1. Week 8 is going to be fun
We already knew that Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and Arkansas State appeared to be the main contenders for the Sun Belt title. The Eagles and Mountaineers had convincing wins over NMSU and ULM, and stAte had a wild comeback win at South Alabama. Now, given the power vacuum for the fourth position in the 'Belt for bowl contention, guess who's baaaaaaack?
Yup. South Alabama's a distant fifth, and 6th-11th is a mess. So even with the shakiest team they've had since 2008, UL's a solid fourth in the 'Belt power rankings, and they might go bowling again.
And guess what? The top four in the conference all play each other this week. UL visits Arkansas State in the Tuesday night undercard, and that game is already known for shoving matches, tons of yellow flags, and high levels of general cussedness. Then the de facto Sun Belt title game happens on Thursday in Boone, North Carolina, as Georgia Southern and Appalachian State face off in their own knockdown, drag-out rivalry fight that spans all the way back to their time in FCS.
Sure, the #SunBeltHeat might be running a bit cool this year, but these games are both must-watches.
2. Georgia State and Idaho took steps forward
Many of us had long left Georgia State and Idaho for dead after less than stellar starts to the season (myself included), but after week 7 both programs might finally be starting their slow climb upwards.
Georgia State had a huge win--hey, any win for the Panthers is a huge win--over a Ball State program two years removed from a 10 win season. Nick Arbuckle carried the entire team on his back as he threw for 412 yards, one touchdown, and scored a couple of goal line rushing touchdowns as well.
As for the rest of the offense? Well, the Panthers ran for 33 yards. Total. Probably not the most sustainable method of winning, but at this point you might as well take it from GSU's perspective. More importantly, Georgia State's defense kept Ball State under 400 yards and nabbed an interception of their own, which should spell "huge progress" in giant neon letters to anyone who has watched that unit within the past few seasons.
Meanwhile, in the ESPN game comments:
As for the Vandals, it took four Troy turnovers, four Austin Rehkow field goals, and 131 receiving yards from Dezmon Epps, but Idaho won their first Sun Belt road game since rejoining the conference in 2013. It was also their first conference road win since November 5, 2011 at former WAC member San Jose State.
Among the most important improvements for the Vandals? QB Matt Linehan (15 of 31, 181 yards) held onto the football, with no interceptions or fumbles. Additionally, the Vandal defense held Troy to 4 of 17 on third down while UI's offense converted 7 of 18 third downs of their own.
Any tangible progress is great news for either program, and it looks like both teams might finally be taking the baby steps forward that have long been expected of them.
3. Keep an eye on the temperature of Todd Berry's seat
The ULM Warhawks have played half of their season, and they sit at a brutal 1-5. Granted, four out of their six games has been an absolute murderer's row of Georgia, Alabama, defending Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern, and, most recently, a demoralizing blowout loss at home to Sun Belt contender Appalachian State where ULM surrendered 49 unanswered points.
Todd Berry's already blaming his team's schedule for causing injuries and destroying any chances they had at building momentum.
In the wake of a 59-14 loss to Appalachian State Saturday night, Berry directed his frustration towards ULM's schedule. Particularly how it relates to the one the Mountaineers have played.
"They've had a chance to play some guys, stay healthy and gain confidence. You look at our schedule and it's not like that," Berry said.
"Our guys aren't getting any experience because of who they're playing early in the season and it's hurting us. Now all of a sudden you have injuries and those guys haven't had any playing time to allow them to grow up as players."
Berry's right in that ULM has been absolutely decimated by injuries this year. Their two best receivers in Rashon Ceaser and Ajalen Holley--otherwise known as mostly their entire offense--are injured. They've also lost another receiver, a running back, and a tight end. Having to play two SEC teams certainly didn't help, and the Sun Belt did ULM no favors by making the Warhawks start with the two best teams in the 'Belt.
But here's the problem--with the lowest athletic budget in FBS, ULM can't really afford to not take those payout games. They've made their entire identity around playing with--and beating--the big boys. And now the schedule's being used as an excuse?
ULM's in a tough situation here. Todd Berry is the only coach the Warhawks have ever had success under in the FBS. He's their program's (much less successful) Bill Snyder or Larry Blakeney. And they're not exactly winning the Sun Belt arms race as they just built their first facility upgrade since 1983 with private funds. It's far from clear that ULM could hire someone better.
Yet if these results keep happening, what little outside support the Warhawks have might dry up. The offense is decimated, and ULM's once stout defense is now a shell of itself. ULL and Arkansas State still await, and none of ULM's remaining games are gimmes.
Bowl contention seems like a distant dream now for the folks in Monroe. Will that be considered acceptable for a second straight season?