Photo courtesy of John Glaser/USA Today
It's no secret that the Sun Belt has been a top heavy conference as of late. Teams like Louisiana, Appalachian State, Georgia State, and Coastal Carolina dominated the league last season at the expense of their conference mates, racking up a combined 27 conference wins. For contrast, the bottom half of the league only had a combined 13 conference wins.
Of the ten football conference members in 2021, the four mentioned above finished with a record above .500 and all received bowl bids. The other six teams finished the season below .500 and were sent home without an opportunity to play in a bowl game. However, some of these bottom programs are trending in the right direction or at least should be.
Here are the Sun Belt teams that need to reach bowl eligibility in 2022:
The Texas State Bobcats are coming off a disappointing 2021 season, finishing with a 3-5 conference record and 4-8 overall record. Jake Spavital is heading into his fourth season as head coach of the Bobcats and has been unable to put the pieces together as of yet, currently sitting at an overall record of 9-27.
The pressure is mounting as Texas State has not had a winning season since 2014, nor have the Bobcats ever played in a bowl game. With many of the state’s FBS programs finding success as of late, it's not unreasonable for Bobcat fans to expect similar results from their administration and a coaching staff entering its fourth season. Obtaining bowl eligibility in 2022 would be reassurance that this program is headed in the right direction.
For the last decade, the Arkansas State Red Wolves have been a powerhouse in the Sun Belt. Ten of their last eleven seasons have ended with winning percentages above .500 and have resulted in bowl game bids. But with the unfortunate and sudden departure of head coach Blake Anderson in 2020, has come an abrupt turn for the program.
Arkansas State finished the 2021 season with a 1-7 conference record and 2-10 overall record under first year head coach, Butch Jones.
Jones, a former head coach of programs like Cincinnati and Tennessee, as well as a former member of Nick Saban’s staff, should have more than enough coaching and recruiting experience to make Arkansas State a serious Sun Belt contender again. Following up a rough 2021 season with bowl eligibility in 2022 would be the reassurance Red Wolf fans need that things are getting back on track.
The South Alabama Jaguars are coming off a hard fought 2021 season, just falling short of bowl eligibility at 5-7. First time head coach, Kane Wommack, has already steered the program back in the right direction after the Jaguars finished the three previous seasons with a combined record of 9-26.
South Alabama was close to getting that sixth win last season with three of their losses being decided by only one score.
Jaguar fans have a lot to be excited about. They have a young and ambitious head coach as well as a brand new on-campus football stadium. Getting a bowl bid in 2022 would be another positive step forward for this program and show fans that South Alabama is capable of competing among the top programs in the Sun Belt.
The Troy Trojans are a program that has sat just outside bowl eligibility for the last three seasons, winning no more than five games each time under former head coach Chip Lindsey. With the arrival of first time head coach, Jon Sumrall, the Trojans are on track to regain lost ground. Sumrall, who has had stops at schools like Kentucky and Ole Miss, was also with the Troy program previously under Neal Brown during an era when the Trojans went 35-16.
Despite Sumrall being a first year head coach of the program, Troy is in a good position to compete right now.
With Troy transitioning to the Sun Belt Western division this season, they should have a better chance to compete and take a role among the top programs in the conference. With all of that said, fans should have expectations of this program reaching bowl eligibility in 2022.
The ULM Warhawks surprised many football fans in 2021. The Warhawks were not projected to win more than two games last season, yet they finished the season at 4-8 and pulled upsets against teams like Liberty, Troy and South Alabama. Second year head coach, Terry Bowden, has already made substantial progress at ULM, a program that went 0-10 in 2020.
It’s hard not to cheer for Terry Bowden, a man with a storied coaching career at schools like Auburn as well as the son of the late Bobby Bowden. He has taken on the task of raising up one of the biggest underdogs in the conference, and it’s clear his impact is already being felt after one season.
With one of the most difficult upcoming schedules in the Sun Belt, six wins will be hard to come by for ULM. However, a statement could be made if the Warhawks can get to six wins and obtain bowl eligibility, just two years after their worst season in program history.