NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns football coach Billy Napier left no doubt that the Sun Belt Conference is the best Group of Five league in the nation.
“I think the resume speaks for itself, when you talk about what this league has accomplished over the last couple of years,” Napier said on Thursday. “The Power Five wins, the non-conference wins and the bowl wins.”
With Thursday’s SBC Football Media Day inside the Sheraton Hotel on Thursday, the conference returned to normalcy after last year’s COVID-impacted season. The event also gave the Sun Belt a chance to flex its Group of Five muscles as the best G5 conference in the nation.
From the hotel lobby to outside the Armstrong Ballroom, there were branding towers with facts stating how the conference has the best bowl winning percentage in the country since 2016, or that the league led the nation in turnover margin in 2020 and so forth.
SBC Commissioner Keith Gill spent a good portion of his state of the conference address listing off the league’s list of accomplishments: 80 bowl games over the last five seasons, 70 bowl wins during that same span, and of course having not one but two teams ranked in the Top 20 last season which was more than the Pac-12, American and Mountain West conferences.
The league’s coaches echoed that sentiment.
“There is quality personnel, there’s really good players, gots lots of respect for the coaches in this league,” Napier said. “There’s no question there is parity and there’s balance.
“It is a highly competitive league from top to bottom,” Napier added. “You think about what Coastal Carolina did last year. It’s a highly competitive league from top to bottom. You’ve got to be ready to play each week.”
“I would argue that we are the best G5 league in the country,” Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell said. “The teams that are at the top can compete with anybody that you can throw out there on the field and they have shown that.”
The Sun Belt can claim that by developing a tradition of taking down teams from the Power 5 conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-12).
There was South Alabama’s upset of Mississippi State (2016), Troy’s stunner at LSU (2017) and Nebraska (2018), Georgia State beating Tennessee (2018) and Appalachian State taking down both North Carolina and South Carolina (2019). Then came last season’s trifecta of opening weekend upsets as Coastal Carolina defeated Kansas, Arkansas State bested Kansas State and Louisiana upset nationally-ranked Iowa State.
“I have coached against Louisiana, I have coached against Troy and coached against Appy State,” ULM first-year coach Terry Bowden said. “I know how good it is. I have won some of those games and I have lost some of them.
“I think right now it is the best Group of Five conference in America,” Bowden added. “The Sun Belt mimics the SEC. Every school in the Sun Belt has some SEC school to emulate, facility wise, the type of players and style of play.”
The league’s coaches give some of that credit to the fact that — as Bowden alluded to — the SBC has the same geographical footprint as the SEC, ACC and Big 12.
“You’ve got great coaching staff and you’ve got great players in this league,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliot said. “The recruiting is at a high, high level. The fertility of our recruiting grounds and where this conference is located, really pushes us to go and defeat those Power 5 teams.”
“I am truly excited because it is in an SEC footprint,” Napier said. “There is great passion for the game of football. People care about it and want their teams to win. We go from Texas all the way to the Carolinas. Certainly a great time to be part of the Sun Belt Conference.”
The conference has also become a hot spot for young head coaches — ones that have been poached for Power 5 jobs in recent years.
Troy’s Neal Brown was hired by West Virginia in 2018, Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield left for Louisville in 2019 and his replacement Eliah Drinkwitz departed for Missouri the following year.
“There’s great coaches in this league and there’s great players in this league,” Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford. “If you ever go into a game thinking that it is wrapped up and looking at point spreads, you are sleeping man. You better come ready to play each and every week.”
“That’s the biggest thing I have seen in my six years that I have been here is the quality of coaches we are getting in this conference,” Appalachian State coach Shawn Clark said. “When you get that you get better at playing football play.”
If you ask the coaches, the quality of football play is just not at the top of the conference.
The SBC has crowned seven different champions or co-champions during that 10-year period. Arkansas State has won five titles during that stretch, followed by Appalachian State with four titles and Louisiana, Troy, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina all with one each.
“I think the quality of depth in our league is impressive,” Troy coach Chip Lindsey said. “Some of the leagues around the country are pretty good at the top but they drop off. That’s not the case in the Sun Belt.”
There is no better example of that parity than Coastal Carolina’s ascension. In 2019, the Chanticleers went 5-7 overall and 2-6 in SBC play. Three of those losses were by a combined seven points, including a triple overtime loss to Georgia Southern.
In 2020, Coastal went 11-1 overall and 8-0 in conference play.
“We were picked fifth and we came out and won this thing and no one thought that,” Chadwell said. “There are very capable teams that are doing the same thing.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Chadwell added. “I know we were fortunate last year and this year we could go completely opposite. That is how this league is.”