The early weeks of the season can be a confusing time when trying to figure out the future for G5 conferences.
For many of these leagues — Georgia Southern and its Sun Belt home included — the early weeks of each season are spent pinballing around some very different scenarios. Some will get bowl eligibility padding on their record by hosting FCS programs while others will venture off to the homes of national powers, trying to overcome usually-long odds while also balancing out its athletics department budget.
Still others will compete in legs of home-and-home series vs. other G5 opponents in contests that are more balanced on paper and that serve as fodder for postseason arguments about which conference is closest to their P5 peers.
So by the time Week 2 is in the books, there are plenty of stats and scores, but not much clarity.
In the Sun Belt alone, both sides of every coin can be brought up. Georgia Southern looked dominant — as it expected to — in its FCS matchup, but both UL Monroe and UL Lafayette had their struggles with teams from the second tier of college football.
Texas State upset Ohio out of the MAC and Appalachian State scored a decisive victory over Conference USA’s Old Dominion for the second straight season, but Arkansas State was also embarrassed by the MAC’s Toledo for the second year in a row.
The strongest spot for the Sun Belt so far comes from an area in which the conference holds a losing record.
Playing against teams from the ‘Power-5’ conferences, Sun Belt schools have been up to the challenge. Appalachian nearly began the season with an upset as the Mountaineers took then ninth-ranked Tennessee to overtime. Troy kept defending national runners-up Clemson nervous until the final whistle and South Alabama defeated Mississippi State in Starkville before collecting a sizeable game check for all its trouble.
Checking in around the Belt:
Eagles in front early
While other teams were still in the non-conference portions of their schedules, Georgia Southern kicked off Sun Belt play with a trip to South Alabama.
The Jaguars had rallied to upset Mississippi State the week before, but the Eagles’ defense suffocated the USA passing attack for much of the night and thwarted another comeback attempt to pave the way for a 24-9 victory.
“We had to get up right away,” GS running back L.A. Ramsby said of the early conference game. “We knew it would be a tough test and every conference game is importance. Now that we have the win, it’s good to know that we’ve got one behind us.”
The Eagles will have a chance to retain their spot in sole possession of the conference lead as they are one of just two conference matchups this weekend. Georgia Southern will host UL Monroe while South Alabama travels to UL Lafayette.
App braces for Hurricane(s)
One of the plights of existence in a G5 conference is the yearly dearth of ‘wow-factor’ in the home portion of the schedule. Conference rivals coming to town is always fun, but FCS competitors don’t do much to move the needle and most G5 programs only play 5-6 home games per season, often choosing to leave home more often than not in order to get hefty payouts from P5 teams and take their crack at pulling off an upset.
The Mountaineers will get the best of both worlds this season.
Appalachian got plenty of attention from the national media by putting a scare into Tennessee before having a profitable day hosting Old Dominion in the tail end of the teams’ home-and-home series last week. Now — after a last-minute change of schedule forced it to go looking for an opponent — the Miami Hurricanes are coming to Kidd-Brewer Stadium.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” Appalachian coach Scott Satterfield said. “(Miami) has a great program and tradition. It will be a big day for us.”
End the OOC nightmare
Arkansas State has plenty to brag about. The Red Wolves have a piece of four of the last five Sun Belt championships and won the 2015 title in style as they notched a perfect 8-0 conference record, crushing Appalachian State in Boone in the process.
But Arkansas State has some out-of-conference demons to confront.
The Red Wolves were embarrassed in all of their FBS non-conference games — including a New Orleans Bowl loss to Louisiana Tech — last season. Things haven’t started any better in 2016 as ASU was crushed by Toledo on its home field before being ground up again at Auburn last week.
Arkansas State could go a long way towards recouping some pride — both personal and Sun Belt-wise — by beating Utah State in a Friday night matchup.
Back to reality
Georgia State shocked the Sun Belt last season as a late winning streak propelled the Panthers to their first bowl game in school history. With just about everyone other than reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Nick Arbuckle returning this season, Georgia State was a dark horse pick to possibly challenge for a spot at the head of the conference table.
And then everything went straight off of a cliff.
The Panthers dropped their season opener to MAC cellar-dweller Ball State before getting throttled by Air Force last week.
“I could give you my thoughts, but it would be a lot of ‘bleeped-out’ things,” Georgia State coach Trent Miles said. “We weren’t a competitive football team. We’re still trying to grow into a competitive FBS football team.”
If the Panthers are going to have another midseason turnaround, we’ll likely have to wait until after this week to see it. The level of competition ramps up for Georgia State yet again this weekend as No. 9 Wisconsin welcomes the Panthers to Camp Randall Stadium for a noon kickoff.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.