After a solid season that saw Troy beat LSU on the road, a potent offense at Arkansas State, and another championship season in Boone, the Sun Belt cashed in during the bowl season.
In their five appearances. the Fun Belt made a solid showing for themselves as they picked up two blowout victories and had three straight up wins as an underdog. For a conference that is yearly considered as the worst in the FBS, this was a nice step up the ladder to show that the gap is closing between them, the C-USA, and the MAC.
Sun Belt Bowl Record: 4-1
Best Win: Appalachian State over Toledo
Most Exciting Game: New Mexico State over Utah State
Biggest Disappointment: Arkansas State
Best Individual Performances: Larry Rose III, New Mexico State (offense) Chase Middleton, Georgia State (defense)
Stock Market: Rising
The league’s co-champions made definitive statements this bowl season as Troy stomped C-USA runner-up North Texas and Appalachian State shoutout an outstanding MAC champion Toledo.
To kick off bowl season, Troy dropped 50 points on North Texas as the Trojans capped off their second consecutive double-digit win season. Four-year starter Brandon Silvers went out in style as he tossed for 305 yards and four touchdowns. The defense continued their stellar play as star quarterback Mason Fine only averaged 5.6 yards per pass attempt and the Trojans caused five turnovers.
A week later in Mobile, Appalachian State had a super impressive performance as they completely shutdown a very good Toledo offense. The Rockets finished 20th per S&P+ in offensive efficiency and they were held to 146 total yards in the Dollar General Bowl. App State leaned on their ground attack as they collected 327 rushing yards on their way to a 34-0 victory. It was a bit of a rocky season for the Mountaineers, but they dropped the hammer to close out 2017.
The good news doesn’t stop there however as Georgia State picked up their first postseason win in program history. In the Cure Bowl, GSU dominated WKU on their way to a 27-17 victory. The Panthers held the Tops to negative-two rushing yards and forced three turnovers in the victory. In his last game, quarterback Conner Manning was very efficient as the senior threw for 276 yards on a 9.9 yards per attempt average with two touchdowns. It was a party in Orlando to celebrate a great debut season for head coach Shawn Elliott.
Perhaps the best story of the college football season happened in Las Cruces as New Mexico State became bowl eligible for the first time since 1960. The Aggies brought a ton of fans to Tucson for the Arizona Bowl and there they knocked off Utah State in overtime. Larry Rose III capped off his career with 190 total yards and the game-winning touchdown.
It was an elite celebration as the Aggies went out with a bang in their final year in the Sun Belt.
The only bump in the road occurred in Montgomery as Arkansas State was upset by Middle Tennessee in the Camellia Bowl. The Red Wolves outgained the Blue Raiders by over 100 yards but turnovers loomed large. The Red Wolves lost the ball four times and a scoop-and-score by Middle’s D.J. Sanders in the second quarter proved to be the difference. It was a record setting offensive year, but Blake Anderson’s squad lost three of five to close the 2017 season.
The bottom of the league is still in rough shape as the entire back half ranks 99th or worst. That is not great by any means and losing Idaho and New Mexico does not necessarily help in that regard either.
However, I’m not sure the top of this league has even been stronger. It appears the conference is returning all of their coaching star power as Blake Anderson, Neal Brown, and Scott Satterfield will each be returning to the Sun Belt next year. Each team finished in the top 35 in S&P+ and that is strong for any Group of Five league. The depth is not there yet, but bowl season helped prove the top of the Fun Belt is nearly as good as anyone in the Group of Five.