A perfect storm of circumstances will shine a rare national spotlight on the Sun Belt (aka Fun Belt) Conference Thursday.
It starts with the offseason television planning that selected the Arkansas State at Troy game and slotted it for a weeknight on ESPNU. Considering the Red Wolves have won four of the last five Sun Belt titles, that was a wise choice. Troy’s rise this season is a bonus.
Arkansas State lost its first four games but has recovered to go 5-0 in league games. The Trojans, whose only loss came at Clemson, 30-24 on Sept. 10, are also 5-0. It’s the first time in SBC history two 5-0 teams have met.
Troy (8-1) is No. 25 in this week’s Associated Press rankings — the first time for the school and the first time a Sun Belt team has been ranked.
“Yeah, a little Fun Belt after dark,” Troy coach Neal Brown said on this week’s Sun Belt coaches teleconference. “Arkansas State is the champion until somebody beats ’em. Our conference is getting better, Sun Belt teams have played well against Power Five teams. As a conference we need this showcase.”
The Sun Belt Conference became a football league in 2001 and Troy was one of its consistent programs, winning at least a share of the titles in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010. In the next five seasons, the Trojans went 21-39.
A former offensive coordinator at Troy, Kentucky and Texas Tech, Brown is in his second season as the Trojans’ head coach. The sudden success, the national ranking, the national stage … all reasons for concern that the Trojans can handle the hype.
“That’s my hope, but it’s the first time,” said Brown, whose team is coming off a come-from-behind victory over Appalachian State. “We’ve done a good job of handling prosperity to this point. This is another test. It’s gonna be interesting to see where we are with their maturity level, how they’ll handle all the noise.
“We’re moving into the role of being hunted instead of being the hunter. It’s a different experience.”
A clash of styles also has the potential to make this game intriguing. Troy is the Sun Belt’s top team in terms of offense while the Red Wolves are third in defense.
“It’s great for the league and we always want opportunities on the national stage to build the brand of the Sun Belt,” said Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, whose team plays its last three games on the road. It’s also a chance for us to show that we’re not the same team that started 0-4. We’ve regrouped and found ourselves.
“Conference championships are how you measure yourselves at this level. There’s been a tradition built here, we’ve won or shared four of the last five. You earn a right to be in a game like this that matters.”
There are numerous reasons to tune in but there’s also this: Arkansas State defensive back Monshadrick Hunter is the son of former major-league all-star Torii Hunter and the brother of Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr.
Hunter is this week’s SBC defensive player of the week after the fourth pick six of his career. He’s listed on the roster and known as Money Hunter. Name. Of. The. Year. And playing in the Fun Belt game of the year.