My apologies for not doing a “Gee, Five Thoughts” column the week after the Sun Belt staked its claim as the premier conference in all of college football. I was on vacation, going to Tucson to watch Arizona play Mississippi St., then went to Las Vegas for a couple days, then to Death Valley to watch LSU play Mississippi St. in what can only be described a spiritual experience. I will try to condense the past two chaotic weekends into five thoughts.
Appalachian St. is America’s Team
Following a win in College Station against Texas A&M which led to a visit from College Gameday, it was easy to ask what the Mountaineers would do for an encore against Troy Saturday. But I’m not sure anyone expected what played out.
Through the first three games, App State has proven to must-see TV (assuming you have ESPN+ I guess). I would expect no different this weekend, as they play a James Madison team that is looking to make a statement in their new conference. If they get past the Dukes, the month of October lightens up significantly before a November chock full of conference challenges (at Coastal Carolina, at Marshall, Old Dominion, at Georgia Southern). I think App State is the best team in the Fun Belt, but if Saturday’s game is any indication, we are in for a wild ride to find out.
Who’s the best team?
Just a fortnight ago, both Houston and UCF looked like teams that could potentially run the table and challenge for a NY6 bowl bid in the AAC. Marshall, Louisiana and Air Force had similar visions before all suffering very curious losses this weekend. While none of those teams can stake a claim to a perfect season, the moniker of “Best team in the Group of 5” is still very much up for grabs. There are only three undefeated teams in the G5 – Tulane, Coastal Carolina and the aforementioned James Madison Dukes – but only the first two are even eligible for a bowl bid. Check my Twitter (@justincripe) Wednesday for my Group of 5 Top 25.
Meanwhile, in the MAC
Potentially, the best team in the Mid-American was last seen surrendering 77 points to Ohio St. That’s certainly not ideal, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably not a true reflection of Toledo’s defense. Ohio St. can do that to a lot of teams. Don’t take it personal.
The idea that the Rockets are the class of the MAC is certainly not set in stone, as long as you ignore the fact that they are 1 of 2 two teams in the conference with a winning record. (2-1 Eastern Michigan is the other after winning at Arizona St. and effectively ending the Herm Edwards Era.) The only winless team in the conference is 0-3 Buffalo, who gets a chance to change that at…Eastern Michigan. Literally every other team in the conference is 1-2. Bottom line: MACtion is going to be unpredictable as usual this year.
I might’ve been wrong about…
Look, somebody has to finish last in the very loaded Sun Belt East. And the only conference game to this point has been the one mentioned above, so it could still be anybody. And losing to North Carolina and South Carolina is respectable. But Georgia St. was supposed to get right against Charlotte heading into a Thursday night conference opener against another Carolina, Coastal. Instead, they lost 42-41 to a 49er team that was underwhelming in their own right this season.
A trendy pick to be a conference sleeper in the preseason, I still hold out hope that this team is good enough to at least make a bowl. But having one of the top rushing offenses is only effective if the defense is stout enough to keep opponents from scoring. And with roadies at App St., JMU and Marshall, winning this Thursday night is imperative. Of course, with all the chaos in the Sun Belt, don’t put it past them to do so. Worst case scenario: They overtake the 2021 Nebraska Cornhuskers as the Best 3-9 Team Of All Time.
Games to Watch This Weekend
Marshall at Troy – Both teams are looking to rebound from disappointing losses last week. Enough has been said about Troy’s loss, but Marshall followed up their win in South Bend by losing in Bowling Green in overtime 34-31. Figure that one out. Neither team wants to head into October on a two-game skid, so tune into NFL Network (seriously) to find out who wins this likely defensive battle.
UNLV at Utah St. – Amidst all the unbelievable games we have seen so far, perhaps the most unbelievableist was Utah St. – your defending Mountain West Champion – losing 35-7 to Weber St. Sept. 10. That is a thing that happened. I have no idea how, so I refuse to believe it is a reflection of the Aggie team as a whole. A more accurate test may come this weekend against an improving Rebel team looking to make a statement in the MWC.
Arkansas St. at Old Dominion – JMU/App St. and Marshall/Troy will garner more attention, but this under-the-radar conference game will be vital to giving either team confidence heading into the heart of their schedule. ODU has looked a little inconsistent, beating Virginia Tech and losing to Virginia on a last second field goal behind a stout defense, then got handily defeated by a good East Carolina team. This conference home opener against a Red Wolves team we don’t know much about after a thumping of Grambling and sound defeats by Ohio St. and Memphis will jumpstart one of these teams. An ASU win may make them a factor in the significantly weaker Sun Belt West.
Ball St. at Georgia Southern – I have no idea why they are playing, I have no idea if either team is truly good. (One would think GSU is, but that win against Nebraska is looking worse and worse by the day.) But this feels like one of those games that could end 51-48 or something like that. While its footprint in the landscape of college football will be small, the entertainment value could be quite high.