Sun Belt makes statement on opening weekend

Robert George

Despite its reputation as a subpar football conference in the past, teams all around the Sun Belt made it known that opposing teams shouldn’t take them lightly anymore.

Appalachian State traveled to Neyland Stadium on Thursday and took the Tennessee Volunteers into overtime on national television. In fact, if not for a couple of missed kicks and a fluky fumble-that-turned-into-a-touchdown for the Vols, they would have pulled off one of the biggest upsets since 2006, when they beat Michigan in the Big House.

South Alabama, a program not known for a brand of winning football, toppled SEC foe Mississippi State by scoring in the last minute and a missed field goal from the Bulldogs. While the Bulldogs aren’t exactly a conference powerhouse, it was still the biggest win in the history of South Alabama’s program by a long shot.

“It doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Tyson Summers said following Georgia Southern’s win over Savannah State on Saturday night. “I think what you see in our conference and particularly in the Group of Five is that we’ve got good teams. And we want to be in that consideration to be one of those top two or three teams and one of the top 25 teams in the country.”

The Eagles and the rest of the Sun Belt will certainly get a chance to boost their credibility again this season. This upcoming weekend could be a big one, as Arkansas State takes on Auburn, ULM travels to Oklahoma and Troy plays Clemson. Two weeks from now, Appalachian State will be in a big spotlight when they host Miami on ESPN. And of course, GS has a few big games left on its schedule with Georgia Tech and Ole Miss looming.

Yes, a Sun Belt team probably won’t crash the College Football Playoff this season or maybe next year either. But look at Houston, a Group of Five team with a legitimate shot for a spot in the final four this season. They have steadily improved over the last five years and have gained national prominence after beating Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl and again this weekend when they rolled Oklahoma for a 33-23 win.

“Why can’t that be us,” Summers said. “That’s where we’re headed and that’s what we trying to do.”

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