, and from quarterback Zac Robinson who threw for 191 yards and a touchdown and ran for 61 more. The Cowboys didn’t help their cause much by losing three fumbles and throwing two interceptions.

The next day, eventual Sun Belt Conference champion Florida Atlantic (FAU), a school that played its first football game in 2001, hosted the Big 10's Minnesota, a school that played its first game in 1882. While Minnesota hasn’t been in the championship picture lately, it has four national championships in its history.  The game was played at Dolphin Stadium.

While Troy was led by a senior quarterback in its win, FAU put a sophomore in control. Rusty Smith threw for 463 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. FAU’s offensive yardage totaled 580 yards, outgaining the Gophers by 110 yards.

Minnesota had a sophomore quarterback of its own, but Adam Weber didn’t have as great a day, throwing for 335 yards, four touchdowns but also four interceptions. To add to the turnover woes, Minnesota also fumbled the ball away three times.

Minnesota was actually driving at the end, but with three seconds left, redshirt freshman Tavious Polo had his second interception. FAU picked up their first win over a Big 10 school, 42-39.

The signature win of the season came on Nov. 17 when Louisiana Monroe (ULM) went to Alabama and beat the Crimson Tide 21-14.

Alabama didn’t come in with a great record. They were only 6-4 but had already beaten two ranked teams, No. 16 Arkansas and No. 21 Tennessee. ULM had played and lost to two Top 25 teams, Clemson and Texas A&M, by a combined score of 103-40.

Unlike the previous victories for the Sun Belt, this game was played late in the season ,rather than early.

In fact, the game was played one week before the Iron Bowl, Alabama vs. Auburn. How could the Alabama players be expected to give their all on a team like ULM when their rival was right around the corner?

Alabama is a school that runs deep in tradition and their fans let anyone that will listen know it. The Tide claim 12 national championships. Actually, if you ask some fans may even claim more.

Alabama plays in the SEC, year in and year out, arguably the best conference in college football. And it is barely an argument. They currently have the highest paid coach in the country.*

ULM, on the other hand, have no national championships They just had to change their mascot from the Indians to the WarHawks. To be honest, I am not even sure what else to say about them. Oh, Tim McGraw is an alumnus. He didn’t play football though his roommate there, Doug Pederson, went on to have a NFL career.

Back to the game. Looking at the stats it would be kind of hard to believe Alabama didn’t win. Alabama out gained ULM, 409 yards to 282.

The Tide had more passing and rushing yards, and gained more first downs. ULM even had more penalties against them, giving up 65 yards.

This one wasn’t as high scoring as the other Sun Belt wins, but it stayed true to the turnover theme. The Tide gave up the ball on two interceptions and two fumbles. The WarHawks didn’t turn it over even one time.

They may not have beat the Tide in the same fashion as the other Sun Belt teams won their games, but any time a Sun Belt team can beat a historical program like Alabama, they take the win however they can get it.

Along with the wins, Sun Belt teams also had a few close games. Middle Tennessee lost to Virginia 23-21. Arkansas State gave Texas a scare, losing 21-13. Troy took a 44-34 loss at Georgia.

For all these steps forward though, they were still on the receiving of quite a few lopsided games. North Texas lost to Oklahoma 79-10 and Florida International lost to Penn State 59-0.

I hope this step forward will continue in to the future. Looking ahead at the 2008 schedules, I can already see a handful of games that Sun Belt team have a legit chance of winning.

I don’t think they will be competing for the national championship or have a BCS buster team anytime soon, but being out of the No. 11 spot isn’t bad either.

* Nick Saban at the time this was written was earning $4 million a year.