The Sun Belt Conference has been searching for respect since its inception as a football league in 2001. Sure there have been great upsets, Troy over Missouri in 2004, Arkansas State over Texas A&M in 2008 and most recently Louisiana-Monroe upsetting No. 8 Arkansas last week in Little Rock. From the outside the league has been perceived as a bottom dweller that occasionally produces a team capable of catching a lower-level SEC or Big 12 team asleep at the wheel.
This weekend could go a long way in helping the Sun Belt change the popular opinion of its status among college football observers. All 10 Sun Belt football-playing schools are in action this week and nine of the 10 are underdogs. Middle Tennessee, who plays at Memphis, is the only Sun Belt team picked by so-called "experts" to win its game. Even Louisiana-Monroe, who is coming off one of the biggest upsets in college football history, is not given much of a chance by the experts. The Warhawks travel to Auburn... a team that was picked to finish behind the Razorbacks in the SEC this year.
Saturday's games will feature Sun Belt matchups with teams from the Big 10, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Conference USA. All of which are leagues that the Sun Belt looks up to in popular power rankings like the one ESPN does here: http://espn.go.com/blog/statsinfo/tag/_/name/conference-power-rankings. In fact, of the 11 FBS conferences, the Sun Belt looks up to 10. This weekend could change that.
Troy will host Mississippi State, which is 2-0 to start the season but fully understands the danger of this game. Bulldog head coach Dan Mullen said this week on the SEC weekly teleconference "I know they've (Troy) had some big home wins over BCS schools in the past, so their guys know how to play and know how to win games, know how to do it at home." The Trojans defeated Oklahoma State at home in 2007 in addition to the win over Missouri.
Western Kentucky will play against in-state rival Kentucky in a rematch of a game in which the Hilltoppers dominated the Wildcats statistically last year, but lost 14-3 due to four interceptions.
Louisiana-Lafayette will try to remain perfect on the season when it travels to take on Oklahoma State, which is coming off of its worst defeat since 2009, losing 59-38 to Arizona.
Arkansas State will surely find a very motivated Nebraska team in Lincoln, Neb. this week after the Cornhuskers fell at UCLA 36-30 Saturday. Nebraska has not lost back-to-back regular season games since 2009.
Sun Belt preseason favorite FIU is playing at Conference USA preseason favorite UCF this week in what has become a heated rivalry. FIU defeated UCF last year in Miami 17-10 in a game that Golden Panther head coach called "as about a physical of a game that you're ever going to see."
Other games for the Sun Belt this week include South Alabama at North Carolina State and Florida Atlantic at Georgia.
And, of course, North Texas will take on its second ranked opponent of the year and its 13th ranked opponent in 13 years when the Mean Green makes the trip to the Little Apple to battle Kansas State. North Texas took the Wildcats to the wire just two years ago, losing a shootout 49-41 in Denton. This is a better Kansas State team, one that is getting back to ways of the Bill Snyder glory days.
What will it take for the Sun Belt to earn respect this week? Considering only one of the 10 teams is favored and eight of the 10 teams are expected to lose by two touchdowns or more, it will be a tall task for the league to be 4-6 or even 3-7 on Saturday. However, this week's slate of games is tailor-made for a fledgling league to take a step out of the shadows of insignificance to a place where the sun belts down on the college football landscape.