Saturday, August 22, 2015

Five Questions: Sun Belt

Only two more Saturdays stand between us and the return of college football. Rejoice! In the meantime, satiate yourself with a quintet of questions about the Sun Belt.

1. Will the Southern Conference dominate the Sun Belt again?
The Sun Belt added four new members in 2014. Idaho and New Mexico State were former members left homeless by the dissolution of the WAC. They performed up (or down) as it were to their usual levels as second time Sun Belt members. The other two members were ‘call-ups’ from the farm system. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern moved up to the FBS from the Southern Conference. And despite the jump in competition, they did not disappoint. Appalachian State endured a rough start, beginning the year 1-5 before winning their final six games and presenting themselves as the trendy pick to win the Sun Belt in 2015. Georgia Southern was even better, going unbeaten in Sun Belt play and nearly upsetting a pair of ACC bowl teams. In fact, Georgia Southern was one of the stronger teams in Sun Belt history according to the Simple Rating System.
All together, the two newbies went 13-1 against Sun Belt opponents when not playing each other. Will the two former Southern Conference members be marquee players in the conference race once again in 2015?

2. How long will Mark Hudspeth remain in Lafayette?
Repetition is the sincerest form of flattery. Wait, no that’s not it. Your repetition precedes you. No, not it either. Anyway, repetition has become the norm for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Mark Hudspeth has been the coach for four seasons and the Cajuns have played in and won four New Orleans Bowls while finishing 9-4 four times. After no bowl appearances and a high-water mark of 6-5 as a Sun Belt member before his arrival, this is pretty damn good. The only thing missing from his resume is an outright conference title (the Cajuns shared the Sun Belt title in 2013). Before coming to the bayou, Hudspeth also enjoyed success at Division II North Alabama. If he keeps winning, how long can Lafayette hang onto him?

3. Does Trent Miles have some more third year magic up his sleeve?
Ringo Starr once sang, ‘It don’t come easy’ and that has certainly been accurate for Georgia State since they moved up to the FBS in 2013. A decade ago, the Panthers were just a gleam in the eye of an administrator in downtown Atlanta. Now, though they do play real life games, they lose most of them and attendance has been less than stellar. The Panthers have won just a single game since joining the Sun Belt, and that affair was against Abilene Christian, a school making the transition from Division II to the FCS. Head coach Trent Miles has endured inauspicious starts before. In his previous coaching stop, the Indiana State Sycamores went just 1-22 in his first two seasons before surging to 6-5 in his third and posting winning records in his fourth and fifth. A similar surge would behoove Miles this season as one win in 24 games will not get it done, particularly with the Panthers playing in a mostly empty and cavernous Georgia Dome.

4. Can you go home again?
This question is actually a year late I suppose, but oh well. Skip it if you want. Last season Idaho and New Mexico State re-upped for another tour of duty in the Sun Belt. The Vandals and Aggies were original Sun Belt members way back in 2001 (before it was cool). They left for the WAC after the 2004 season, but returned after the dissolution of the WAC and one year of football independence. I took a look back through college football history and could only find five other instances of a team leaving (or being thrown out) of an FBS conference and returning.
Arkansas State was a Big West member for two seasons, left for football independence and came back for the Big West’s funeral march. Marshall was a founding MAC member back in 1962. They were jettisoned from the conference after the 1969 season. In their first season as an independent, one of the biggest tragedies in athletics occurred. The Thundering Herd were welcomed back into the league when they moved up from the FCS in 1997. They stayed for eight years before joining Conference USA. Michigan was a member of the precursor to the Big 10, the Western Conference back in ’96, 1896 that is. They were voted out after the 1906 season, remained an independent for a little over a decade before rejoining in 1917. As far as I can recollect, they are still a member today. Most college sports fans have heard of the Missouri Valley Conference thanks to the exploits of its basketball teams over the past decade; most notably Creighton, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, and Wichita State. However, it is also an FCS football conference and its precursor was the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Nebraska was a founding member in 1907. The Huskers left after the 1918 season and returned in 1921. The conference remained the MVIAA until 1928 when it split. Six teams (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma) formed the Big 6. Four other teams (Drake, Grinnell, Oklahoma State and Washington (MO)) were joined by Creighton and formed the Missouri Valley. The Big 6, which would later become the Big 7 and finally Big 8 before joining with four members of the Southwest Conference and becoming the Big 12. Incidentally, 1928 is likely more remembered for Al Capone dancing The Charleston on top of a flag pole.
The Temple Owls were a charter Big East member in 1991, but were booted from the conference thanks to their general ineptitude after the 2004 season. After a resurgence in the MAC under Al Golden, they were invited back just in time for the final Big East season in 2012. The Owls are still a member of the Big East’s spiritual succor, the American Athletic Conference. I am only an amateur college football historian, so if you notice any teams I left out, feel free to add them in the comments section.

5. Can Neal Brown replace a legend?
Legend may be a touch of hyperbole, but as far as mid-major coaches go, Larry Blakeney was one of the best, if not the most well-known. Blakeney guided the Troy Trojans from a Division II program, to the FCS, and finally up to the FBS and eventually the Sun Belt. Despite the uptick in competition, Blakeney was able to win 178 games in 24 seasons (though like most long-tenured coaches, he did struggle in his final seasons) and lead the Trojans to five Sun Belt titles. In the last decade, how many FBS coaches have had to replace someone who spent more than two decades as the head man? I’m sure you will guess two easily, but the third may elude you.
Obviously, this screams ‘small sample size’ and ‘do not extrapolate’, but the other three gentlemen who replaced long-tenured coaches all enjoyed success.

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