It certainly wasn't top of mind, but you have to believe it factored in somewhere. After the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the MAC and the Mountain West dropped out of this fall season, the remaining six conferences had more and more to gain by staying in. That's especially true for the remaining Group of 3 leagues -- the American, Conference USA, and the Sun Belt.
ESPN still has programming hours to fill, and a certain number of games are destined to air on SEC and ACC networks. That means the Group of 3 had a priceless opportunity to bask in a level of exposure only made possible by a once-a-century pandemic that knocked 40 percent of FBS offline.
Last week gave us two entertaining games between a pair of Sun Belt teams battling two 10-win American teams, though ultimately they battled in defeat.
This week, though, there was no doubt. Week 2 belonged to the Sun Belt.
Rage on, Cajuns
Every single college football team has been through it this offseason. A pandemic that nearly canceled the entire season, and a summer of social discontent that could have easily gone sideways for any program in the wrong hands. That was actually the easy stuff for Louisiana-Lafayette.
Offensive line coach D.J. Looney died of a heart attack, at age 31, on Aug. 1. Hurricane Laura ripped through southwest Louisiana four weeks later.
So of course they went out and earned one of the biggest wins in program history in the first game of this strange season.
The Cajuns pitched a second half shutout to rally from a 14-7 halftime deficit into a no-doubt-about-it 31-14 win over No. 23 Iowa State, thereby securing the first road victory over an AP Top 25 team in program history.
Patrick Toney's defense harassed Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy into the worst game of his career -- 16-of-35 for just 145 yards with no scores and a pick, a career-low 74.8 rating. Robby Discher's special teams took a punt and a kickoff back for touchdowns, a 95-yard kickoff return that knotted the game at 7-7 and an 83-yard punt return that gave UL a 24-14 lead with 13:58 to play. And Rob Sale's offense added the exclamation point with a 2-yard run on 4th-and-goal to make it 31-14 with 10 seconds left.
"Things like that don't happen unless you've got exceptional people," an emotional Billy Napier told ESPN afterward. "We've been given an opportunity to go get incredible people, we've got the resources that we need to compete. Our coaches have done a terrific job, they've invested in our players as people. We started there, and football comes after that. I'm proud of those young men, I'm proud of our staff.
"You talk about COVID-19 and these social issues and the hurricane, but when you lose one of your family members, one of your team members, it's a significant event. I hope my man DJ's up there smiling right now," Napier said.
A-State > K-State
Arkansas State's trip to Kansas State started in disaster. The Red Wolves accepted the ball to open the game, went three-and-out, then had their first punt of the season blocked. Kansas State scored two plays later.
From that point on, the Wolves pushed the Wildcats around.
Arkansas State out-scored their hosts 35-24 over the game's final 58 and a half minutes. A-State out-passed K-State by 47 yards and and out-rushed them by 68, limiting Kansas State to just 2.3 yards per carry.
So physically dominant were the Red Wolves that they overcame a litany of mental and physical errors -- the aforementioned blocked punt; an interception; a fumble at K-State's 9-yard line; a missed field goal; a roughing the passer that turned a 3rd-and-33 into a 1st-and-10; and a pass interference that turned a 4th-and-8 into a 1st-and-10. The latter two extended in drives that led to 10 total points; in all, A-State handed K-State around 20 points through various gaffes and gags and still won the game.
Arkansas State won both lines of scrimmage and they had the best player on the field in wide receiver Jonathan Adams, Jr., who caught eight balls for 98 yards and three touchdowns.
Coastal Carolina goes coast-to-coast against Kansas
Coastal Carolina went to Kansas a year ago, beat KU 12-7, then did this afterward.
Bulletin board material? Apparently not.
Coastal went back to Lawrence on Saturday night and beat the Jayhawks even worse the second time around.
Jamey Chadwell's team completed the Sun Belt's sweep of the Big 12 with a 35-23 win that wasn't as close as the final score. The Chanticleers opened the game by forcing consecutive KU turnovers and turned both into touchdowns, then added two more in the second quarter to take a 28-3 lead to the locker room.
KU pulled within 28-17 and 35-23 but never seriously threatened in a 38-23 loss, dooming Kansas to a sixth consecutive season with a loss to a Group of 5 or FCS team. And Fox Sports 1 made them stay up until 1 a.m. local time to do it.
Then they got to do this afterward.
Sun Belt teams also played the two most entertaining games of the day
Playing with their backup quarterback and down 24-7 at the half, Texas State appeared left for dead on their home field. Instead, they were just laying the prologue for the best game of this young season.
Trailing 34-28 with 5:16 to play, Texas State appeared to have a go-ahead score when Tyler Vitt found Marcell Barbee for a 39-yard touchdown, but replay ruled his right foot out of bounds. The Bobcats continued driving and, on 4th-and-6, Vitt's pass was tipped, picked and returned 81 yards for what appeared to be a game-winning pick six for UTSA.
Texas State quickly answered, needing just six snaps and 93 ticks to move 75 yards and pull within 41-35. The Bobcat defense then stepped up and forced a three-and-out, giving their offense 76 seconds to go 90 or so yards... until Jeremiah Haydel took matters into his own hands.
Down by 13 with 3:24 to go, Texas State had tied the game -- and that's all they would do, because Alan Orona missed the PAT.
UTSA took the ball first in overtime and immediately found itself in 3rd-and-10, but the Roadrunners found pay dirt when Joshua Cephus pulled in this ridiculous grab.
Texas State answered with a score, but Orona missed a 20-yard field goal in the top of the second overtime and UTSA won it, 51-48, with a 29-yard boot in the bottom of the frame.
On the other end of the conference footprint, Georgia Southern appeared headed for an "Only in 2020" type of loss, when the Eagles, playing without 33 players due to covid and non-covid reasons, fell behind FCS Campbell 20-6 in the third quarter.
But the Eagles rallied for three straight scores, taking a 27-20 lead on a 41-yard Shai Werts run with 6:42 to play.
Campbell answered with a 64-yard scoring drive and, rather than kick an extra point and play for overtime, Camels head coach Mike Minter elected to go for two and the win with 15 seconds left in the game. He stuck with that decision even after Campbell were flagged for a procedure penalty before the 2-point try. Georgia Southern forced an incompletion on the super-sized 2-point play, then benefitted from an illegal block penalty that negated a Campbell recovery of the ensuing onside kick.
The Eagles recovered the second onside kick, hanging on to win by their hair on their chinny, chin, chins.
In this season of reduced competition, Saturday gave the Sun Belt permission to dream big.
If Cincinnati can draw votes as a dark horse Playoff contender, why can't App State? Why can't ULL? How many other teams this season are going to go on the road and beat a ranked team by 17 points?
Wins by Louisiana, Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina were upsets in Las Vegas, but not on the field. The better team won all three games -- in 12 quarters between the three games, Sun Belt teams won or tied 10 of them.
The Playoff dream will shake itself out as the season goes along; in the here and now, Saturday validated the Sun Belt's decision to press on where others pulled back. When was the last time this conference took center stage on a college football Saturday? When is this going to happen again? And was there a more fitting image to close the day than this?
FRIESThe Super 16. The Nuggets is once again honored to.... actually, there is no Super 16 poll this year. At least not right now. Still, we'll rank the top 16 teams in the country this week -- which feels like an appropriate number for this season.
- Notre Dame
- Oklahoma State
- Texas A&M
- North Carolina
Odds and Ends
a. We knew Florida State was going to be a work in progress in Year 1 under Mike Norvell, but Georgia Tech was supposed to be a bigger work in progress in Year 2 under Geoff Collins. The Yellow Jackets, picked to finish 15th of 15 in the ACC, went to Tallahassee and beat the 'Noles, 16-13. And that's after having two field goals and an extra point blocked and throwing two picks in FSU territory.
Florida State's first two drives totaled 113 yards and 10 points; their final nine resulted in 175 yards and three points.
We're going to continue seeing screenshots like this until Norvell and company get the offensive line fixed, which has been an issue in Tallahassee since the end of the Jimbo Fisher era.
b. Georgia Tech, though, is showing signs of life in modernizing its offense in the post-flexbone era.
c. Texas A&M doesn't play for two more weeks, but Saturday was a good one for the Aggies. Never a bad thing to get these stats wiped off the record books.
d. Spencer Rattler's Oklahoma debut: 14-of-17 for 290 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-0 drubbing of Missouri State. In the process he became the first non-transfer to win a game at quarterback for OU since Nov. 22, 2014, when OU signee Trevor Knight led the Sooners to a 44-7 win over Kansas. It was the fourth time in the Lincoln Riley era an OU quarterback has thrown more touchdowns than incompletions.
Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts all did it once; Rattler did it in his first game.
e. Good night for new coaches named Jeff. Jeff Traylor won his first collegiate game at UTSA, and Jeff Scott led South Florida to a 27-6 defeat of The Citadel in his first game as a head coach.
f. North Carolina began the season at No. 18 in the AP poll. The last time the Heels started higher than that? 1998, when Carl Torbush was coaching all of Mack Brown's players. This high-expectation season began slowly, as UNC held just a 10-6 lead through three quarters before busting free for a 31-6 win.
g. Notre Dame looked similarly sluggish in its 27-13 win over Duke.
g. The Duke game was Notre Dame's 1,287th in program history, and its first conference game. They are the only team in NCAA history (all divisions) to never lose a conference game.
h. There's nothing in football more terrifying when it happens to your team, and more hilarious when it happens to anyone else, than a punting disaster. The college football gods gave us two of them.
The latter was scored as a minus-10 yard punt and a 0-yard touchdown return.
h. Sam Ehlinger threw for 429 yards and five touchdowns by halftime, and seven different Longhorns caught touchdown passes in a 59-3 whipping of UTEP.
i. Texas Tech surrendered 572 passing yards on 51 attempts in a 35-33 survival of Houston Baptist. Next up for Tech: vs. Texas on Sept. 26.
j. Pitt trounced Austin Peay, 55-0.
k. A word of advice for all coaches: Go for two when up 12 points. The reward (being up 14) far, far outweighs the risk of maintaining a 12-point lead. Kicking the extra point (to go up 13) still puts you behind if the opponent scores two straight touchdowns, and there's zero functional difference in being down two points versus one.
The pick-six that turned UTSA's win over Texas State was completed by Rashad Wisdom. His younger bother Bryce, a high school football player in San Antonio, died of cancer in July at age 17.
Rashad's play won't bring Bryce back, of course it won't. But it brought joy to a family that needed and deserved it, and we're all grateful they had the opportunity.