An observation from Arkansas State head football coach Butch Jones underscores the conference’s maturation.
“The Fun Belt is no longer the Fun Belt. It’s more the Physical Belt,” said Coach Butch Jones during his weekly Tuesday presser. This conclusion came after a bit of a soliloquy during which Jones remarked on the Red Wolves’ recruiting and the Sun Belt’s transition to becoming for defense-focused; larger and stronger at the line of scrimmage.
To understand Jones’ observation is to look back at how the Sun Belt was viewed (and is still largely viewed) by regional and national voices of the college sports community. “Fun Belt” is both a playful moniker and a sort of condescending insult (much like “MACtion”) – an implication that where Sun Belt football lacks in talent, size and ability it makes up for with a reckless application of off-the-wall offense. As Jones himself mentioned, the Sun Belt was once punctuated by inflated scores, trick plays and fourth quarter dramas. ESPN broadcasters, in an earnest attempt to brand the Sun Belt and gin-up interest, ran with “Fun Belt.”
Nobody is about to call the Sun Belt the “Physical Belt” anytime soon – not because it isn’t true, but mostly because the moniker lacks marketing sizzle. (How about The Muscle Belt?) But I did begin to understand that the Sun Belt was moving away from its undersized and underdog reputation last season, when I walked the field at Centennial Bank Stadium during pregame warmups, where I found myself wandering the Coastal Carolina sideline.
The Chanticleers were massive. Tight end Isaiah Likely, soon destined for the NFL, seemed proportioned more for an assembly of the Greek gods than for a weekend football game. The offensive lineman registered spikes on the seismometer with every step. The defensive ends looked like repurposed Sherman tanks. My contrast, the Red Wolves seemed as small as a Mark Hudspeth polo.
Coastal Carolina has assembled a team for The New Sun Belt, one that had exchanged squirrelly outside speed for domination at the line of scrimmage. This is where the Red Wolves failed during the reasonably successful Blake Anderson Era. He and his staff recruited for the Old Sun Belt, when it was okay to be slow so long as you were big, and okay to be small as long as you were fast. Meanwhile, many programs like Appalachian State, Coastal, Troy, South Alabama, Georgia State and Louisiana had stumbled upon a shining truth: the Sun Belt can recruit players that are both big and fast.
Nowhere has the revelation been underscored with brighter ink than the massive defensive donnybrook that occurred earlier this season on a Thursday night between South Alabama and Troy. Perhaps the nation was expecting the usual 56-48 air raid that which the Fun Belt was known. Instead, the outcome was a 10-6 trench battle, with Troy eventually muscling themselves to the victory.
Troy vs South Alabama wasn’t an isolate incident. Seven of the nation’s top 50 defenses reside in the Sun Belt. Three of those defenses (Marshall, South Alabama and James Madison) are Top 15. Four Sun Belt Programs feature top 20 Red Zone defenses. Troy and Marshall are Top 10 Scoring Defenses. No longer can viewers count on seeing a score-fest when observing the Sun Belt. Instead, viewers will have to settle for witnessing well-rounded football.
Butch Jones knows the score. When he walked into the A-State locker room, he understood immediately that the roster was not ready to compete in the new Muscle Belt. Arkansas State signed 86 players in the three recruiting classes before Jones’ arrival to Jonesboro. Today, only 15 remain on the roster. According to Jones, only six of those 15 significantly contribute.
The Sun Belt passed Arkansas State by, and Butch Jones is tasked with souping up the engine in a frantic game of catch-up. He’s off to a good start, already recording the conference’s best recruiting class in 2022 and will likely have a top recruiting class for 2023. From the transfer portal, he’s brought in players that fit his ideal for size and speed: Kivon Bennett, Eddie Smith, Champ Flemings and Johnny Lang are a few noteworthy examples.
The results in the win column are coming. Maturation takes a bit of time.
PHOTO CREDITS: Belong to me, Ace