In its young history, the Sun Belt Championship game was finally played between two teams that had yet to play in the contest.
Although Coastal Carolina had made it to the title game in 2020, the Chanticleers weren’t able to compete after the game was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. So, this was the first SB title they had a shot at. Except Troy squandered those aspirations with a 19-point victory.
Yes, this was also Troy’s first appearance in the SB championship game. However, the Trojans secured their seventh conference title with the win and their first since 2017. Those seven championships now lead the league.
The conference established the championship game in 2018. Prior, the regular season champion took the award. The other three games that have been played since 2018 have all featured Appalachian State vs. Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, those teams were selected to finish atop their divisions in the preseason media poll.
Troy was selected to finish third in the Sun Belt West. Preseason college football betting odds had it at +1000 to win the league.
Behind their dominant defense, the Trojans took the league by storm in Jon Sumrall’s first year at the helm. They went on an 11-game win streak after losing on a Hail Mary to App State in Week 3. They capped the season with a win over UTSA in the Cure Bowl.
Although the Trojans have been here before, their emergence was somewhat reminiscent of Coastal’s in 2020. The Chants may have been crowned that year if the game was played. But it wasn’t, and they weren’t. And, unfortunately, they weren’t crowned this year either.
CC started the season on a six-game win streak, but it never seemed like they were as solid as they had been the past two seasons. Three of those six games featured one-score wins in games where they were favored by 33, 10, and 13.
Good teams win, and great teams cover.
The Chants played better down the stretch before going on a three-game skid that included a 47-7 loss to James Madison and a 53-29 loss to East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
In its first season in the FBS and part of the SB, JMU immediately proved it belonged. In fact, the Dukes should have been playing the Trojans for the title if it weren’t for the NCAA’s transition rules.
With the Dukes’ win over CC, they secured the top spot in the Sun Belt East after being selected to finish sixth. This was ignited by a 5-0 and 3-0 start in league play before suffering its first-ever SB conference loss to Georgia Southern. The 5-0 start even landed JMU in the AP top 25. Historic.
Can they repeat the season they had? Time will tell, but expectations are already high:
Aside from the loss to Georgia Southern, the Dukes’ other conference loss came to Marshall.
Also in its first season as part of the league, it didn’t take long for Marshall to become a contender. On their way to a 9-4 record, the Thundering Herd knocked off then-ranked No. 8 Notre Dame in Week 2 and finished the season on a five-game win streak that helped them go 5-3 in conference play. It was a huge turnaround after sitting 1-3 in the SB in late October.
The three league losses came to quality teams — CC, Troy, and Louisiana.
While it may have been a down year for Louisiana, you still can’t count out the Ragin’ Cajuns. We already mentioned their perennial success in the conference. ULL struggled against the better teams in the league this season, with three of their four conference wins coming against teams that finished under .500 in the league. Three of its conference losses were to teams that finished above .500.
One of those was to South Alabama. And what a year it was for the Jaguars.
Perhaps this was a breakout season for South Alabama, who eclipsed its program record for wins in a season after going 10-3. Its only conference loss was a 10-6 defeat to Troy. However, it wasn’t necessarily unexpected, with the Jaguars being selected to finish second in the SBW.
Still, they’ve set themselves up to become another contender going forward.
This will be one of the more interesting Group of Five leagues to watch in the future. Southern Miss was competitive, going 4-4 in the league. And although it was its worst finish since before joining the FBS in 2014, I think we can still expect App State in the mix.
With the addition of JMU, the bounceback from Troy, and the ascension of Coastal and South Alabama, can the Sun Belt soon separate itself as the top G5 league in the country?
The new-look AAC might have something to say about that, but the new-look SB might give The American a run for its money.