These are the words I heard in college football circles talking about the top teams in the Sun Belt during the 2018 season.
On face value, yes, those words are nice.
But as the penultimate description of quality teams like Appalachian State, who earned a national ranking, nearly took out Penn State in overtime and won a third straight conference title despite losing their best offensive player, it’s an underhanded compliment.
“Plucky” is the way you should describe the walk-on linebacker who fills his lane on special teams. It’s not how you describe a conference champion.
But that’s the world the Group of 5 lives in, circa 2019. Still, out-going conference commissioner Karl Benson has plenty to be proud of when he looks back on this season.
- A 3-2 bowl record, running their record to 11-5 over the past three seasons
- Appalachian State’s aforementioned run to the conference title
- A first-ever conference title game
- Troy stuffing Nebraska in Lincoln early in the season
- Georgia Southern’s rapid ascent under a vaunted option running attack
- The impressive first-year title game appearance of coach Billy Napier at Louisiana
- The return of Joe Moglia to the sideline at Coastal Carolina to field a competitive team that nearly reached a bowl
- Outstanding quarterback play up and down the conference from the eclectic likes of Justice Hansen, Caleb Evans, Shai Werts, Zac Thomas, Sawyer Smith and Andre Nunez
And as difficult as it may be to see coaches go, Louisville and West Virginia hiring away Scott Satterfield and Neal Brown, respectively, is a sign the big programs do respect the league—even if they will never call them true equals publicly.
What it would take for the Sun Belt to be on same planet as the playoffs?
As the ticker tape rained down onto the field at Levi’s Stadium Monday night, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney eschewed the virtues of “little ole Clemson.”
It’s true that at just under 25,000 enrolled students (as of 2017), Clemson is not the largest mass of student bodies for a Division 1 football campus. But to conjure thoughts of Clemson as the little train that could is laughable.
Clemson is a bright orange diesel engine, and has been for years.
In that same speech, Swinney remarked, ‘if we can do it, anyone can.”
So, Sun Belt, can we?
The only team next year in the Sun Belt with even a sliver of hope to be mentioned in the same breath as the playoff is Arkansas State.
For a conference like the Sun Belt, the only route to the playoffs is through a very powerful, ranked school.
A look at the non-conference schedule for all 10 Sun Belt teams shows an array of Power 5 schools hosting Sun Belt teams. However, many of these Power 5 schools have stumbled in recent years.
The most decorated teams they will play next fall: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi State, Texas A&M.
None were Top 15 teams for very long this season, but most were quality opponents when scheduled years ago by the various Sun Belt athletic directors.
But then, there is stAte slated to play at Georgia. The Bulldogs will surely have Top-5 billing by the time they play.
If Arkansas State was to win convincingly, win their other non-conference games even more convincingly, and go undefeated through the Sun Belt, there could be a light whisper of talk about them. And all of this only becomes relevant if Georgia rebounds and wins every other game on its schedule on the way to a SEC title game appearance.
Piece of cake, right?
Even a victory “between the hedges” is likely to start churning the P5 excuse machine:
- “It was early in the season.”
- “They couldn’t keep that up with a full SEC schedule.”
- “Georgia played down to the competition.”
- “Georgia’s hearts weren’t in it because they are too concerned with the next game.”
And that’s aside from if there are injury or weather factors involved.
Unfortunately, the cavalry is not coming over the hill to save the Sun Belt. Not in 2019. Not in 2020. Not for a long time.
Realistically, the most attainable target in the next handful of years would be earning a way to a New Year’s Six bowl. To be considered on the biggest stage, it’s a multi-year process that would involve one school emerging in the same way Boise State did a decade ago.
Playoff expansion to 12 teams, where all conferences received an automatic bid seems like the only way to get a seat at the table, and based on Monday reports, that is likely another decade or so away from possibly ballooning to eight teams.
Unless expansion happens, teams in the Sun Belt will continue to be seen as the plucky little guys in the college football universe with no real shot at the ultimate prize. Expansion will come one of these years. And when it does, the other conference champions better be readier than ready to fight.
Until then, a strong 2018 in the Sun Belt should be celebrated. An appearance in the New Year’s Six isn’t too far fetched in the coming years. The next commissioner has a lot to be encouraged about heading into the 2019 football season.
Let Dabo believe his little orange engine is the underdog story of the year, or decade, or century. Congrats on your second national title in three years.
But once expansion happens, there is a smaller underdog with a greater story yet to be told.