On paper, the Sun Belt Conference appears to be the top conference among the non-autonomy leagues at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. It could be better than some Power Five conferences, and that could be quite the debate topic this fall. We break it down below.
Number of Teams/Movement
There are 14 teams in this talent-rich league. Unlike with the American Athletic Conference and Conference USA (and the Big 12), there are no changes in this league. It's rock solid, and it's very talented from top to bottom. Sun Belt league wins will not be easy. Think a relatively new program entering the league is a cakewalk? Think again — just ask the opponents of James Madison, only in its second season here.
Parity in college football is a wonderful thing, and the Sun Belt Conference is providing it, with the AAC and Mountain West right behind it. This level is really strong in 2023.
2022 Bowl Teams
Marshall, Southern Miss and Troy won bowl games; and 2023 potential power South Alabama, Louisiana (Lafayette), Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina also participated in postseason play. James Madison (8-3) was ineligible for a bowl game in its first year in the Sun Belt, but it clearly was good enough for a bowl game. Don't be surprised if there are six — and maybe seven? — bowl teams in this league this fall.
The Elder Statesman
There's no question here: It's Terry Bowden at Louisiana-Monroe. Bowden has four wins in each of two previous seasons with the Warhawks, with only six of those coming against FBS teams.
But Bowden has proved he can win big time, such as during his time in the 1990s at Auburn (11-0 in 1994). And more impressively, he won games at a typically down Akron program for seven seasons in the MAC, where he led the Zips to two bowl games and an eight-win season in 2015 — a rarity there. Could that happen in Monroe, Louisiana? That's the hope.
Getting the Fresh Start
New Texas State head coach G.J. Kinne is tied for the "newest face" award — which a mythical trophy unofficially handed to the coaches who are expected to fail. It's not easy. Kinne threw for a lot of yards at Tulsa about a decade ago, but he's never been an FBS head coach. He did lead a Football Championship Subdivision program (Incarnate Word) to an unlikely playoff run last year. Considering that he's gotten offensive coordinator roles at University of Central Florida and Hawaii before that, he can call some offensive plays. This could be interesting
We've mentioned two rebuilding programs above when it comes to coaches. The Sun Belt has an accomplished veteran in Louisiana-Monroe's Bowden and an offensive guru in Texas State's Kinne. See why this conference really won't be easy? The two teams were ranked relatively low in the SBC Media Day polls. However, they have glimmers of hope with Bowden and Kinne at their helms.
No question — it's James Madison. The Dukes are in the second year of the Sun Belt after not being allowed to participate in the postseason, as part of the transition phase of their move from FCS to the FBS. JMU is a potential monster. The Dukes are well-coached, have recruited against the MAC and Sun Belt for many years dating back to the FCS phase, and they won many of those battles. And those recruits? They're older and experienced.
Don't be surprised when this program is one of the most dominant in the top conference at this level.
The Best League Game
This is so damned easy: It's on Nov. 2 in Dothan, Alabama. We may find out who will lock themselves into New Year's Six contention in this label's final year. South Alabama — a highly regarded program that could be in the AP Top 25 for much of the year — travels the short distance from Mobile to Dothan to face Troy on a Thursday night in a game that could settle the regular-season order of the Sun Belt Conference. And it could be a preview of the SBC title game on Dec. 2.
The Best Non-SBC Game Upset Chance
South Alabama traveling to Oklahoma State on Sept. 16 offers a real chance for a Sun Belt team to upset the apple cart with the Power Five. You can't go with that? Then keep an eye on James Madison traveling to in-state Virginia on Sept. 9 in a few weeks. The Dukes will win this matchup (and some recruiting battles as a result), and South Alabama will beat Oklahoma State.
Mark it down, Sun Belt fans.
While the Sun Belt Conference doesn't have any sure-fire Day One NFL Draft picks, it does have some projected choices. The defense leads the way with Troy linebacker Richard Jibunor and Marshall cornerback Micah Abraham — projected to go early on Day Three by our partners at DraftScout.com. On offense, Marshall running back Rasheen Ali, Southern Miss running back Frank Gore Jr. (remember that name?) and big-time Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall lead the way, all looking like lower-round choices.
The Overall Take
This is a monster league. If the Atlantic Coast Conference didn't have programs such as Clemson and Florida State, there could be arguments about whether the ACC is as good as the Sun Belt Conference. We'll be honest: Yes, Clemson, Florida State and maybe North Carolina this particular season (and Virginia Tech typically) would hammer even the upper tier of the SBC. But the top tier of the Sun Belt could handle the next two-thirds of the ACC.
South Alabama and Troy are FBS monsters and could both end up in the AP Top 25 after the bowl games conclude. James Madison could mess that up, and so could programs such as Appalachian State and Marshall. This is a damned good league, and there are going to be a lot of damned good matchups — and some of them are midweek treats, not Saturday games. Pay special attention.
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