For the majority of college football teams, the season is already a third of the way done. Fans of the game wait through one of the longest offseasons in American sports only for the season to be over in the blink of an eye.
With the season racing by, now may be a good time to hit pause and gauge where we’re at and take a guess at where we’re going.
The Sun Belt has embarked on a new era this year. Divisions are in play, and a conference championship game awaits in early December for the first time in Sun Belt history.
It’s fitting that it’s finally happening at this point, a juncture in the conference’s short history where its football membership is stronger than it’s ever been.
Through the majority of the Sun Belt’s first decade, teams were splitting championships. Those teams were the best of the conference, yet rarely won non-conference games.
Things are different in 2018. Even the Sun Belt’s initially perceived bottom tier is showing the conference’s new-found might.
Coastal Carolina, Troy’s upcoming opponent, defeated UAB earlier this year in convincing fashion. The Blazers are currently division title contenders in Conference USA but couldn’t keep up with the Sun Belt’s middle class.
The Chanticleers have certainly pulled themselves from the gutter in the early portion of this season, parlaying its win over UAB with a road conference victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.
Now, Coastal has its eyes set on taking a shot at the Sun Belt’s upper echelon when it travels to Troy on Saturday.
Seemingly unimportant late September games like this could shed plenty of light on the outlook of the remaining schedule.
Further east and on the same day, Arkansas State will take on the Georgia Southern Eagles in Statesboro. Georgia Southern came into this season as a dark horse, and according to Head Coach Neal Brown, is one of the most improved teams in the Sun Belt.
This makes for an interesting week, with not one, but two top tier Sun Belt teams on upset alert. For a couple of years now, the top of the conference has been occupied by the same three teams. The two aforementioned and Appalachian State.
That group is being threatened by a strengthening middle class. It’s not an entirely bad thing for fans of the conference in general.
For many years, the Sun Belt has battled the perception of being the lowest notch on the FBS totem pole. The perception is dwindling now thanks to a pair of upset wins by Troy and Appalachian State’s pension for playing tight with some of college football’s best.
Tom Fornelli, a CBS Sports writer, has a weekly conference strength rating he puts out based on a specific undisclosed formula. Right now, based on his formula, the Sun Belt is not the worst conference in college football anymore.
It’s not even second worst. The Sun Belt sits in the middle of the Group of Five pack, according to Fornelli, which lines up with my sentiments as well.
A conference championship game, a real focus on hiring the right coaches and a doubled ESPN paycheck has the Sun Belt on a level it’s never been before.