With six teams currently sitting at or above .500, the 10-team Sun Belt hopes to improve upon the success of a 2011 season that saw four teams reach seven or more wins. With Ohio State, Penn State and North Carolina ineligible for this postseason, the Sun Belt could be in line for its best bowl haul in the league’s 12-year history.
The Sun Belt enjoyed three wins over BCS leagues in September – ULM’s much-publicized 34-31 overtime win over Arkansas, Western Kentucky’s 32-31 overtime defeat of Kentucky and Middle Tennessee’s 49-28 demolition of Georgia Tech. Equally important to the Sun Belt is the league’s 6-0 record against geographic rival Conference USA (the leagues share both have schools in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida). In fact, each of the league’s top six teams won a head-to-head matchup versus C-USA foes, and often in dominant fashion. The average score of the Sun Belt’s wins over Conference USA was 44-21.
Todd Berry’s Warhawks were college football’s national darlings in September with a win over Arkansas and near misses against Auburn and Baylor. ULM’s 34-31 overtime thriller over the then-No. 8 Razorbacks was the Sun Belt’s first victory over a top 10 team. Instead of succumbing to a lack of depth like many other mid-majors hoping to pull an upset, the Warhawks outscored Arkansas and Auburn by a combined 28-0 in the fourth quarter. Berry’s team ranks in the top 20 national in total offense and rushing defense; even FAU’s “Unhappy Triad” couldn’t stop ULM’s offense.
Under head coach Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky has quickly become one of the most underrated programs in the country. The Hilltoppers are 12-2 over their last 14 games; the only setbacks in that span came to No. 1 LSU in 2011 and No. 1 Alabama earlier this season. Western Kentucky played its first Sun Belt season in 2009 and didn’t win its first FBS game until 2010. Taggart’s squad toppled Kentucky on Sept. 15 and defeated Southern Miss 42-17 one week later. Oh, and by the way, had you had the foresight, you could have gotten rich off of Western’s success.
Western Kentucky has covered 14 straight. If you bet $50 on 1st game & doubled bet each time you’d be up $409,600
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) October 16, 2012
Louisiana – Lafayette’s last-second New Orleans Bowl win was one of the highlights of the 2011 bowl season. With a 4-1 (2-0 Sun Belt) start, Mark Hudsepth’s team is on its way to creating more December magic. The Ragin Cajuns’ 41-13 win over Tulane on Oct. 6 pushed their home winning streak to eight games, the sixth-longest streak in the country. ULL will look to push its overall winning streak to three and move one step closer to its second straight bowl bid tonight at North Texas (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
After suffering a season-opening upset to McNeese State, Middle Tennessee has won four of its last five while averaging more than 35 points per game during that span. Rick Stockstill’s team will hope to continue the Sun Belt’s string of upsets against the SEC at Mississippi State on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Defending conference champion Arkansas State stands at 2-1 in Sun Belt play and 4-3 overall. The Red Wolves defeated Memphis 33-28 in the second game under new head coach Gus Malzahn. Arkansas State’s next game is next Tuesday at Louisiana – Lafayette (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Larry Blakeney and Troy sit at sixth place in the league (3-3, 2-2 Sun Belt) but stand more than a puncher’s chance at bowl eligibility. With games against co-leaders Western Kentucky and Louisiana – Lafayette behind them, and games against Florida International and Florida Atlantic (a combined 2-11 on the season) up next on the schedule, consecutive wins would give the Trojans four chances to become bowl eligible for the fifth time in seven seasons.