With the way college football goes nowadays, there is a pretty blurred line between the end of one season and the beginning of the next.
But spring practice, signing days and summer workouts aside, the Sun Belt Conference held its unofficial kickoff to the 2019 season as it hosted its annual media day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans Monday.
Making the trip west to represent Georgia Southern were head coach Chad Lunsford, senior cornerback Kindle Vildor and senior kicker Tyler Bass. The first game of the season is still over a month away — when the Eagles will return to Louisiana to take on nationally-ranked LSU -—but Monday offered some glimpses from around the league on what to expect.
Lunsford was a popular target for media members as plenty of inquiring minds wanted to know how he intends to follow up a massively successful first full season at the helm. Going from 2-10 in 2017 to 10-3 with a bowl win last fall gave the Eagles some national press and has them entering the new season as contenders for a conference championship.
“(Last year) was a huge improvement,” Lunsford said. “Now to go from 10-3 to whatever this year is going to look like, it's going to be about the little things. We understand going from good to great has a lot to do with making sure we pay attention to detail and taking care of little things."
Some of the little things that contributed to last season’s success were evident in the choices for player representatives in New Orleans. Vildor had a breakout season that saw him lead the team in interceptions and spur on a defense that helped to lead the entire nation in turnover margin.
And whenever the GS offense couldn’t quite finish off a drive in 2018, it had a stellar backup plan in the form of Bass’ right foot. The rising senior bombed several long kicks last year and saved his best for last, going 3-for-3 on field goals, including the game-winner as time expired in the Eagles’ bowl win over Eastern Michigan.
That the Eagles’ huge turnaround was capped with the highlight of Bass’s All-Conference season is fitting for both a program and a player that were looking to get into the spotlight.
“I didn’t have any offers coming out of high school, so I walked on,” Bass said. “I had to be mentally strong and I really put in the work. I never got discouraged and I competed every day, and when something didn’t go my way. I just took it with a grain of salt. I never stopped believing because I always knew what I was capable of."
While interest in the Eagles focused on whether they can take the next step this fall, Georgia Southern’s archrival faced its own unique line of questioning.
Appalachian State claimed the first ever Sun Belt championship game last season. The Mountaineers bring back enough starters from 2018 to make them an easy pick to repeat, but the team saw a total coaching overhaul in the offseason, with Scott Satterfield leaving for Louisville and Eliah Drinkwitz stepping in to lead App into 2019.
“Well, when you get an opportunity to be a head football coach, you're either going to get an opportunity where you have to turn the program around or you're trying to build and stay on top,” Drinkwitz said. “Each job has its own unique challenges and unique opportunities, and what we're focused on is the opportunities that we have at Appalachian State to build on the championship traditions and to compete to do it better than it's been done before."
There are plenty of new coaches dotting the staffs throughout the Sun Belt, but media day began with comments from a new face that is now leading the conference.
Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill has been on the job for nearly three months, but with the majority of his tenure so far coming during the summer months, Monday’s ‘State of the Sun Belt’ address marked his most prominent appearance to date.
Gill touted the ongoing success of the conference’s student-athletes as the Sun Belt continues to rack up academic honors. He also expressed his optimism that an extension of the conference’s media rights agreement with ESPN through 2028 will continue to bring in revenue and national exposure.
No new endeavors were announced, but Gill did hint at a coming change for the Sun Belt during the football bowl season. Gill stated that the Sun Belt will continue to have tie-ins to five bowl games, but that partnerships within those bowls could change and that the Sun Belt’s tie-ins could be on the move to new locations that better fit with the conference’s geographic footprint.