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Mike Lopresti | | September 13, 2022

How the Sun Belt Conference landed 3 huge upsets — and what comes next

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Just look at what the Sun Belt left in its wake following a remarkable football weekend.

The coach at Nebraska fired, after the Cornhuskers fell to Georgia Southern.

Notre Dame booted from the Top 25, after the Irish were shocked by Marshall.

Jimbo Fisher issuing painful mea culpas at Texas A&M, after the Aggies were taken down by Appalachian State.

Meanwhile, the commissioner of the Sun Belt has been having a grand time.

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If you thought the internet was on fire Saturday trying to keep up with all the Sun Belt upsets, you should have seen Keith Gill. There he was, driving up Interstate 35 in Texas trying to find Appalachian State-Texas A&M on his car radio, and listening to play-by-play from Marshall-Notre Dame on his phone. There he was, munching on late dinner in a restaurant parking lot while trying to watch Georgia Southern finish off Nebraska on his phone. There he was, racing back to his hotel room to try to put the amazing day in some perspective.

"It’s incredible when you think about it," he was saying Monday. "When I got back to my hotel and I’m watching 'College Football Final' on ESPN, they led with the Sun Belt. That’s our logo on there."

Three college football heavyweights were knocked out by Sun Belt teams they had never played before, in front of a combined live audience of 257,008 mostly-stunned partisans. The entire sport rattled. 

"When you think about the games, those games were nationally broadcast against traditional powers," Gill said. "For us, it confirms what we already know; that we can play with anyone. I think it also validates the work of our CEOs and ADs in terms of how they have invested in their programs, and the coaches and players who actually do all that work on the field. Those are life-changing moments for them."

And the commissioner? The buzz was still going in the Sun Belt office in New Orleans Monday with the media calling from hither and yon. Gill would talk to them all, he said, "because you certainly don’t want to miss the moment . . . It was probably the best weekend in the Sun Belt’s history. I feel so honored and lucky to be a part of it."

Let him describe his Saturday. He was in Texas to attend Texas State’s home game with Florida International, as part of his personal rule of visiting every member’s campus during the football season.

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He began his day in his hotel room in San Antonio, watching South Alabama get an early lead at Central Michigan, and Georgia State starting to push North Carolina. Then it was time for the 50-mile drive to the Texas State campus in San Marcos, with astonishing news beginning to roll in from elsewhere.

"I found what the Texas A&M radio network was, so I had that game on my car radio. And then I called my brother-in-law and he was giving me the play-by-play on the Marshall-Notre Dame game. I did that all the way to San Marcos. The Marshall game ended before I got to San Marcos. When I got to San Marcos I started watching the Texas A&M game on my phone. Then my internet got all jacked up, so I went up to the press box to watch the end of the game from there."

He watched in person as Texas State mashed Florida International, part of the 10-4 day for the Sun Belt, then it was time to head back to San Antonio – and follow another upset.

"I actually stopped by In-N-Out Burger, sat and watched the Nebraska-Georgia Southern game, then I had it my phone really loud so I could listen to that game as I drove back to San Antonio. It’s not really that sexy or glamorous, but I was just trying to figure it out the best I could. It’s great I could go old school. Like I’m in Texas, so just follow the Texas A&M network.

"At the end of the day, you’re excited if you get one of those upsets, but to get all three kind of in succession is something that’s great. We know the quality of our football, so these opportunities to really showcase it and send a message to everyone about just how good the football is in the Sun Belt, you don’t want to be so close and then not get over the hump for the victory. Getting all three of those all on the same day is special for the conference."

And he wasn’t even all that surprised. The week before he had gone to Virginia Tech and seen Old Dominion upset the Hokies. The same weekend, Coastal Carolina had beaten Army and App State had captivated the college football universe by scoring 40 points in the fourth quarter in a 63-61 basketball score of  a loss to North Carolina. The Tar Heels were back on the field last week against for more Sun Belt trouble, barely holding off Georgia State 35-28.

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And so it goes for a league that has a .649 winning percentage in its bowl games since 2014, including 7-2 the past two years. The Sun Belt expanded from 10 to 14 teams this year, adding Marshall, Old Dominion, Southern Miss and James Madison. Marshall and Old Dominion have already made themselves at home by upsetting big fish. And App State was already a notorious trouble-maker for Power-5 opponents.

"It’s good for the league. I think a rising tide lifts all boats," Gill said of this splash of football success by so many conference teams, old and new. "The one good thing about our football programs is we really do expect to win every time we run out on the field. That is a good feeling, to have that confidence. That’s a mindset that we’ve had, and I think everyone got a chance to see that and experience that on Saturday."

And the Sun Belt might not be done. UCLA has had fair warning. The Bruins host South Alabama Saturday.  Baylor and Virginia, too, with Texas State and Old Dominion coming to town. Even Alabama has a Sun Belt alert, though expecting ULM to give the Tide a fight in Tuscaloosa would be asking a lot.

Gill will be at App State, where ESPN GameDay has decided to camp for the Mountaineers’ conference game with Troy. More attention for the Sun Belt. But he’ll have his phone charged and his brother-in-law alert. He just never knows these days when a Sun Belt football team needs his full attention.

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