From time to time, it's important to look outside the Big Ten and remind ourselves that there is football being played by other teams in other conferences. The Rivalry, Esq. begins its look at those other conferences at the bottom: the Sun Belt. Frequent fodder for September victories, in 2008, the league actually made gains in their attempt to catch the MAC.
In 2009, Western Kentucky will move from the ranks of the Independents and join the league. The Hilltoppers won't be good, but they'll be in the league. This will give the league nine members and a more balanced schedule. Of course, we in the Big Ten have never cared much for balanced schedules...
1) 2008 Recap
a. Who Won the League?
The Troy Trojans, which I suppose is no more or less redundant than the Illinois Illini, won the Sun Belt with a 6-1 conference record.
b. Games of Note
As with the MAC, the Sun Belt's games of note are the times that they can catch one of the BCS teams sleepwalking through a gimmie non-con game. In the season opener, Arkansas State upset Texas A&M 18-14 in College Station. The following week, Middle Tennessee State beat Maryland 24-14 in Murfreesboro, TN. Why Maryland took the game at MTSU remains a mystery. In conference, on November 1, Louisiana-Monroe gave champion Troy their only defeat, a 31-30 Warhawk victory in Monroe. Four weeks later, a shootout in Dolphin Stadium saw Florida Atlantic defeat Florida International 57-50 in overtime. That's right. 50 points each at the end of regulation. Now that's fun.
However, the game of the year was the one that got away: November 15, 2009, Troy at LSU. It was a game that was scheduled for September, but postponed due to Hurricane Gustav. The Tigers were ranked #20, but were coming off of an overtime loss at home to Alabama. With two minutes left in the third quarter, Troy led LSU 31-3. Let me write that again in bold: With two minutes left in the third quarter, Troy led LSU 31-3. I remember being at Bryant-Denny Stadium and the stadium erupting when the score was announced. And then, Troy stopped playing. LSU scored a touchdown in the third, and then piled on the only thirty points of the fourth quarter for the 41-31 win. Of course, game stories indicate that many of the purple and gold clad fans missed it because they left while their team was down. This would be LSU's only win in their last four regular season games.
c. Games against the Big Ten
|Date||Sun Belt Team||Score||Big Ten Team||Score||Location|
|August 30, 2008||Western Kentucky||13||Indiana||31||Bloomington, IN|
|September 6, 2008||Florida International||0||Iowa||42||Iowa City, IA|
|September 13, 2008||Florida Atlantic||13||Minnesota||14||Minneapolis, MN|
|September 13, 2008||Louisiana-Lafayette||17||Illinois||20||Champaign, IL|
|September 20, 2008||Florida Atlantic||0||Michigan State||17||East Lansing, MI|
|September 20, 2008||Troy||10||Ohio State||28||Columbus, OH|
Minnesota escaped against a good Sun Belt team, Troy was over-matched, yet acquitted themselves well against Ohio State, but the game of note is the Illini-Ragin' Cajun matchup. Although Illinois came out on top, it should be noted that this was a mediocre team that they were playing. U.LA-La (I like to pronounce it "ooo la la" for fun) had come off a 51-21 loss to Southern Miss. This game, more than the loss to Mizzou two weeks before, should have tipped us off that the Illini would not be heading back to Pasadena.
d. Bowl Games
As champion, Troy traveled to the New Orleans Bowl, where they played in a sloppy, but fun, game against Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles won 30-27 in OT after blocking Troy's field goal attempt. I'd be remiss if I didn't include a photo of the uniforms together.
Florida Atlantic, coached by handsomest man in college football, upset Central Michigan 24-21 in the Motor City Bowl. The Owls got the invite when the Illini couldn't beat Northwestern to get their sixth win and bowl eligibility.
2) 2009 Preview
a. Games of Note
The conference game of the year looks to be the clash between Arkansas State and Troy in Jonesboro, AR on September 26, 2009. The winner of that early contest should be in the driver's seat for the conference title. As for the non-conference schedule, there are the usual unwinable games against Florida, Texas, and Alabama. But here are nine games in which the Sun Belt has a chance to get a quality (it's all relative down here) non-conference victory. Beating teams from the non-BCS leagues may be more important than a shocking win over a BCS power. These are the games that establish the pecking order for the lower tier leagues. The Sun Belt has nowhere to go but up. Five wins in these nine games would build on last year's positive season.
|Date||Sun Belt Team||Opponent||Location|
|September 3, 2009||Troy||Bowling Green||Bowling Green, OH|
|September 3, 2009||North Texas||Ball State||Muncie, IN|
|September 12, 2009||Middle Tennessee||Memphis||Murfreesboro, TN|
|September 12, 2009||Western Kentucky||South Florida||Bowling Green, KY|
|September 12, 2009||North Texas||Ohio||Denton, TX|
|September 12, 2009||Louisiana-Lafayette||Kansas State||Lafayette, LA|
|September 26, 2009||Florida International||Toledo||Miami, FL|
|October 3, 2009||Florida Atlantic||Wyoming||Boca Raton, FL|
|October 31, 2009||Arkansas State||Louisville||Louisville, KY|
b. Games Against the Big Ten
The Big Ten has been slow to choose Sun Belt teams to fill out team schedules. Having the MAC in your backyard will do that. In fact, the 2009 brings back more MAC and less Sun - just one game on the docket.
|Date||Sun Belt Team||Big Ten Team||Location|
|October 3, 2009||Arkansas State||Iowa||Iowa City, IA|
c. Bowl Affiliations
The league champion goes to the New Orleans Bowl to face a team from Conference USA. The only other way another team gets selected is if there are too few 7-win teams to claim spots. That has earned the Sun Belt multiple bids in the past few years.
3) 2009 Projections
a. Who will win the League?
Arkansas State is experienced and talented. QB Corey Leonard will be a fourth year starter, and ASU may well have the best two backs in the Sun Belt, with Reggie Arnold and Derek Lawson. Both lines will be strong. Troy will take a step back; Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State aren't quite as good. I'm thinking that this is the year that the Red Wolves (Indians is so 2006) head to New Orleans.
b. Any Wins Against the Big Ten?
There better not be. Iowa should be too big and deep for Arkansas State. A team competing for a Big Ten title should be dominant over even the best the Sun Belt has to offer. That said, if Arkansas State was playing one of the lesser 2009 Big Ten Teams (I'm looking in your direction Hoosier State), they'd have a decent shot at the upset.
c. Who Goes Bowling?
Arkansas State will go as the league champion. After that, it will depend upon the mediocrity of the other conferences. Troy or Florida Atlantic could sneak a second bid to a lower tier bowl.
d. Any MNC Hopes?
No. Well, let's be fair. If Florida International runs the table, I think that they have to be on the short list of teams in consideration for the trip to Pasadena. Of course, that will require them winning at Florida, at Rutgers, and at Alabama...
The End of the Sun Belt's National Title Hopes.
e. The Rivalry Notes
This will be a question posed to one of the site's founders that relates the conference at hand with the Big Ten. Law Buckeye is up first
For Big Ten schools, is there any difference between scheduling a Sun Belt team and a I-AA team?
Unquestionably, yes. There are pronounced differences in perception and competitiveness. To qualify to play in the FBS every program has to meet minimum attendance and financial disbursement requirements. FBS schools spend more on their programs, commitment that's felt in facilities and, ultimately, on the field. The bottom line is regardless of what Michigan fans tell you, non-BCS schools are simply more competitive as a unit than their I-AA brethren.
Additionally, there's a soft factor here in perception. Factors like strength of schedule favor putting non-BCS teams on the slate.
So why do major BCS programs keep showing up to the prom with middle school dates? In Ohio, it's a matter of spreading the wealth around the state. It's no coincidence we scheduled Youngstown State, Tressel's former I-AA haunt, in 2007 and 2008.