I have heard ESPN announcers referring to the Sun Belt Conference as the “Fun Belt” over the last few weekends, and it’s interesting how those conferences perceived as the “worst” 2 FBS leagues are given almost-childish and demeaning nicknames. (For those who don’t recall, Pardon the Interruption has a weekly “MAC-tion” prediction late in the season in which Michael Wilbon makes fun of schools like Miami-OH and Kent State.)
This pundit does not view the MAC as a bottom-tier Group-of-5 conference. The prominence of programs like Northern Illinois and Toledo have at least kept the Mid-American Conference in rank with C-USA, a league in which a start-up (or restart-up) team recently lifted the hardware (UAB) and in which high-profile experiments such as Lane Kiffin’s import-a-roster gambit (at FAU) have belly-flopped.
But the Sun Belt has had few Top 25 contenders to speak of and little chance at the New Year’s Six in recent years. In fact, it’s safe to say that no program in the Sun Belt has ever played in what modern fans would consider a “major” bowl game.
What the “Fun” Belt needs is a marquee school that goes on long winning streaks and attracts a national fan base. The Troy Trojans have been pretty good at times over the last 5-10 years, occasionally threatening to become the “Boise State of the East.”
But instead it’s been Central Florida and (more-recently) Sun Belt-rival Appalachian State taking up that mantle. Troy is presently mired at 2-3 after an opening slate that has included losses to Missouri and Arkansas State.
That hasn’t stopped Las Vegas from installing the Trojans as 15-point favorites when the 1-4 South Alabama Jaguars come calling this Wednesday night.
Who: South Alabama Jaguars at Troy Trojans
When: Wednesday, October 16th, 8 PM EST
Where: Veterans Memorial Stadium, Troy, AL
Lines: USA (+15) at Troy (-15) / O/U Total: (55)
It’s not like anything altogether drastic has happened to Troy. The Trojans are still better than the bottom tiers of the FBS and the FCS, whipping Campbell University and Akron to prove it in ’19. But there’s been no breakthrough against the Power-5 under new skipper Chip Lindsay, as evidenced by a 5-touchdown loss to Missouri.
What’s more troubling is that Troy is not winning close games. Defense, special teams, penalty count – all the facets in which the Trojans have traditionally out-paced other Sun Belt schools have gone a’glimmer with the dropped outcomes vs Ark State and Southern Miss. Troy allowed 500+ yards passing from 2 Golden Eagle quarterbacks in the 47-42 loss at Veterans Memorial Stadium in mid-September.
The pattern continued 2 weeks later as the Alabama program lost to the visiting Red Wolves 50-43 in another home game, with guest QB Layne Hatcher’s accuracy out-pacing that of Troy starter Kaleb Barker.
Barker’s injury woes are back following the blow-out loss to Missouri:
Troy quarterback Kaleb Barker is “questionable” for the Oct. 16 “Battle for the Belt” vs. South Alabama due to an undisclosed injury, Trojans head coach Chip Lindsey said Tuesday. Barker was apparently injured late in the first half of Troy’s 42-10 loss to Missouri last Saturday. Redshirt freshman Gunnar Watson finished the game at quarterback for the Trojans. Barker, a senior from Decatur, is 123-for-194 for 1,476 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions this season. He missed the last seven games of 2018 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn knee ligament suffered vs. Georgia State.
Lindsey declined to go into specifics about the nature of Barker’s injury, or even when it occurred. He was removed from the game for Troy’s final possession of the first half, by which time the Trojans trailed 42-7. After replacing Barker at quarterback, Watson went 5-for-9 for 58 yards passing and led a field goal drive in the third quarter. The Butler, Ga., native also saw mop-up duty in wins over Campbell and Akron earlier this season.
The “Battle for the Belt” takes place at 7 p.m. Oct. 16 (a Wednesday) at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Troy. The game will be televised live by ESPN2.
Meanwhile the visiting Jaguars have only 1 victory in 6 games, but are 3-3 against the point spread and recently played their best 60 minutes (and change) of the season in a 20-17 overtime defeat to Georgia Southern.
USA’s defense held the dangerous Shai Werts to less than 200 combined rushing and passing yards while QB Cephus Johnson effectively tossed the ball downfield to WR Kawaan Baker.
To pull of an upset on Wednesday, it will be imperative for the Jags to get pressure on either the backup or the wounded starting QB of Troy. Undersized linebacker Nick Mobley has been causing problems for opposing offensive lines and blocking backs, but Troy’s pass blocking doesn’t appear to be that horrible…yet.
Troy seems like a strong match-up against South Alabama, with more team speed, decent blocking, and at least a veteran QB if the training staff can get Barker healthy on a short week.
But the best predictions look obvious in hindsight, and I’m thinking that the proud Trojans might have taken a step down in overall quality under a new HC.
Nobody wants to admit it during the honeymoon phase…which may have already ended between Weeks 4 and 7.
Take USA to cover (+15).