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Beyond the Empire: FUNBELT, the South’s second-rate answer to MACTION

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Also, there’s a real chance Nebraska loses to Troy, so we preview and offer predictions for that, too.

Troy v LSU Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Welcome to the dying days of B1G 2018! As we count down to the start of Big Ten football, we’re previewing the Big Ten non-conference slate by conference affiliation. Stay tuned for all the G5 and P5 conference previews, along with our Closing Arguments prediction series for each Big Ten team.

I’ve been trying to cutely build up to the bigger conference matchups—breaking into the Notre Dame matchups or blowing my load on Purdue-Mizzou this early doesn’t seem as exciting when we’re still just breaking the early parts of camp. That’s conveniently dovetailed with the fact that the lower-tier previews (the FCS, C-USA, and independents like New Mexico State and BYU)—have been shorter and featured fewer potential upsets.

Let’s not confuse ourselves: The Sun Belt, top-to-bottom, rated out as the worst FBS conference in 2017, and worse according to Sagarin than the Missouri Valley Conference.

In the conference we know as the FUNBELT, though, for its wacky 61-50 bowl games and combined-90-points weeknight matchups, though, there are a couple important things to note:

  1. The Sun Belt, in Troy, Appalachian State, and Arkansas State, has three legitimately-good teams that can scare or even beat P5 and P5-adjacent schools on a slightly-above average game.
  2. The moniker FUNBELT is a damn fraud. If you’re going to try to be the cutesy Southern alternative to MACTION, you’d better get a high-fiving bobcat or a lot more Tuesday and Wednesday night games.
  3. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at 2017. The Sun Belt played 7 weeknight games, and just one of them—Arkansas State-Georgia Southern, on October 4—scored more than 50 points. Georgia State-South Alabama (21-13) and Troy-Idaho (24-21) were the only weeknight games to finish within one score.
  4. In the MAC during the same time, there were 22 weeknight games. In the week of Oct. 29-Nov. 4 alone, 4 of the 5 games scored more than 50 points (including a CMU-WMU BATTLE FOR THE VICTORY CANNON that ended in a 35-28 Broncos collapse).
  5. One MAC team—the 2016 Western Michigan Broncos—has made the New Year’s Six bowl games. No Sun Belt team has ever appeared.
  6. In conclusion, FUNBELT is yet another example of ESPN hyping an inferior Southern product over honest, hard-working Midwestern football. To answer your next point, no, they both can’t be amazing fun, one has to be better because this is the Internet and manufacturing crises is what we do. I will brook no dissent on this matter. MACTION is Magic.

The Games

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (3-9, 1-8) vs. Texas State Bobcats (2-10, 1-7)

September 1 | 11am CT | BTN

2018 S&P+ rating: 123rd
2017 Sagarin rating: 205 (19th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 79% (+14.1 margin)

I should preface this with an important note: Until 5 years ago, I thought Texas State was a fictional school, because the only time I’d heard of it was when one of Shia LeBeouf’s brothers on Even Stevens was being recruiting to play football there.

Honestly. I thought Texas State was just a Disney Channel version of Hayden Fox’s Minnesota State University. Do with the rest of this preview what you will.


To say Texas State is rebuilding would (1) be an understatement, and (2) obscure the fact that unless you’re one of the Sun Belt’s “haves” (Troy and Appalachian State and maybe Arkansas State if you squint really hard), you’re almost perpetually rebuilding in a conference where coaches come, wobble for a bit, and move on to a coordinator job at a mid-level ACC program.

But there are rebuild jobs, and there’s Texas State—the Bobcats have been led by luminaries such as Dennis Franchione, Jim Wacker, and recently Dennis Franchione again!—which has managed one winning season (7-5 in 2014, when they were the only 7-5 team to not receive a bowl invite) since moving to FBS in 2012. Everett Withers runs the show now after steering North Carolina through its 2011 scandal season (you have to specify with the Tar Heels) and leading James Madison to a couple FCS Playoff appearances, and...well, it’s a slog. The Bobcats haven’t lost to an FCS team under Withers but haven’t been competitive outside a couple flashes in the pan.

Apparently former Rutgers RB coach Zak Kuhr is running the Texas State offense. That’s exciting, I guess! The offense isn’t good, though—it averaged just 340 ypg and 17 ppg in 2017. Willie Jones is a running threat at QB, but the Bobcats’ offensive line doesn’t buy him much time, though Aaron Brewer is apparently a good tackle. There are some running threats, but I’m trying this new thing called “budgeting my time” when writing these previews, and Rutgers-Texas State is...not the priority.

The Bobcats are more susceptible to being beaten by the pass, which—well, I’m willing to be titillated if Giovanni Rescigno [I don’t know if he’s the Rutgers QB, I don’t know if that’s how you spell it, and I’m sure as hell not looking it up] and the Knights’ offense struggles. The linebacking corps—anchored by Hal Vinson, Bryan London II, and Frankie Griffin—is obviously the strength of the 3-4 defense the Bobcats roll out, and Withers’ recruiting has bolstered the Texas State defensive line. If I’m Texas State, I’m selling out to stop the run and seeking how things go.

Still won’t go well, though. Rutgers by a couple touchdowns or Ash doesn’t survive the non-conference.

Penn State Nittany Lions (11-2, 7-2 B1G) vs. Appalachian St. Mountaineers (9-4, 7-1 Sun Belt)

Saturday, September 1 | 2:30pm CT | BTN

2018 S&P+ rating: 63rd
2017 Sagarin rating: 64 (75th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 89% (+20.9 margin)

Hey friends, beez here! Happy to guest star in MNW’s fabulous non-con G5 previews, and even happier to get to talk about Penn State’s first loss of 2018 to my second-favorite team: the Appalachian State Mountaineers! Super fun team, has a mountain man named Yosef as a mascot, often referred to as “the Apps” by local fans for some reason.

Everyone knows who App State is. They’re the team that beat Michigan at Michigan eleven years ago. Now, though, they’re an actual FBS team, and they’re a decent one! (2016 S&P+: 40, 2017: 18, 2018 (projected): 63rd) They have more votes in the preseason coaches poll than Iowa! (and everyone worse than Iowa!) Point is, they’re not an FCS team or even a bottom-feeder FBS team, they’re in or near the top 5 of B1G non-con games for 2018, and they’re probably going to compete for the Sun Belt Championship.

Ever since App State moved to FBS (this is their 5th season, 4th as a “full” FBS member; i.e., they’d have four straight bowl appearances and wins if the NCAA “transition” rules weren’t kinda dumb), I’ve been comparing them to Wisconsin in the Aranda and post-Aranda years. They run the ball very well, they usually have a good offensive line, and their 3-4 defense has carried them on many occasions. What’s more, they’ve frequently had questions or “questions” about their QB play.

2018 is marked by a couple major questions, though. The first, on offense, is how they’re going to play with only their second starting QB since they joined FBS. Taylor Lamb, the four-year starter, is gone, and Zac Thomas (no, not that one, I checked!) is next up. Fortunately for him and the rest of the offense, Jalin Moore returns at RB for what should be a big season. Moore was one of 342 players named to the Maxwell Award watch list, and NFL.com named him the 9th most “freakish” athlete in CFB this season (one spot ahead of Paris Campbell; Rashan Gary was 2nd). He’s looking for his third straight 1,000-yard season, and the only real question with him is “can he stay healthy?”

Beyond Moore, new QB Thomas will be able to rely on a group of pass catchers which includes a rock-solid TE, a bunch of 3-star WRs who now have a year of experience, and two Kansas State transfers (including an all-Big 12 kick returner). As Bill C. said in his App State preview, if Thomas (or one of the other QBs), can perform adequately, App State’s offense should be pretty good with the best collection of skill players Head Coach Scott Satterfield has ever had.

App State’s defense is where it’s at. Last year, App’s D finished 18th in the country in S&P+, a rating that jumped there all the way from 35th after shutting out Toledo and their 20th-ranked offense in the bowl game. The year before, App’s D shut down the same Toledo team in the same bowl game, this time stopping soon-to-be rookie phenom Kareem Hunt. As I said, the team has been a lot like Wisconsin the past few years, especially on D.

If App State played in the B1G, they’d have the second-best set of defensive backs in the conference. Clifton Duck returns for his (true) junior season and was named as a second team All-American by something called “Street and Smith” (who may just be two people? I dunno), putting him as one of only four G5 players to make the All-American teams. Duck has the most interceptions over the past two years of any player in college, has the best PFF rating of any defensive back the last two years (just a 50.4 rating when targeted), and, well, he’s really good. His co-DB, Tae Hayes, added four INTs last season and was named to this year’s preseason all-Sun Belt team.

App State lost a couple players from the front seven after last year, and their linebackers could be a weak-ish point. If the front seven struggles to get pressure, it won’t matter a ton how Duck and Hayes do, as they can’t blanket receivers forever, play after play. Hopefully the seemingly foolproof nature of the 3-4 elevates a couple LBs and gives Duck and Hayes a break every once in a while.

The other major question for App this fall comes in the most Wisconsin-related way possible—replacing the defensive coordinator. Nate Woody left for Georgia Tech after several very, very successful seasons, and he’ll be replaced by Bryan Brown, App’s DB coach for the past six seasons. I’m optimistic that the guy who coached one of the best defensive units the past few years can transfer his success to the entire defense, but I may have been duped by years of Wisconsin putting really whoever they want as DC and succeeding.

How’s the Penn State game going to go? App’s probably going to lose, and lose comfortably (for PSU fans). App State is a very good G5 team and a decent FBS team, so the chance for an upset is there, but Penn State projects to be a very, very good team this season and has the QB to avoid pressure and pick apart App’s lesser secondary players. With the exception of nearly beating Tennessee in Tennessee a couple years ago (“nearly” meaning “had Tenn stopped on 3rd and goal in overtime, only to see the QB fumble the ball into the end zone where Tenn recovered for the TD”), App has gotten rolled the past few years by Clemson, Georgia, Miami (who played at App State! Good job, Miami), and Michigan.

While there’s no shame in losing on the road to a bunch of elite teams and Michigan, I’m worried the same problems are going to haunt App this year as did against Miami two years ago. App has some great starters and a bunch of standouts on offense and defense, but they don’t have depth. Duck and Hayes can do everything they want to shut down PSU’s top two receiving options, but the dropoff from App’s best DBs to it’s not-best DBs is wayyyyyyy bigger than PSU’s top receivers to its not-top receivers. Add in that this is the first game for a new QB and even elite running games struggle when there’s no pass threat, and Penn State will probably win handily.

Even with an ass-kicking, this is still a really good early game for Penn State. Moore is great, App’s receivers are legit, and the DBs will genuinely test McSorely and PSU’s receivers. This will look like a good win for Penn State come November.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-8, 3-6) vs. Troy Trojans (11-2, 7-1)

September 15 | 11am CT | BTN

2018 S&P+ rating: 78th
2017 Sagarin rating: 66th (74th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 63% (+5.6 margin)

How did Neal Brown not get a P5 job? The Troy head man returns for a fourth season in southeastern Alabama fresh off a title season in which the Trojans marched into Death Valley and beat DACOACHO and the LSU Tigers on Homecoming. After dropping a road test at Boise State to open the year, Troy hammered the Sun Belt, save for a bizarre 19-8 home loss to South Alabama, en route to a shared title with Appalachian State and a 50-30 plowing of North Texas at the New Orleans Bowl. The Trojans ended the year 31st in S&P+. They’re legit.

Now, in 2018, Troy has to replace its whole backfield—QB Brandon Silvers and RBs Jordan Chunn and Josh Anderson are gone. Neal Brown still isn’t telling us if the replacement will be Kaleb Barker or Sawyer Smith—you’ll be stunned to learn both have had impressive moments in camp— . Offensive linemen Tristan Crowder and Deontae Crumitie have gotten preseason honors, though, and WRs Deondre Douglas and Damion Willis are both big play threats along with Louisville transfer WR Traveon Samuel. By Game Three the Trojans should have found a QB to go with RB Jamarius Henderson, and if that QB can get the ball to his playmakers, the Huskers could be in trouble.

Next, we turn to Troy’s defense, and hey look, it’s Vic Koenning! Illinois fans will remember Ron Zook’s defensive coordinator, who has built the Trojans’ defense into—yes, a top-fucking-20 defense. In the Sun Belt. Damn.

DLs Hunter Reese and Trevon Sanders have earned first-team Sun Belt honors, and the secondary is anchored by legitimate coverage threats in CB Blace Brown (5 INT, 6 PBU, 11 PD) and FS Cedarius Rookard (74 tackles, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 5 PD), along with Oklahoma transfer S Will Sunderland. The Trojans bend but don’t break in their 3-4 defense, stuffing the run at elite levels and really only struggling to get after the QB in passing downs. Brown has managed to reload and develop talent in a deep, deep defense, and that depth could help keep the Trojans around uncomfortably late in the game in Lincoln.

All that, however, does not negate the fact that Nebraska is still, well, Nebraska and playing a Sun Belt team at home. The stable of Husker running backs should be able to wear down the Trojan DL, and if Adrian Martinez or Tristan Gebbia can complete their passes, the Nebraska offense should be able to move the ball if they stay on schedule. It might be uncomfortably close, but it’s a good test for Year One of the Scott Frost Era.

The Conference

The Standings

The Sun Belt splits into divisions for the first time in 2018 to add a conference championship game on December 1, so now there’s a little added intrigue to your Tuesday night FUNBELT action.

Unfortunately, the defending co-champions and usually the best teams in the conference, Troy and Appalachian State, are both in the East. The conference’s coaches are pretty split on which one of those two will represent the East, but it’s

After that, it’s everyone else in the East. Don’t count out the Georgia Southern Eagles and their funky triple option attack, though, as new HC Chad Lunsford brought in former New Mexico guru Bob DeBesse and committed to the Way It’s Done in Jonesboro. Whether Shai Werts can lead that offense will determine if Southern holds off a Georgia State club set to regress and a Coastal Carolina squad that’s now officially in FBS but functionally still a ways off.

Who ever comes out of the East will likely, if preseason speculation holds, face the Arkansas State Red Wolves. After putting a scare in Nebraska in 2017, the Red Wolves are the only of the three front-runners to return their quarterback—Justice Hansen—in 2018, miss Troy on their schedule, and get Appalachian State at home. They could go 11-1 (8-0) if they win all the games S&P+ has them as favorites in, including a September date at Tulsa Golden Hurricane.

After that, it’s everyone else in the West, though Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks and South Alabama Jaguars [U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!] should lead the way. Don’t count out the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns’ chances, though. Under new HC Billy Napier, taking over for fired Mark Hudspeth, the Cajuns should run a wide-open offense that allows RB Trey Ragas to shine if they can settle on a quarterback.

Don’t worry about Texas State. They’re “lose to Rutgers by 40” bad.

For the conference, I’ll take Troy vs. Arkansas State on December 1. Let’s say the Red Wolves emerge as champs.

Culture

Look, we’re at 2800 words as I get to this section. So just watch a couple mid-tier Sun Belt games (there’s a little too much defense for me at the top level) and appreciate the offenses.

Also BELTS: This conference has really leaned into its moniker. Troy plays its in-state rival, the South Alabama Jaguars, in the BATTLE OF THE BELT [not to be confused with the Western Kentucky-Murray State Battle for the Red Belt; educate yourselves]. On top of that? The conference championship game MVP will receive not a trophy, but a title belt.

The only thing left to be seen is how many more belts the Sun Belt can shoehorn into its coverage and awards.

Coaching Connections

  • Neal Brown doesn’t have a P5 job yet. Nothing makes sense.
  • Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson is similarly posed to make that jump, and I’m a little surprised Beez’s boy Scott Satterfield isn’t there yet, either.
  • In addition to the aforementioned Vic Koenning, Texas State HC Everett Withers was the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2007, which...
  • ...
  • ...
  • ...
  • Well, now I’m drinking at 9am on a Monday.

How They’ll Fare

Rutgers should roll, Nebraska might struggle, Penn State wins by a respectable margin for both sides. Easy peasy.

Poll

How will the Big Ten fare against the Sun Belt?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    3-0, easy
    (23 votes)
  • 6%
    3-0: Rutgers struggles
    (10 votes)
  • 15%
    3-0: Nebraska struggles
    (25 votes)
  • 12%
    3-0: Rutgers AND Nebraska struggle
    (20 votes)
  • 6%
    2-1: Rutgers loses
    (11 votes)
  • 21%
    2-1: Nebraska loses
    (35 votes)
  • 9%
    2-1: Penn State loses
    (15 votes)
  • 7%
    1-2
    (12 votes)
  • 8%
    This was exhausting
    (14 votes)
165 votes total Vote Now