Sun Belt Reconnoiter: Looking back on 2022

Yeah, this was one of the most memorable Sun Belt Seasons of all time

Earlier in the summer, Sun Belt football hosted its first ever two-day event in New Orleans. Obviously, the conference had become larger with the addition of James Madison, Old Dominion, Southern Miss and Marshall. But the attitude had become bigger, too. There was a prevailing belief by everyone in attendance that the Sun Belt had become a premier Group of Five conference – that it had finally eclipsed its reputation as a plucky but under talented league. It was now the conference to beat.

While the overall strength of the conference was acknowledged, it was the Sun Belt East that was given the most credit for elevating the quality of Sun Belt pigskin – even if the defending champion hailed from the West. Appalachian State was favored to win the whole damn thing. Georgia State was expected to compete, as was Marshall. James Madison and ODU were mysteries, but we also considered very solid programs. As for Georgia Southern? Nobody knew how Clay Helton was going to perform in Statesboro.

Meanwhile, the common wisdom in the Sun Belt West was the Louisiana was still the team to beat despite all of its talent and staff losses. South Alabama was a contender, and the mood was positive on Troy, even under a new coach in Jon Sumrall. Nothing was expected from Southern Miss, believed to be rebuilding under new head coach Will Hall. Texas State, Arkansas State, and ULM were all years from competing.

How did it all turn out? As usual, Entropy ruled over Conventional Wisdom. Let’s sift through the rubble. It’ll be fun.

Howlraiser’s Preseason Picks

Did I pick Arkansas State to finish 3rd in the West? You bet your ass I did.

Super kudos to me for picking the top two teams in the West. I’m definitely making note of my sagacity on my LinkedIn profile. After Week 2, when Appalachian State and Marshall knocked off the #6 and #8 ranked teams, you’d have probably thought my picks for the East were spot on as well. Things ended up going sideways in the East, with James Madison wrecking through the division and Coastal Carolina sliding into the top spot.

The Most Disappointing Team: Georgia State

Opening the season, there was a prevailing opinion that the Panthers, led by QB Darren Grainger and head-butting head coach Shawn Elliot, were finally ready to make their move as a Sun Belt East contender. However, the Panthers started the season with four straight losses and never really asserted themselves.

Under Consideration: Louisiana, Texas State, Appalachian State

Most Surprising Team: Southern Miss

After putting up a three-win season in 2021, not much was expected from new head coach Will Hall and the Golden Eagles. But Southern Miss didn’t like this script, electing instead to defeat Tulane out of conference and upset defending conference champion Louisiana. Southern Miss, led by dynamic infinity-threat running back Frank Gore Jr., doubled their win total and is bowling in 2022.

Under Consideration: Georgia Southern, James Madison

Sun Belt Strength Became Its Weakness

The Sun Belt opened the season with Old Dominion (destined to finish last in the Sun Belt East) defeated West Virginia on national TV. A week later, Marshall upended #8 Notre Dame and Appalachian State upset #6 Texas A&M. Later that evening, Georgia Southern would take the win over Nebraska. Later in the season, Southern Miss would defeat Tulane in New Orleans. One thing all these Sun Belt programs have in common? None played in the Sun Belt Championship Game.

These victories over big money or highly ranked programs meant absolutely nothing to the Associated Press and the College Football Playoff Committee, who didn’t see fit to rank a Sun Belt Belt program (beyond James Madison at midseason) until season’s end. Why? The Sun Belt was simply dangerous from top to bottom. Instead of voters recognizing and rewarding the overall strength, voters lazily rewarded top heavy conferences with lackadaisical bottom-of-the-poll selections, resulting in Tulane receiving a Cotton Bowl bid. It was a huge step backwards from a 2021 season that actually saw the Committee take Group of Five programs seriously.

Breakout Player: Khalan Laborn

When Rashaad Ali became mysteriously inactive for the majority of the season, somebody from the Thundering Herd RB room had to stand up. Turns out, that guy was Florida State transfer Khalan Laborn, who totaled 16 touchdowns and 1,423 running yards – 227 more yards than runner-up La’Damain Web of South Alabama. Turns out, Marshall didn’t really miss Ali at all.

Better Than Expected: Sun Belt Quarterbacks

At the beginning of the season, I believed that the quarterback position was a big question mark for the Sun Belt, with only Chase Brice, Grayson McCall, Darren Grainger and Texas State’s Layne Hatcher having considerable Sun Belt experience. However, seven Sun Belt quarterbacks made the FBS Top 50 in passing yards, and Georgia Southern’s Kyle Vantrease was a top five thrower. James Madison QB Todd Centeio, a transfer from Colorado State, was named the Sun Belt’s MVP. Not bad.

NEW ORLEANS – JULY 26: Photos of th 2022 Sun Belt Conference Football Media Days at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel on July 26, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Fun Belt is Less Fun, and That’s Good

Long known for gaudy offensive numbers, the new Sun Belt is more well rounded – and physical. Consider: the Sun Belt featured three top 20 defenses (James Madison, Marshall, South Alabama and Troy). Six programs are in the nation’s top 50. This transition from balls-out offense to hard-nosed defense was on full display for a Thursday night, 10-6 grappling between South Alabama and Troy.

ESPN Gameday Finally Came to the Sun Belt (and We Rewarded the Effort)

Not only did Boone come out full force to welcome College Gameday to Appalachian State, the Mountaineers and Troy Trojans treated the nation to a 32-28 classic that ended with the wildest Hail Mary sequences of 2022.

Sun Belt West Wins The Sun Belt (Again)

When the Trojans thumped the Chanticleers 45-26 in the SBC Championship Game, it was the second consecutive season that the West earned the trophy over the East. The Chanticleers were a less than perfect East representative, having 1) started a recently injured Grayson McCall, 2) leaked that head coach Jamey Chadwell would be departing for Liberty’s big bucks, and 3) been recently defeated by James Madison, the true champion of the East.

It may be time to accept that the West Rules the Belt.

PHOTOS: a combo of mine and the Sun Belt