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'Stun' Belt teams gain national attention
GS Football
Georgia Southern's Marques Watson-Trent (33), Justin Ellis (2), Kristian Varner (92) and Anthony Wilson (12) celebrate after Nebraska's Timmy Bleekrode missed a 52-yard field goal attempt at the end Saturday's game in Lincoln, Neb. Georgia Southern claimed a 45-42 victory over the Cornhuskers. - photo by Associated Press

It was an historic weekend for the Sun Belt Conference as Marshall started the day with a 26-21 win at No. 5 ranked Notre Dame. A little later came the news that the Appalachian State Mountaineers were able to hold off No. 6 Texas A&M in College Station in a defensive battle 17-14. Georgia Southern was able to be the nitecap special for the league with a last second 45-42 win in Lincoln over the Nebraska Cornhuskers marking the first time since the move to FBS that the Eagles have beaten a Power-5 team. 

This trio of wins by the Sun Belt has reverberated throughout the college football landscape and resulted in all three teams being named the Cheeze-It Bowl National Team of the week by the Football Writers Association of America for the first time in 21 seasons. This marks the third time the Thundering Herd have received this honor, the second time for Appalachian State and the first time for the Eagles. 

“I’ve said it before that I believe this is the premiere Group of Five conference,” said Helton. “As we continue to build our national brand, we want to be a national conference. To do that you have to earn respect and build a reputation. When you look at this season, which is still early, you get a win by Old Dominion over Virginia Tech, Marshall beating Notre Dame, Appalachian State beating Texas A&M and what we did against Nebraska you gain respect and build a reputation. This is building a resume, and whether it’s Bowl games this year or the possibility of getting in the playoffs with expansion, the more reputation and respect we build the more opportunities we will get.” 

Helton stressed this can’t be a one-week thing, the Eagles and the rest of the conference have to continue to do these kinds of things on a regular basis.  

“We have shown we can do it, now it is about consistency,” said Helton. “We have to show that year in and year out we are able to do this in our non-conference schedule. We also have to produce conference champions and bowl teams that are successful. Teams like Louisiana have proved that no one wants to play them. You go back and see Billy Napier won 35 games in three years. You look at what Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina have done. You hold all those teams together and you add Marshall, Old Dominion, James Madison and Southern Miss. All of whom are doing well and now you are looking at the premiere Group of 5 conference.” 

For athletic Director Jared Benko the recent news of moving to a 12-team college football playoff is something he feels benefits Georgia Southern and the rest of the Group of 5 teams to presumably finally get a seat at the table for the post season playoffs. 

“First of all, I think it’s been delayed so long that it’s about time,” said Benko. “It’s obviously something we are very supportive of and I really hope this will help us move away from using Power-5 and Group of 5 as we are all FBS. The biggest part of the announcement is in regards to the college football playoffs where you have your six highest seeded teams and six at-large teams. For us with the Sun Belt being the preeminent conference in terms of our peers with having better access to a 12-team playoff as it will give us more hope at the end of the year which is exciting.” 

Benko is confident about at least one Group of 5 team making the 12-team field and hopes that number will possibly go up depending on the season outcomes. 

“The goal is to have at least one seat at the table,” said Benko. “From there we will have to see what happens. There is plenty of talk about expanding to 26 teams. There is still a lot of work to be done but I am excited about the expansion and the access to the playoffs as that is all we have really been asking for. When you see what the Sun Belt has already done and will hopefully continue to do it is exciting times.”