It’s crazy to think about, but college football is only about a month away. It’s gonna be an intense season filled with ups and downs, victories and losses, and plenty of surprises. The second annual College Football Playoff will be hotly contested as Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes attempt to defend their national championship, while the other national powerhouses — Alabama, Auburn, Oregon, USC, UCLA, Baylor, Georgia, Michigan State, and many others — attempt to dethrone them.
Forgotten in the mix of all this is the so-called “Group of Five.” As opposed to Power Five conference schools, these mid-major programs will be doing their best to crash the national title picture. The odds have always been stacked against the Group of Five, but now, it’s become next to impossible for any member of those conferences to run the table, finish undefeated, and land in the national top four to qualify for the Playoff.
Seriously, now more than ever, we need a Boise State type of success story.
So the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West, and the Sun Belt Conference are seemingly destined to slip through the cracks of national relevancy, pressing their noses against the glass, hoping to crash the party that they weren’t invited to.
The Sun Belt has become arguably the strongest conference in the Group of Five.
“What?” you might be saying. “There’s no Boise State, Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, or UCF in the Sun Belt!”
A valid point, to be sure. But top to bottom, the Sun Belt has gotten dramatically better, even as NCAA re-alignment has threatened to change the conference’s landscape in the past five seasons. Consider the turmoil the SBC has gone through recently, in football alone:
- In spring of 2012, the Georgia State Panthers and the Texas State Bobcats announced that they would move from the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), respectively, in 2013.
- Two days after Texas State made that announcement, both North Texas and Florida International jumped ship, heading for Conference USA (also effective in 2013).
- In November 2012, Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee followed suit, heading to Conference USA.
- The South Alabama Jaguars completed their NCAA transition requirements in 2013, after starting as a brand-new FCS team in 2009.
- In March 2013, two FCS powerhouses and longtime rivals, the Appalachian State Mountaineers and the Georgia Southern Eagles, announced that they would move up from the Southland Conference to the Sun Belt, beginning in 2013 and reaching full FBS bowl eligibility and the full 85 allotted scholarships by 2015.
- On the same day, New Mexico State and Idaho, two struggling programs forced to go Independent in 2013 when the WAC dropped football, were announced as two new SBC members — in football only, starting in 2014.
- Less than a week after that, Western Kentucky went to — you guessed it — Conference USA, effective in 2014.
Still with me? Good.
In all that chaos, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson managed to keep his head above water and bring in several solid programs. While New Mexico State and Idaho are not known for gridiron success (they’ve played in only five bowl games combined in school history), they added a unique dimension to the Sun Belt, and not just because of the weird geography.
Having experienced, veteran coaches certainly helps the ongoing turnaround efforts at both schools. Plus, both schools’ coaches have been there before: NMSU’s Doug Martin was offensive coordinator under former head man DeWayne Walker in 2011, while Paul Petrino spent three seasons at Idaho (1992-1994) under long-time mentor John L. Smith.
And it’s not just the Aggies and Vandals who helped add intrigue to the Sun Belt mix.
Georgia Southern won a record six national titles in the FCS (and the FCS’s predecessor, Division 1-AA) and has a rich history, including several big-time upsets.
Appalachian State, does too — who can forget their all-time stunner of an upset against nationally-ranked Michigan back in 2007??
So, ultimately, the SBC hasn’t missed a beat since adding those four programs. If anything, it’s encouraged more competition for the returning programs, such as Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Currently, there’s plenty of parity in the SBC.
- Arkansas State has gone through rapid change in the past five years, with the “one and done era” name getting thrown around without any irony. After a mostly successful nine-year run under the retired Steve Roberts, the Red Wolves’ head coaching job became a revolving door. Hugh Freeze came aboard in 2011, then left for Ole Miss. Gus Malzahn had his turn in 2012 before he returned to Auburn. In 2013, Bryan Harsin led the Red Wolves to a winning season, then bolted for his alma mater, Boise State. Amazingly enough, the Red Wolves made a bowl game all three years and dealt with relatively few transfers until after Harsin’s departure. Afterwards, spread offense guru Blake Anderson rolled into town and helped get the Wolves to yet another bowl game in 2014 — and guess what? He returns this year.
- Louisiana-Lafayette has been the model of consistency under fifth-year coach Mark Hudspeth. The Mississippi native has led the Ragin’ Cajuns to a 9-4 record in all four years of his reign, and that includes the first four bowl games in school history. Hudspeth brings a nice resumé to Lafayette that includes assistant coaching gigs at Mississippi State and the Naval Academy, as well as head coaching jobs at a private high school in his home state, and a seven-year run at D2 juggernaut North Alabama.
- Georgia Southern scampered to a 9-3 record in their first go-round in the SBC, proving the doubters wrong. Now with a full offseason in coach Willie Fritz’s system and an outstanding recruiting class, the Eagles will continue to threaten for conference titles.
- Appalachian State had plenty of question marks heading into their debut FBS season, starting 1-5 and suffering a rough loss to FCS foe Liberty on homecoming night. But something clicked after that, and the Mountaineers had a roaring finish, going 6-0 the rest of the way and derailing Louisiana-Lafayette’s quest for an undefeated conference season. The Mountaineers return 20 starters heading into this fall, and they’ll be competitive with just about everybody.
- Texas State has become known for its discipline and methodical schemes under coaching legend Dennis Franchione. At age 64, Franchione shows no signs of slowing down, and his switch to an up-tempo spread offense last year drew praise. He’s had relative stability on his staff in recent years, too.
- After starting their football program in 2009, South Alabama has been a factor since they joined the SBC in 2013. Coach Joey Jones doesn’t have a lot of program history or tradition to brag about, but he’s building something special down in Mobile and led the Jaguars to their first bowl game in 2014.
- Despite a lackluster 4-8 campaign last year, Louisiana-Monroe has shown that they can compete consistently under coach Todd Berry, who took over in 2010. He’s proven to be an underrated recruiter, too, and his defenses are usually tough.
- Historically, one of the biggest names in the SBC has been Troy, who went from cellar-dwellers to perennial bowl contenders under the now-retired Larry Blakeney. But in the last four years of Blakeney’s tenure, the Trojans went 17-31. Something needed to change, so the Trojans reached out to former offensive coordinator Neal Brown, an energetic 35-year-old who has led some exciting offenses in his career (he learned the Air Raid offense from Spike Dykes and Mike Leach). Once Brown has some recruits in place, Troy will be fun to watch.
- New Mexico State showed that they had the ingredients for an explosive offense last season. Running back Larry Rose III was a revelation, winning SBC Newcomer of the Year honors, while Teldrick Morgan led all conference receivers in receptions. Now that head coach Doug Martin is calling the plays himself, you can expect even more offense. If quarterback Tyler Rogers can limit his mistakes, the Aggies could be lighting up the scoreboard.
- Idaho suffered through erratic quarterback play in 2014, but they’ll continue to rise with a talented group of skill position guys. New defensive coordinator Mike Breske was brought in to streamline what has been a poor, undersized defense, and wide receiver Dezmon Epps is back after an indefinite suspension in 2014.
- Georgia State is in its third year under Trent Miles, and he’s got one of the conference’s most prolific QBs in senior Nick Arbuckle. If the defense can improve just a little bit, the Panthers could win a few more games than last season.
- Tyler Jones (Jr., Texas State): Cool under pressure and throws well on the run.
- Nick Arbuckle (Sr., Georgia State): Cannon-armed senior was an all-conference pick with 3,283 yards and 23 TDs.
- Taylor Lamb (So., Appalachian State): Thrown into the fire as a freshman and delivered, leading the SBC in passing efficiency.
- Matt Breida (Jr., Georgia Southern): Rushed for 1,400-plus yards and was a Doak Walker semifinalist.
- Marcus Cox (Jr., Appalachian State): Had only 70 fewer yards than Breida.
- Larry Rose III (So., New Mexico State): The electric freshman battled injuries and still rushed for 1,102 yards with nine scores.
- Rashon Ceaser (Sr., UL-Monroe): Had 77 catches last year despite lackluster quarterback play.
- Teldrick Morgan (Jr., New Mexico State): Caught seven touchdowns in 2014 as a former walk-on.
- Jarvis Bentley (Sr., Troy): His numbers have been pedestrian, but he could flourish in the new Air Raid attack.
- Joel Ruiz (Sr., Georgia State): Outstanding hands and physicality; was an all-conference pick.
- Darion Griswold (Sr., Arkansas State): Veteran leader who excels as a mismatch at 6’5″.
- Deon Watson (Jr., Idaho): Converted receiver is blessed with versatility and athleticism.
- Mykhael Quave, (Sr., UL-Lafayette): An all-conference candidate who can play guard or tackle.
- Dalton Bennett, (Sr., Troy): Long-time starting center with toughness and intelligence.
- Adrian Bellard (Jr., Texas State): Blind-side tackle with quick feet and excellent leverage.
- Gerrand Johnson (Sr., UL-Monroe): Arguably the best run-stuffer in the conference.
- Ronald Blair (Sr., Appalachian State): Could be in line for a huge season after a six-sack campaign in 2014.
- Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (So., Arkansas State): Freshman All-American racked up eight sacks in his collegiate debut.
- Rodney Butler (Jr., New Mexico State): The SBC’s leading returning tackler (119, including 7.5 tackles for loss).
- Antwione Williams (Sr., Georgia Southern): Made 67 tackles and could do even better without graduated running mate Edwin Jackson.
- Marc Millan (Sr., Idaho): The former JC transfer has made 192 tackles the past two seasons.
- David Mims II (Sr., Texas State): Made five interceptions and broke up eight passes last season.
- Trey Caldwell (Sr., UL-Monroe): Second in the conference with nine passes defended.
- Blaise Taylor (So., Arkansas State): The son of DBs coach Trooper Taylor has electrifying athleticism and should be a full-time starter in 2015.
- Montrez Kitchens (Sr., Troy): Had six interceptions last year, leading the SBC and placing him among the nation’s best.
- Mitch Lane (Sr., UL-Monroe): Alternates between safety and nickelback, and is terrific at both.
- Kawe Johnson (Jr., New Mexico State): Forced three fumbles and recorded 85 tackles in 2014.
- Brandon McKee (Jr., South Alabama): Punter posted the best single-season average in school history.
- Austin Rehkow (Jr., Idaho): Accuracy and consistency helped him post an outstanding 47.8 yards per punt.
- Wil Lutz (Sr., Georgia State): Can deliver as both a kicker and punter.