It’s right around midterms in college, so in the spirit of that fact, here are my midterm grades and analysis for the teams in the Sun Belt Conference, with a bunch of regular suspects and a couple of surprise teams in the top half of the rankings.
This could be the year the Sun Belt takes a big step. Right now, the conference could have six teams in bowl games. Considering that only a few years ago, only three teams from the SBC went bowling, this is a big step. The problem is how many of these teams will reach the six-win plateau, or how many could be left out of the bowl picture even if they reach it.
- Appalachian State (4-2, 2-0): The Mountaineers played two tough teams in Tennessee and Miami, but didn’t come up with wins. Outside of those two losses, App State has played the most complete football among the SBC teams.
In two Sun Belt wins over Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette, App State has outscored opponents 41-3 and has a defense that has held its opponents to only 18.8 points per game. Running back Jalin Moore has played only three games this season, but had 100 yards rushing in all of them. While quarterback Taylor Lamb has had his ups and downs passing the ball, he is still a good game manager and playmaker.
App State should be favored to win four of its six remaining games, but two road games will determine its Sun Belt championship fate. The Oct. 29 game at Georgia Southern is a rivalry game that can go either way, and the Mountaineers will have to face upstart Troy on Nov. 12 against what is probably the best offense in the league. If App State at least splits those two games, the probability of the Mountaineers being conference champs will be very high.
- Troy (5-1, 2-0): It was a safe bet that Troy would be a really good team when the season started. Now, the Trojans look more like an actual contender for the conference title than just a bowl-ready team.
The offense has had its struggles, but quarterback Michael Silvers and running back Jordan Chunn are the offensive playmakers that have made Troy the top offensive team in the Sun Belt. Its defense remains stubborn against the run, holding opponents to only 98.5 rushing yards per game.
Troy has a rivalry game at South Alabama on Thursday, then a home game against UMass before hosting App State in a game that will most likely decide the conference title. The Trojans have a trap game against an improving Arkansas State team in mid-November before a road game at Georgia Southern in December that will also impact Troy’s chances of winning the SBC.
- Georgia Southern (3-3, 2-1): I would put the Eagles at a higher grade, but that fourth-quarter collapse at Arkansas State is the one incident that has moved the Eagles from a solid favorite to win the SBC to being in danger of bowl eligibility.
The option rushing attack — which had been one of the best in the nation — has not been as potent, but quarterbacks Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw have run and passed the ball well. Running backs Matt Breida and L.A. Ramsby are always capable of breaking off a big run or two.
Georgia Southern does have a favorable schedule to win the conference by having App State and Troy at home, but if the Eagles don’t get wins in those games and suffer a loss at Ole Miss (which is likely to happen), Southern could be out of the SBC title hunt and possibly in bowl purgatory if there is a glut of bowl-eligible teams.
- Idaho (4-2, 2-1): The surprise team in the top half of the SBC, the Vandals are using a potent passing attack that can churn up yards and put points on the board, which is good since their defense hasn’t done a good job of keeping opponents off the board.
Quarterback Matt Linehan is improving and becoming one of the better quarterbacks in this league, completing 80 percent of his passes while throwing for 476 yards and four touchdowns against New Mexico State.
The defense has been inconsistent, especially against the pass. The Vandals give up an eye-popping 292 passing yards per game. The good news is that they are pretty good against the run, and they face more run-oriented teams down the stretch.
Idaho is not favored to beat App State, but if the Vandals can get road wins at ULL and Texas State, while beating South Alabama and Georgia State at home, Idaho would be 8-4 and go to a decent bowl game. Not bad for a team that will be going to the FCS in a couple of years.
- Arkansas State (2-4, 2-0): It is amazing to me to put A-State in the top half of the Sun Belt after the brutal 0-4 start to the season, but give head coach Blake Anderson credit for righting the ship with two big wins over Georgia Southern and South Alabama.
The key in those wins was the rushing duo of Warren Wand and Johnston White, who have helped ASU rush for over 200 yards in both games to boost an offense that was lost at the start of the season. Also, give credit to quarterback Justice Hansen for managing the game and making the right decisions with the ball.
The road for ASU to bowl eligibility is much murkier in the second half of the season, with only two home games left and tough road games at Troy and Lafayette. Still, the odds are good that A-State will go bowling.
Part 2 comes out tomorrow.