Unlike many so-called sports authorities (FOX Sports, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sportsline), Paul Myerberg of USA TODAY Sports does an outstanding job of breaking down Group of Five teams and conferences. He puts in the research, and he always delivers a thoughtful analysis. The man is a national treasure.
This year, Mr. Myerberg pulls no punches when critiquing the Sun Belt. While praising the abilities of the conference’s upper echelon (Appalachian State, Arkansas State and Georgia Southern) he savages the Sun Belt’s failure to deliver significant out-of-conference wins:
A year ago, for example, the Sun Belt’s top three finishers went a combined 3-6 in nonconference play, with wins against Wyoming, Old Dominion and Western Michigan. Arkansas State, the eventual conference champion, lost to Southern California, Missouri and Toledo by a combined 86 points.
This won’t change in 2016…
Damn! Mr. Myerberg is tough, but he’s fair. Consider, the Sun Belt was a miserable 13-34 out of conference in 2015. Of those victories, only 4 came at the expense of FBS competition. Furthermore, the Sun Belt went a sterling 0-18 against Power Five programs.
The Sun Belt simply must bring the sweet, sweet #SunBeltHeat in 2016.
It will have some juicy opportunities. If the Sun Belt wants to get back in Paul Myerberg’s good graces in 2016, the conference must 1) take care of business against peer conference opponents, and 2) punk a couple of P5s. These are the eleven games the Sun Belt must win to complete the mission.
Toledo at Arkansas State, September 2
The Red Wolves have a sweetheart date with Auburn and former A-State head coach Gus Malzahn in Week 2, but it doesn’t mean a pile of crap unless the Red Wolves can finally dispatch the Rockets on opening night. Toledo, picked to place 2nd in the MAC West, has won the last two meetings against Arkansas State, and frankly it’s getting old. Now Coach Blake Anderson is looking for terrible revenge with the most talented squad he’s had in his three years in Jonesboro.
Will Settle For: A win at Utah State, Sept 17
Boise State at Louisiana, September 3
The Broncos trundle from the nation’s arctic circle to face a Ragin Cajuns team that is fully acclimated to merciless Louisiana heat and humidity. In addition, Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin likely remembers the last time he faced the Cajuns, when Mark Hudspeth destroyed him like a protein shake. This is the kind of high-profile peer-to-peer matchup the Sun Belt must win, especially at home against an opponent who will be hallucinating from dehydration by the third quarter.
Will Settle For: A win at Tulane, Sept 24
Miami at Appalachian State, September 17
The Mountaineers have sold out Kidd Brewer for its big dust-up with the Hurricanes, and it would be poor form to let a big crowd down. Everyone in Miami is pumped about Mark Richt returning to south Florida. A loss to App, picked to finish first in the Sun Belt and lead by one of the nation’s stoutest defense, should end that adorable honeymoon early.
Will Settle For: A win at Akron, Sept 24
Troy at Southern Miss, September 17
Beating CUSA’s West Division favorites is a tall order for 2nd year coach Neal Brown and his Trojans, but high expectations are given to those tough enough to meet them. And Troy did play the Sun Belt tough in 2015. Now it’s time to take that grit out-of-conference and give the Golden Eagles a blast of #SunBeltHeat.
Will Settle For: A win against UMass, Oct 5
Georgia State at Air Force, September 10
The Panthers host Ball State to open the year, but the contest against Air Force is at Falcons Stadium, deepening the degree of difficulty. Myerberg declared that the Sun Belt level of play was behind the Mountain West, and a Panther’s victory would do well to prove him wrong. PROVE HIM WRONG, GEORGIA STATE! PROVE HIM SOOOOOO WRONG!
Will Settle For: A win against Ball State, Sept 2
Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech, October 5
In-state rivalries are the best kind of rivalries. Last year, it took Georgia overtime to put away the Eagles at Sanford Stadium. Georgia Southern will have that bitter taste in their mouths when they line up against Georgia Tech, who’s predicted to finish 6th in the ACC Coastal division. The Yellow Jackets are ripe for plunder, and the Eagles would like nothing better than to crown itself King of the Peach State.
Will Settle For: A win at Ole Miss, Nov 5 (no pressure)
Houston at Texas State, September 24
Texas State has plenty of in-state rivals to choose from, none hotter than Houston, currently the Group of Five’s favorite Kardashian. Not without good reason. The Cougars are picked to destroy the American (first by butchering all opponents on the field, then by imploding the conference after jumping to the Big 12). The Bobcats didn’t have much luck against Tom Herman’s crew in Houston. Perhaps a relocation to Texas State’s home turf in San Marcos will create an advantage.
Will Settle For: A win at Arkansas, Sept 17
ULM at Oklahoma, September 10
The Warhawks have one job in the Sun Belt, and that’s to deliver the conference’s most stunning upset of all time. Maybe that’s unfair, but life is tough. Besides, it’s not as if ULM hasn’t any practice collecting Ws for games where they were only supposed to collect a check. Yes, bussing into Norman to face a national champion contender is a considerable test for ULM’s 1st year head coach Matt Viator, who is attempting to pull the Warhawks from the vice-like grip of a four-year funk. No excuse, though. Sun Belt needs you, Warhawks.
Will Settle For: A win at Auburn, Oct 1 (Sorry)
Idaho at Washington State, September 10
Paul Petrino gets to lead his squad to back-to-back dates with Washington and Washington State this year, but it’s against the latter that the Vandals have the best shot to bring honor to the Sun Belt. The Cougars are picked to finish 4th in the PAC12 North, and Idaho is a sneaky good Sun Belt team with a bank vault of senior-level experience. Heck, Petrino Rage® alone may be enough to spark an upset in Pullman.
Will Settle For: A win at UNLV, Sept 24
San Diego State at South Alabama, October 2
Last year, the Jaguars sauntered into sunny San Diego and ate the Aztec’s entire wheel of cheese. Now the MWC West Division favorite flies into Mobile looking for some payback. Too bad, Aztecs! Your cheese belongs to Joey Jones, now. And besides, Myerberg says the Mountain West is better than the Sun Belt so now the Jags have to win this game. No mercy.
Will Settle For: A win at Mississippi State, Sept 3
New Mexico at New Mexico State, September 10
In a game that is definitely not for old Mexicans, the Rio Grande Rivalry harkens all the way back to 1894. For more than 100 years, the Lobos have flat-out kicked the Aggies’ ass, leading the series 70–31–5. New Mexico State hasn’t trumped its Mountain West cousin since 2011. This year, Aggies head coach Doug Martin and pre-season offensive POY Larry Rose III host the Lobos at Los Cruces, giving them a home-stadium edge over the program predicted to finish next-to-last in the MWC Mountain Division.
Will Settle For: A win against Kentucky, Sept 17