Why the Sun Belt’s three Big 12 shockers are the tip of the upset iceberg this college football season

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Why the Sun Belt’s three Big 12 shockers are the tip of the upset iceberg this college football season


The lasting image of the Sun Belt’s Upset Saturday was worn on Terry Mohajir’s forehead. The Arkansas State athletic director couldn’t help himself. Seconds after Jonathan Adams caught the game-winning pass at Kansas State, Mohajir celebrated by head-butting the senior wideout as he got to the sideline (0:14 mark).

“It’s hilarious,” said Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill watching at his New Orleans home with a three-TV set up. “Adams is like, [What?!]'”

What the moment lacked in social distancing (Mojahir was wearing a mask), it made up for in antiquity. The Sun Belt’s three-game sweep of the Big 12 on Saturday marked the best day in conference history.

Never before had the 20-year-old Group of Five league beaten three Power Five opponents on the same day. Louisiana rallied from down two touchdowns to win at then-No. 18 Iowa State. Kansas lost at home for the second straight year to Coastal Carolina. Adams’ catch came with 38 seconds left to seal a 35-31 win in Manhattan, Kansas.

The headbutt didn’t leave a lasting mark on Mohajir, but it may have on the 2020 college football season. In one 12-hour period, the Sun Belt transformed into the Fun Belt.

Three in one day? The Sun Belt beat four Power Five schools all of last season.

Parity beware.

“This is going to be a different year,” warned Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. “There’s going to be unexpected losses around the country. There’s going to be a lot of shake up … and it’s going to be a constant.”

Riley was an observer, not a victim. His Sooners cruised past FCS Missouri State, 48-0. When the carnage abated well after midnight Sunday morning, Sun Belt teams scored a combined 104 points, snatched three turnovers, ran back two kicks and generally embarrassed the three Big 12 opponents.

There’s more coming.

Teams haven’t practiced enough. Teams haven’t hit enough. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said as much after an embarrassing 55-3 loss to BYU in Week 1.

Then there’s the issue of who exactly is playing. Georgia Southern was missing 33 players due to a combination of COVID-19, injuries and suspensions. The Sun Belt Eagles beat FCS Campbell by a point, 27-26.

Overall, there just seems to be something missing atmospherically in this truncated season.

“That takes away some of the aura or mystique of going to a Big 12 place,” Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell said of playing without fans at Kansas. “No crowds, fans and tailgating. You’re just really rolling into a practice.”

Ouch. A year after winning 12-7 at KU, the Chanticleers rolled to a 28-3 halftime lead on their way to a 38-23 win.

Afterward, graduate assistant Zane Cruz posted a video of linebacker Silas Kelly smashing a Rock Chalk Jayhawk “rock” with a sledgehammer.

“If we won the game, we were going to ‘Rock the Jayhawks,’ so to speak,” Chadwell said.

That from a program picked by some to finish last in the Sun Belt’s East Division. With that outlook, you take unbridled joy where you can get it.

With only 76 FBS teams playing this fall (plus Air Force playing two games), Group of Five conferences were guaranteed to get more attention; after all, they make up almost half of those participating teams (37). The inventory just isn’t there, so the networks have to show somebody.

All three of the upsets were national games, two on Fox and one on ESPN. All three of those Big 12 opponents weren’t originally scheduled. With each Big 12 school adding one nonconference game after their schedules were otherwise made conference-only, the planets aligned … or were knocked off their axis depending on your view.

Kansas State lost Buffalo, North Dakota and Vanderbilt from its slate. AD Gene Taylor had to hustle to bring in Arkansas State. The Red Wolves came to Manhattan down 20 players, including nine starters, due to COVID-19 and injuries. Coach Blake Anderson had a travel roster of only 62.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Adams (eight catches, 98 yards, three touchdowns) might be better than any receiver in the Big 12.

Out went South Dakota, Iowa and UNLV at Iowa State. In came the Ragin’ Cajuns coming off program highs in wins (11), rushing yards (3,604) and rushing touchdowns (42). The Cyclones can’t say they weren’t warned. What’s worse, the Cajuns’ team speed seemed to be a factor against the ‘Clones. Louisiana returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in a 31-14 win.

“We don’t have the budgets they do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t operate the way they do,” Louisiana coach Billy Napier said.

About that financial disparity: The Big 12 hauls in more than $40 million per team in media rights revenue. The Sun Belt is near the bottom in FBS at $1 million per school.

About what Louisiana has accomplished: On Monday, it became ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1943.

The Sun Belt likes to crow about its bowl record, the best in college football the last four years (14-7). But along with that magic Saturday was the fact the Sun Belt also went 0-3 against other Group of Five opponents.

“I’ve always said, if I ever got a doctorate, I’d want to write my dissertation on momentum,” said Gill, a former running back at Duke. “I feel it and understand it intuitively, but I can’t explain it.”

Somehow, someway, for at least a fleeting Saturday, the top end of less-resourced programs were playing even — at least — with the lower end of the Power Five.

“I don’t know if there is a lot of difference,” Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford said.

Texas Tech, 4-8 last season, survived more Big 12 embarrassment. Houston Baptist missed on a two-point conversion with less than four minutes left to fall 35-33. The Red Raiders gave up 600 total yards to a six-year old FCS program that has won 18 games in its history.

Don’t tell that to Huskies’ quarterback Bailey Zappe, who leads Division I through two games with 1,047 passing yards.  

In the Big 12 last week, it just felt good to get a W any way possible. The Red Raiders were 0-4 in games decided by four points or less in Matt Wells’ debut season of 2019.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Wells said. “A win is a win, period.”





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