Evans leads App State into 2019

Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans, running in the 2018 Sun Belt Conference championship game against visiting Louisiana, leads the Mountaineers into the 2019 season.

NEW ORLEANS — As college football prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Sun Belt Conference hailed the beginning of the 2019 season at its annual media day by both looking back at the past and, more importantly, looking ahead at what is to come.

The league’s recent history is encouraging and Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill believes that will develop into his ambitious vision for the future of the league. Gill’s Sun Belt football goals, as stated in his opening remarks, are to have multiple teams ranked in preseason polls, to have a Sun Belt team earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl, to compile the best overall bowl winning percentage in the FBS and to be considered the best of the Group of Five conferences.

“We believe that we are on the right path to achieve our goals,” Gill said in a statement.

Sun Belt football teams combined to post the highest non-conference winning percentage (.545) of any Group of Five conference in 2018, a figure that included a conference-record 24 non-conference wins — breaking the previous mark of 22 set in 2016.

That, Gill said, is proof that the league’s scheduling strategy is working. Where Sun Belt institutions scheduled 75 percent of their non-conference games against Autonomy Five conferences in 2010, that number is now 35 percent.

The Sun Belt was one of only three conferences to produce three teams that won 10 or more games last season, as Appalachian State, Troy and Georgia Southern all crossed the double-digit win threshold.

Additionally, the Sun Belt has won 11 of the 16 bowl games it has appeared in over the course of the last three seasons, easily giving it the best winning percentage (.688) of any of the 10 FBS conferences in that span (the Big 12, at .583, is next).

The league’s coaches gathered at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Monday said the winning done by Sun Belt teams on the field in recent seasons is a byproduct of complete football programs — strong players led by accomplished coaches with the resources to back them up.

Blake Anderson is the dean of Sun Belt football coaches as he enters his sixth season at Arkansas State. He believes the league-wide level of football being played in the Sun Belt has grown “leaps and bounds” since he took the helm of the Red Wolves’ program in 2014.

“From top to bottom, it’s better than it’s ever been,” Anderson said in a statement. “The non-conference record proves that, to have the best out of conference record of any Group of Five league a year ago. The bowl record over the last three years proves that, having the highest winning percentage of all leagues.”

The attention this league is getting, the respect it’s getting, it’s getting better every year.”

Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz is entering his first season as head coach of a Sun Belt program, but has taken notice in recent years as Troy claimed the top spot on college football highlight shows after defeating college football powerhouses Nebraska and LSU in consecutive seasons. Drinkwitz is taking over an Appalachian State program that last season won the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game and became the second Sun Belt team ever to claim a spot in the top 25.

“This league is strong, it’s represented in the NFL, and there’s a great product on the football field and our fan bases know it,” Drinkwitz said in a statement.

The league’s current crop of coaches include six who previously spent time on either Southeastern or Atlantic Coast Conference staffs. One of those coaches, first-year Texas State coach Jake Spavital, said the quality of the coaching combined with the quality of the players makes the league highly competitive — and it also means the league is only trending in one direction.

“It shows you how this conference, from five or six years ago to where it is now, it’s completely different,” Spavital said in a statement. “The exposure, the attention, the coaches, the players — everything is trending upward for this conference.”

“It’s tough, it’s physical, I think we’re right there,” Georgia State and former App State assistant coach Shawn Elliott added in a statement. “We’re pushing the envelope with every other conference in the country.”

That sentiment is music to Gill’s ears. The entirety of the commissioner’s mission is not only to maintain a high standard, but to raise what the standard is considered to be with every passing year. The Sun Belt held its annual football media day Monday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — a setting that not only serves as Sun Belt headquarters, but also as the site of several important events in college football’s sesquicentennial season.

Louisiana, the Sun Belt’s West Division champions of 2018, will kick off its season against Mississippi State in the Superdome, the Sun Belt champion will represent the league in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, and finally, the Superdome will host the final game of the season in the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship.

In that setting Monday, the league and its member institutions celebrated a strong 2018 season while keeping an eye toward what hopes to be a bountiful 2019 season.

“This building has hosted Super Bowls, Final Fours, a 15-round brawl between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks and so many other special moments in the history of American sports,” Gill said. “Having the Sun Belt office in this historic building is a testament to the power of the Sun Belt brand. “I stand here today in this historic building to say that the state of the Sun Belt is strong. And when the final whistle is blown at the CFP National Championship in this stadium, I will be able to say that the state of the Sun Belt is even stronger.”

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