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The Sun Belt finally gets respect after a strong first week

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

We learned a lot about the Sun Belt Conference the first week of the 2016 season. What we saw has to bring a smile to SBC fans.

That smile comes from what happened in Starkville, Miss., when South Alabama rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to pull out a 21-20 win over Mississippi State thanks to a missed 28-yard field goal that hit off the goal post as time expired.

The win – which was the first by USA over an SEC opponent – is the first Sun Belt win over a Power Five team since Louisiana-Monroe stunned No. 10 Arkansas back in 2012. And it represents that the conference could be turning into a league with a lot of teams on the rise.

Yeah, there were some disappointments this week for Sun Belt fans. Like Arkansas State, the defending SBC champs; the Red Wolves looked lethargic on offense and allowed a supposedly depleted Toledo squad to outwork them for a 31-10 loss. And Louisiana-Lafayette got outplayed by a really good Boise State team, as the Broncos scored five straight touchdowns to start the game en route to a 45-10 loss at home.

Both those games should have been the showcases to show the college football world that the top SBC teams are on par with the other top teams in the Group of Five. But instead, it showed that only two teams are realistic shots of making to one of the New Year’s Six bowls, should Houston or Boise State falter the rest of the season.

Appalachian State didn’t beat No. 9 Tennessee on Thursday, but it did accomplish its main mission: to earn respect for its program. The Mountaineers gave the Volunteers all they could handle by jumping out to a 13-6 lead and had a chance to seal the win late in the game.

But a missed field goal and a fumble in overtime that was recovered in the end zone for the game-winning score in overtime were the difference in what could have been a major upset win for App State. Head coach Scott Satterfield knows his offense – featuring running back Marcus Cox, who ran through big holes set by his big offensive line – is good enough to match with the top in the country.

Now App State can make a strong run for that New Year’s Six bowl spot, but must not overlook Old Dominion this Saturday to set up for a big matchup against the Miami Hurricanes at home in Boone, N.C.

Georgia Southern also flexed its muscle, even though it was against an FCS team in Savannah State. The Eagles put up 605 yards of offense, with 420 of them coming from a rushing attack led by quarterback Favian Upshaw. But what is more impressive is that the defense held the Tigers to only 114 total yards, and just 34 yards on the ground.

Yeah, I know, it’s a weak FCS team, but the Eagles do have a lot of talent back and a tough schedule ahead with a home game against MAC favorite Western Michigan before road games at Georgia Tech and Ole Miss.

First, the Eagles face this past weekend’s darling of the SBC. Going to what should be an electric atmosphere in Mobile, South Alabama must control its emotions in a game that could put the Jaguars into the mix for the Sun Belt title race. Jaguar quarterback Dallas Davis showed extreme poise in leading his team back in the second half, and tight end Gerald Wallace has so much skill and athleticism that he should be the first Sun Belt player taken in next year’s NFL Draft.

There’s a slight chance that Arkansas State will right itself and give Auburn a run for its money next week. But if not, it doesn’t matter. There are more opportunities for the Sun Belt to be a major player in the college football season.

That’s all the 11 teams in the SBC want.

The Sun Belt finally gets respect after a strong first week

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