Give some love to the Sun Belt

Give some love to the Sun Belt

Give some love to the Sun Belt
September 18th, 2007

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There were more important games played this past week than Oklahoma State at Troy and Minnesota at Florida Atlantic, such as Kentucky topping Louisville and USC demolishing Nebraska, but the number one story comes from the stepchild conference known as the Sun Belt.

The league was a laughing stock two years ago, winning just one of 27 non- conference FBS games (a 17-15 victory by Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt) with only eight covers amounting to a 30% winning percentage.

The eight teams rebounded slightly last season, covering 16 of 37 for 43%. More importantly, they sported an improved 6-31 SU non-conference FBS record with three wins over Conference USA members - Houston, SMU and Memphis. Nonetheless, this past week provided the platform for the most significant set of games in the league's seven-year history.

Not only did Arkansas State tear down SMU, 45-28, but Florida Atlantic defeated Big Ten affiliate Minnesota, 42-39, and Troy wiped out the Big 12's Oklahoma State, 41-23.

This was the second time the Trojans have beaten a team from that conference. Back in 2004, they took care of business against the Missouri Tigers, who were ranked 19th in the country. However, Troy only won by 10 points that night, and was outgained 336 yards to 283.

This past Friday, the Trojans controlled the game from the beginning and opened a 41-10 lead after three quarters before the Cowboys made the final score look respectable with two meaningless late touchdowns. Troy put up 562 total yards against a defense which gave up "only" 376 to Georgia and 203 to another Sun Belt conference club in Florida Atlantic.

Speaking of the Owls, they did what no other conference member has ever done - defeat a team from the Big Ten. They led Minnesota 35-14 at the half and 42-24 in the fourth before the Golden Gophers mounted a late comeback making the final score closer than how the game was actually played.

Florida Atlantic put up 580 yards of total offense, which technically hasn't been all that tough against the Gophers this season. (Minnesota allowed 512 to Bowling Green in a home loss and 577 to Miami-Ohio in its lone win of the year.) One could argue that seven Gopher turnovers were the cause for the loss, but that doesn't explain how poor the defense was, allowing almost 600 yards to a team from the Sun Belt Conference.

Besides the huge "W's," the league has also been impressive against the spread this season, covering more than 50% of its games. The eight clubs are 11-8 ATS this season after going just 16-21 last year.

This coming week, Florida International travels to Kansas to take on an undefeated Jayhawk squad, and the Golden Panthers are getting around 30 points. The other non-conference FBS game this week has Arkansas State at Tennessee.

The Sun Belt Conference may not win either contest, but it proved a point in week three that the league should not be taken lightly.

RANDOM NOTES

Can anyone stop Purdue? The Boilermakers are averaging 538 yards per game in their three victories, outscoring their opponents 149-52. They have also been a deadly first half club with 90 total points in 90 first-half minutes. Expect more of the same this Saturday against the defensively challenged Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Congratulations go out to Ted Roof and the entire Duke Blue Devil program, which took down Northwestern, 20-14, on Saturday. It had been almost two calendar years since Duke won its last game, a 40-14 victory over VMI on September 17, 2005. But the latest win didn't come without a scare. Northwestern had a first down on Duke's seven-yard line with 57 seconds left, but C.J. Bacher threw four straight incomplete passes, including the final one with just six ticks left on the clock.

Next up for the Blue Devils is a trip to Annapolis against a Navy squad that beat them by 25 points last year in Durham. It also doesn't get much easier for Northwestern, as the Wildcats must travel out to Columbus to play Ohio State.

The Big Ten had an extremely pitiful week. Not only did Northwestern, Minnesota and Iowa all lose, they were beaten by three clubs that had a combined 1-5 record. The Wildcats were favored over Duke by 17 points at home, while the Golden Gophers were giving Florida Atlantic 6.5-points on the road. Iowa State, on the other hand, was getting 18 at home and held off the Hawkeyes, 15-13, on five Brett Culbertson field goals.

In three games, Notre Dame has rushed 99 times for 19 yards. The Irish offensive line has allowed 23 sacks, and that number might rise even more after Michigan State's defense gets a hold of them. The Spartans have recorded 17 sacks in their three contests.

Utah finally got into a groove last week after multiple injuries cut short what would have been an explosive offense. The Utes scored only 19 points combined in two losses to Oregon State and Air Force, but erupted against UCLA for 44 in a 38-point home victory. Former Oklahoma quarterback Tommy Grady threw for 246 yards and three TDs, while the defense caused five Bruin turnovers for Utah's first win of the season.

In the two most important games of the evening, Kentucky defeated Louisville for the first time since 2002 when Andre Woodson hit Steve Johnson for a 57- yard TD strike with 39 seconds to go.

USC toyed with Nebraska, holding the Cornhuskers to just 31 yards on the ground in its 49-31 win in Lincoln. The Trojans needed to post an impressive victory after looking a bit flat vs. Idaho in their first game and they put together an impressive performance leading Nebraska by 32 points heading into the fourth quarter.

WEEK THREE RESULTS AND TOP 10 RANKINGS

Not the best of days last Saturday as I finished 2-4-1 in the seven plays. The three-week total now stands at 15-11-1.

The Top 10 didn't change much as the top four teams remained in the same order as last week.1) LSU, 108.5; 2) Oklahoma, 105.5; 3) USC, 104.5; 4) West Virginia, 100.5; 5) Oregon, 98.5; 6) Florida, 97; 6) Boston College, 97; 8) Ohio State, 96; 9) Wisconsin, 95.5; Four teams are tied for 10th at 94.5

WEEK FOUR PLAYS

UCF poured all its emotion into last week's home game against Texas, and the Knights almost walked off the field with a victory. They enjoyed a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but couldn't sustain it when it counted most.

The key question for this week is how much is left in the tank for the game vs. Memphis? UCF is one of the better rushing teams in the country, but the Tigers run defense is equally effective. They held Ole Miss to just 74 yards on 29 carries and the following week, the Rebels gained over 200 yards on the ground against Missouri.

If the Knights win this game, they must do so through the air, which could be a problem with Kyle Israel under center. In two games, the junior is 21-50 for just 227 yards.

Memphis has an improved passing game and will take advantage of UCF's poor secondary to pull off the upset.

Take the Tigers plus the points.

Speaking of Ole Miss, the Rebels have a tough task ahead this week as Florida comes into Oxford. Interestingly enough, they have defeated the Gators the last two meetings. Back in '03, the Rebels were getting 12.5 points and upset the number 24-ranked Gators, 20-17. The previous year, they dumped 6th-ranked Florida at home, 17-14. In addition, Florida is 0-5 ATS the last five seasons the week after playing Tennessee.

The Gators are loaded on offense and Tim Tebow looked spectacular against the Volunteers, but this will be his first career road start. The reigning national champions also might be looking ahead to their next two games against Auburn and the showdown at LSU.

Ole Miss has some offensive firepower to keep this game close and will like to get back some confidence back after losing at Vanderbilt last week.

Take the Rebels plus the points.

Tennessee follows up its loss to the Gators with a home game vs. Arkansas State. Erik Ainge did not look too effective with his taped up throwing hand last week, which indirectly caused him to fumble the ball in the third quarter. Florida scooped it up for a TD, pretty much ending what was a highly entertaining game.

The Volunteers rushed for 38 yards in the loss and are currently last in the SEC in rushing. They might stay at the bottom after this week because Arkansas State will shut them down they way it held Texas to 117 yards on 38 carries. What impressed me more than fighting tooth-and-nail with the Longhorns was how they obliterated SMU last Saturday, jumping out to a 21-0 first quarter lead.

Arkansas State has an outside shot at the win and will cover the huge spread against a Tennessee club trying to find its identity.

Take the Indians plus the points.

Staying in the SEC, South Carolina gets a crack at the machine known as LSU. The Gamecocks already have won a huge road game at Georgia, their seventh win in their last eight road games. In addition, they have covered all eight. South Carolina is also 7-3 SU and 9-1 ATS on the road under Steve Spurrier.

Mistake-free football will be the name of the game for the Gamecocks. If they don't turn the ball over, they have a chance for the upset. Their phenomenal pass defense will keep the Tigers from breaking the game wide open and lighting up the scoreboard.

The only question is how much can South Carolina score against the best defense in the country. Spurrier's club did gain over 300 yards against Georgia, so there is some hope. This one has the makings of a low scoring game with the Gamecocks staying close throughout.

Take South Carolina plus the points.

The last of the five plays for this week comes in the Nebraska - Ball State game. The Cornhuskers must be smarting from the way USC manhandled them last Saturday night, but won't get a breather against the Cardinals.

It will be interesting to see how Nebraska responds against Ball State, a team not many in the media have given a lot of attention to. The Cardinals are 2-0 on the road this season, including an impressive win at Navy. In addition, they played well last year away from home, losing to Purdue by 10 points and to Michigan by only eight. In fact, they defeated Northern Illinois two years ago by 14 points when getting 29, and are 9-1 ATS in their last 10 away from home.

Nate Davis has thrown eight touchdown passes this year with just one pick, but in order to stay with Nebraska, the Cards must be able to run the ball. Thankfully for them, both MiQuale Lewis and Frank Edmonds are averaging over four yards per carry.

Nebraska lost all four starting members from its front four, and the replacements have not gotten the job done with just two sacks in three games. The Cardinals have an experienced offensive line with three members over 300 pounds. This game will be much closer than people think.

Take Ball State plus the points.

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