Sizing up the Sun Belt, one month in

Hard to believe it’s October – which means we’re five weeks into the college football season. Like many mid-major conferences, the Sun Belt Conference has been topsy-turvy. Some teams have been pleasant surprises, and others have been bitter disappointments. At this point, you can basically shake these teams up in a bottle and see where they land.

So where does everyone stand? Well, let’s find out. I’m recapping the first month of the season for all of these teams, as well as giving them a grade.

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Appalachian State Mountaineers (3-2, 1-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Georgia State, 17-3
  • Up next: Bye week

The Mountaineers have looked equally impressive on both sides of the ball. They raised eyebrows nationally by giving Tennessee a scare in the season opener. Then App State sandwiched that by convincingly defeating Old Dominion, falling to nationally-ranked Miami, and winning a shootout over Akron on the road. App State has one of the most experienced lineups in the Sun Belt, and it shows.

Grade: A-

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Arkansas State Red Wolves (1-4, 1-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Georgia Southern, 27-26
  • Up next: vs. South Alabama (Oct. 15)

The Red Wolves upset the apple cart in the Sun Belt last night with a last second win over the Georgia Southern Eagles. Up until then, Arkansas State’s offense had been a train wreck during an ugly 0-4 start. Even in the first half against Georgia Southern, they were shaky, losing two fumbles. It took sophomore QB Justice Hansen a huge effort to rally the troops and escape with a victory.

Hansen has been the unquestioned starter for a couple weeks now after Chad Voytik (a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh) was benched. With Hansen as a steady hand, new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner needs to get his unit to play faster and with more discipline.

Grade: D+

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Georgia Southern Eagles (3-2, 2-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Arkansas State, 27-26
  • Up next: @ Georgia Tech (Oct. 15)

Who are the Eagles? Are they an triple-option offense that passes, or a more balanced offense that is run-first? The Eagles have certainly been able to score points in bunches, but their star is falling after last night’s loss to Arkansas State and the previous week’s road drubbing at Western Michigan. The defense has been impressive, though, and it helps that first-year head coach Tyson Summers specializes on that side of the ball. This team is capable of rebounding, but they need to guard against complacency.

Grade: B-

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Georgia State Panthers (0-4, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Appalachian State, 17-3
  • Up next: vs. Texas State (Oct. 8)

The ball really bounced the Panthers’ way last year, when they won their last four games and qualified for their first bowl in school history. It’s safe to say that they aren’t recapturing that magic this year after an 0-4 start. Granted, they’ve had a tenacious schedule—Ball State, Air Force, Wisconsin, Appalachian State—but Georgia State is averaging a dreadful 13.8 points per game. The defense has been lackluster, too, which is mystifying considering that it’s mostly a veteran group. Adding injury to insult: star wide receiver Penny Hart is done for the year with a broken foot. 

Grade: D-

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Idaho Vandals (2-3, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Troy, 34-13
  • Up next: @ Louisiana-Monroe (Oct. 8)

The Vandals still haven’t had an impressive win—they’ve beaten UNLV (in overtime) and Montana State by a combined six points, and QB Matt Linehan continues to have turnover issues. The running game has been stagnant, and the secondary has been suspect, despite plenty of veterans back there. But at the end of the day, head coach Paul Petrino will take wins wherever he can get them—and his squad has a chance again this weekend on the road at lowly Louisiana-Monroe.

Grade: C-

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Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (2-3, 1-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to New Mexico State, 37-31 (2 OT)
  • Up next: Bye week

The Cajuns have a chance to rest up this weekend during their bye, but their confidence has to be shaken after falling in double overtime to NMSU and in four overtimes to Tulane the previous week. The Cajuns’ new-look defense has improved, especially in the pass rush, and the receiving corps has been solid, but there are questions about the health of running back Elijah McGuire heading forward. This looks like a middle-of-the-pack team until they prove otherwise.

Grade: C+

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Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (1-3, 0-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Lost to Auburn, 58-7
  • Up next: vs. Idaho (Oct. 8)

New coach Matt Viator knows what he’s getting into, and he’s had significant success at smaller programs. The Warhawks have had an unforgiving schedule—taking their lumps against Oklahoma and Auburn, among others—and are currently on a four game losing streak. Like Georgia State, they’ve had some serious problems scoring. Unlike Georgia State, Louisiana-Monroe can use youth as an excuse (they only have 14 seniors).

Grade: D

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New Mexico State Aggies (2-3, 1-1 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Louisiana-Lafayette, 37-31 (2 OT)
  • Up next: Bye week

In 2016, NMSU has their most experienced team in the Doug Martin era. They were largely competitive in a high-scoring loss to Kentucky, and they’ve clawed out narrow (but significant) victories against Louisiana-Lafayette and in-state rival New Mexico.

All-American running back Larry Rose III is back to 100% after missing a few weeks after  sports hernia surgery. NMSU still has a long way to go on defense, but they’re blitzing more and showing more aggressiveness this season. The Aggies are also fortunate to be heading into their bye week in relatively good health.

Grade: C+

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South Alabama Jaguars (3-2, 0-2 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat San Diego State, 42-24
  • Up next: Bye week

Like Georgia Southern, South Alabama seems to be suffering an identity crisis. They’ve shocked both Mississippi State and a nationally-ranked San Diego State team, but they barely beat FCS Nicholls State in between and also lost to both Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Quarterback Cole Garvin, a transfer from Marshall, has helped add much-needed consistency to the Jaguars’ offense, and the defense looks solid, particularly in the secondary. Nonetheless, it’s a good time for a bye week. 

Grade: B-

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Texas State Bobcats (2-2, 0-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Incarnate Word, 48-17
  • Up next: @ Georgia State (Oct. 8)

The Bobcats have been surprisingly competitive in what was widely predicted to be a rebuilding year under new coach Everett Withers. They upset Ohio in a season-opening overtime thriller, but then took their lumps in beatdowns at the hands of Houston and Arkansas. There’s very little depth, and the defense is inexperienced, but if Texas State can stay healthy, they should have a chance at a couple more wins the rest of the season.

Grade: C-

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Troy Trojans (4-1, 2-0 in Sun Belt)

  • Last week: Beat Idaho, 34-13
  • Up next: Bye week

Troy was a trendy preseason pick as the Sun Belt’s dark-horse, and they’ve certainly lived up to that reputation. After pushing nationally-ranked Clemson to the brink in Week Two, the Trojans then added a comeback win over Southern Miss to their resumé, before beating NMSU and Idaho to earn their first two conference wins. The Trojans are entering their bye week with a ton of momentum.

Grade: A-

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