Even the father of football in the Sun Belt Conference says, “You can’t get there from here,” when discussing his league’s first ESPN College GameDay host site during a full weekend of games.
“But it’s a beautiful place,” former Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters told OutKick this week. “It is a special part of the world. And the people are so friendly.”
GameDay, the iconic pregame show that started in 1987, is broadcasting live Saturday from Boone, North Carolina, a town of 19,000 nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, for the first time from 9 a.m. eastern until noon.
It’s Been A Long Time
The Sun Belt, which has played football only since 2001, first had a member host GameDay on Dec. 5, 2020, in the abbreviated and team-shortened COVID season when the show went to Conway, S.C., as No. 14 Coastal Carolina hosted No. 8 Brigham Young and won 22-17.
Boone is named after pioneer Daniel Boone as he liked to hunt in the area back in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Since 1899, Boone has been the home of Appalachian State University.
Since 1928, Appalachian State has been playing football as the Mountaineers, who won three straight Football Championship Series (FCS) national championships from 2005-07. They also upset No. 5 and 33-point favorite Michigan of the upper class Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), 34-32, on Sept. 1, 2007, in the Big House at Michigan, just for fun. In 2014, Appalachian State moved up to the FBS as a member of the Sun Belt.
App State A Deserving Host
And last Saturday, Appalachian State upset No. 6 and 18-point favorite Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, 17-14. Which brings us back to Boone in northwest North Carolina. GameDay had planned to broadcast from College Station for No. 6 Texas A&M (2-0) and No. 13 Miami (2-0). But Texas A&M is now 1-1 and ranked 24th.
Needless to say, GameDay audibled out of College Station and headed for the mountains for App State (1-1) vs. Troy (1-1), which kick off at 3:30 p.m. eastern on ESPN+.
“Appalachian State is deep in the mountains,” Waters said.
And you literally can’t get there from here, or anywhere, by plane. There is no airport in Boone, so many fly to the Hickory Regional Airport 44 miles away and drive in.
“Yes, it was a surprise when GameDay picked us,” Appalachian State sports information director Joey Jones said. “Typically, they have a big match-up. Us playing Troy is not necessarily one of those. This definitely came out of left field.”
So did last Saturday.
Last Weekend Was Upset Saturday
Sept. 10, 2022, will live in infamy for No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 8 Notre Dame and Nebraska and as the day the earth was stood still by the Sun … Belt. It will live perhaps forever as a watershed moment for the Sun Belt Conference, which for most of its history looked like it could never get there from what here was until the the dawn of this century.
Marshall, a 21-point underdog from the Sun Belt, upset the Fighting Irish, 26-21, in South Bend, Indiana, Saturday, and fellow member Georgia Southern, a 23-point underdog, won 45-42 at Nebraska. Lucky thing, App State happened to be the only one of those three to have a home game this week, or Marshall or Georgia Southern might be hosting GameDay.
While Texas A&M lost its GameDay host site and the priceless prestige and media attention all that entails to the Sun Belt, Nebraska coach Scott Frost lost his job the next day. Could he soon be coaching in the Sun Belt?
Saturday Was Pay Day
In addition to the wins, App State, Marshall and Georgia Southern also made significant additions to their money Belts in road game guarantees. App State received $1.5 million from A&M, Marshall got $1.25 from Notre Dame, and Georgia Southern got $1.42 million from Nebraska.
Yes, it was the day the Fun Belt said right back at you to the big boys. Fan bases from the SEC used to call their Sun Belt neighbors the “Fun Belt” because it meant easy rent-a-wins – you know, like the “Fun Girls” from Mayberry neighbor Mount Pilot, N.C., for Andy and Barney in the Andy Griffith Show.
“You don’t have to do anything other than look back at the scoreboard the last week in college football to understand that this game doesn’t care who you are and where you’re ranked and what conference you’re in,” said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, whose Vols are 47.5-point favorites over Akron on Saturday. “You better prepare the right way.”
That is Alabama coach Nick Saban’s plan. He detests being asked about point spreads.
“What does it mean to be favored by 21 points?’ he asked after nearly losing as a 21-point favorite at Texas last week before winning 20-19 on a 33-yard field goal with 10 seconds left. “Well, there were two teams that I know of – maybe more, I don’t know – that were favored by about the same amount that actually got beat Saturday. So, I guess it doesn’t mean anything. And that’s why we have to play the games.”
Saban’s No. 2 Crimson Tide (2-0), which was No. 1 entering the Texas game, will host Sun Belt member Louisiana-Monroe (1-0) at 4 p.m. Saturday on the SEC Network. Alabama is favored by 49.5 points, but Saban is ignoring that. He lost to 25-point underdog ULM, 21-14, on Nov. 17, 2007, in his first season as Alabama’s coach.
“It means the people favoring you either don’t know what they’re talking about or the players playing get affected by that,” Saban said. “Neither one of them are good.”
The Sun Belt was not the only league catching lightning in a bottle on Saturday. The Pacific 12 Conference, which is basically sliding into the ocean with the impending exits of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten by 2024, enjoyed possibly a last hurrah. Washington State, a 17.5 point underdog from the Pac-12, beat No. 19 Wisconsin of the Big Ten, 17-14.
Sun Belt Made Plenty Of Noise
Sept. 10, 2022, was the first day that four teams favored by 17 points or more lost on the same day since college football was split into Division I and Division I-AA schools in 1978. (Those two division titles were changed to FBS and FCS in 2006.)
But most of the fun was clearly in the Sun Belt, which was mostly a basketball league from 1976 up until adding football in 2001.
“People laughed at us when we talked about getting football in the 1990s,” said Tom Burnett, an associate commissioner in the Sun Belt through most of the 1990s. “It took a while to be taken seriously.”
There was incremental progress throughout the early 2000s. On Saturday, the Sun Belt became the first non-Power Five conference (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) to defeat two top 10 teams on the same day since Sept. 20, 2003. On that day, Marshall and Toledo of the Mid-American Conference, at the time, beat No. 6 Kansas State, 27-20, and No. 9 Pittsburgh, 35-31, respectively.
“It was incredible,” Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said this week in a phone interview. “And the great thing I saw in all three games was that our teams matched up well up front, in the trenches. This was no fluke.”
That was particularly true in College Station as App State’s offensive line often manhandled Texas A&M’s defensive line. The Mountaineers outgained the Aggies, 315 yards to 180, outrushed them 181 to 83, converted 9 of 20 third downs to 2 of 8 and finished with 22 first downs to nine.
App State old schooled A&M to death with an 11-play, 62-yard drive over six minutes and 22 seconds for a touchdown and 14-7 lead in the third quarter, then drove 63 yards in 18 plays over nearly 10 minutes for the game-winning field goal. That last drive averaged just 3.5 yards a play, which resembled water torture to A&M defensive back Antonio Johnson.
“They kept pushing the piles,” he said, and he apparently had a good view. “We always talk about it’s a game of inches, and it was from first down when they got two or three yards. That just made third and fourth down that much easier for them.”
Gill attended Florida International’s 41-12 loss at Texas State in San Marcos last Saturday, but he monitored Marshall’s and Appalachian State’s wins via the radio. While driving back to San Antonio, he listened to Georgia Southern’s win at Nebraska that night.
“It was very exciting,” Gill said. “We all know what great football we have in the Sun Belt. That’s what I’ve been telling people. Hopefully, they know more about us now. Last weekend is what we do all this work for. It’s what we live for.”
Marshall (2-0) and App State (1-1 with a 63-61 loss to North Carolina) did not get ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll, but they were at the top of the “others receiving votes” category with 85 and 80, respectively, on Sunday.
“The polls matter at the end of the season,” Gill said. “If we keep winning those things will come.”
Until then, there is GameDay.
“It’s just priceless exposure,” Gill said. “It’s invaluable for the league and for App State – infinitely priceless. I don’t know if I can put a price on it. It’s a reward for how the conference has played the last several years.”
Sun Belt upsets are not new.
In 2020, Louisiana and coach Billy Napier – now in his first year as Florida’s coach – upset 17-point favorite and No. 23 Iowa State, 31-14, on the road. In 2019, Georgia State won at 24-point favorite Tennessee, 38-30, for its first win over a Power Five school after 11 straight losses.
In 2017, Troy defeated 20-point favorite LSU, 24-21, in feared Tiger Stadium just two seasons before the Tigers won the national title. In 2016, South Alabama beat 30-point favorite Mississippi State, 21-20, after the Jaguars had just joined the FBS in 2013 and had only started playing football in 2009.
But there has never been a Sun Belt Saturday like last Saturday.
How Far They’ve Come
“Who would’ve thought? It was very rewarding because we always thought we could get there,” said Waters, who was Sun Belt commissioner from 1999-2012.
“If you don’t have a ton of money, it takes longer to get there,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of calls the last few days from some of the former athletic directors around the Sun Belt who took a lot of pride in the league. We’re all happy for the league.”
The Sun Belt started as a basketball league in Tampa, Florida, with six teams in 1976 – University of New Orleans, South Alabama, Georgia State, Jacksonville University, North Carolina-Charlotte and South Florida. After headquartering in New Orleans for decades, today it has 14 – Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, James Madison, Marshall, App State, Old Dominion and Georgia State in Group A, and Louisiana, South Alabama, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Texas State, Troy and Southern Mississippi in Group B.
“You can’t help but be very proud,” said Burnett, who became commissioner of the Southland Conference in 2003 after getting Sun Belt football on its way along with Waters. “Back in the ’90s, we never dreamt we could have this kind of weekend in football.”
But the Sun Belt, by definition, has always been where the talent is.
Location, Location, Location
“We always knew we were in the areas where football is big and where there is great recruiting – Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama,” Waters, a native of Montgomery who is retired in Tuscaloosa, said. “But with those fan bases, you have to win. And we’re winning.”
And there are two more major non-conference games on Saturday involving the Sun Belt. Texas State (1-1) is at No. 17 and 30-point favorite Baylor at noon on FS1, and South Alabama (2-0) plays at 15.5-point favorite UCLA (2-0) at 2 p.m. on the Pac-12 Network. Could Texas State and South Alabama be motivated by what their brethren did last week?
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Gill said. “Another Sun Belt team can say, ‘Why not us? We can do that, too.'”
South Alabama coach Kane Wommack was asked if the wins by App State, Georgia Southern and Marshall can motivate his team.
“Belief is something that Disney sports movies are made of, right? Expecting to be in big moments is what we’re going to be more focused on,” he said. “But expectation is more powerful than belief. Our best is good enough to go compete against anybody I see on our schedule.”
And Wommack almost pulled it off. South Alabama fell to UCLA Saturday, 32-31.
Disney sure could play in the Fun Belt. It did last week.