If there’s one week where you want to watch the Sun Belt Conference, this is the week to do it. While there is still a whole month and a half of games left, we should know who will be the conference champion (or at least the favorite) by Saturday’s end.
At this point, only four teams have a realistic shot at the SBC title – Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Appalachian State and defending champ Georgia Southern. Georgia Southern and App State each has a 5-1 record and have looked dominant so far this season, while both the Red Wolves and Ragin’ Cajuns have struggled at the start due to injuries and defensive meltdowns.
Tuesday’s game between A-State and ULL is a continuation of what has to be the more interesting and intense rivalries in the Sun Belt. In the last few years, the winner of this game had the upper hand on going on to winning the conference title, except for last year. Plus, both teams know how to put up points against each other. Last year, ULL relied on a 265-yard effort by running back Elijah McGuire in the Cajuns’ 55-40 win last year in Lafayette.
McGuire will be the key player in the Louisiana offense, but the x-factor is going to be quarterback Jalen Nixon, who struggled most of the season, but had a very decent outing against Texas State. If he can continue to find receivers Al Riles and Jamal Robinson, along with McGuire out the backfield, the Cajuns could have a good night.
But Arkansas State is coming in off of a big high after scoring 29 straight points in the fourth quarter to beat South Alabama 49-31 last Tuesday night. The defense forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and a pick-six in the quarter to recover from an 11-point deficit. The defense will be key, but so will quarterback Fredi Knighten for the Red Wolves if they want to keep their title hopes alive.
The winner on Tuesday night will be in a good spot to contend for the title, but will not be the favorite. Why? Well because like last season, neither A-State nor ULL will play Georgia Southern, who went undefeated through Sun Belt play in 2014. App State will face all three teams, but will play them all at home.
The Eagles’ undefeated run included a 34-14 win over Appalachian State in front of a big crowd in Statesboro, Ga., on their way to the SBC title. This year, the tables will turn as a big crowd will be in Boone, N.C. for a Thursday night primetime battle that will decide the conference frontrunner.
The Mountaineers not only have beaten Georgia Southern at home the last three times, but also has an offense that is churning on all cylinders. App State put up 654 yards of offense in a 59-14 blowout at Louisiana-Monroe last Saturday. Also, the defense is on a roll, averaging 7.5 points in their last four games.
After being shut out by West Virginia to start the season, Georgia Southern’s offense has been unstoppable, averaging 399 yards rushing and 40.3 yards a game. Running back Matt Breida is averaging 145 yards per game and leads the conference with 11 touchdowns.
The winner of Thursday night’s game will also be the first Sun Belt team to be bowl eligible, as well as have the advantage to win the conference title. While there are still a lot of key games left in the season, everything that happens in the SBC title race will point to this week’s games.