We bow down before our new overlords, the Sun Belt Conference. Who knew, right? A league that not long ago was considered the very bottom of the FBS barrel suddenly is toast of the sport, scoring a trio of seismic upsets on a Saturday that appeared sleepy coming in and turned into a furniture-on-the-lawn rager.
(As this chaotic beauty of a sport so often does.)
Often referred to as the Fun Belt, the league morphed into the Stun Belt on Saturday, scoring wins over three established powers.
Score one for realignment savvy, with the Sun Belt picking off Marshall and others from Conference USA—and then fast-tracking their membership for this season. The Thundering Herd (2-0) paid off on that bet immediately by shocking Notre Dame, pushing the Fighting Irish season to the precipice after only two games. Marcus Freeman is now 0-3 as the coach of the Irish, and while the first two losses were understandable, this was not. It’s the worst Notre Dame loss since the Charlie Weis Era, at least.
Score another for keeping the conference’s most successful program in the fold. Redoubtable Appalachian State, winners of at least nine games in each of the past seven seasons, followed by stunning Texas A&M and cementing the Aggies’ status as the most overrated program in America. A&M was ranked in the preseason top 10 despite coming off an 8–4 season, and has lost its past three games against FBS opponents going back to last season.
And score one for Georgia Southern, which hired Clay Helton on the rebound from USC and was rewarded with a wild 45-42 victory at Nebraska. Scott Frost is history in Lincoln, this seals it. It’s just a matter of when, with the reduction in half of his buyout on Oct. 1 looming large.
Per a release from the league, it is the first Group of 5 conference to score multiple victories against top 10 opponents on the same day since September 2003.
There are major issues at all of those heavyweight schools, but give The Belt a championship belt for these Buster Douglas moments. It’s harder than ever for teams outside the “gated community,” to use ACC commissioner Jim Phillips’s apt phrase, to compete evenly with those within. What the Herd, Mountaineers and Eagles did on the same day was monumental. And, as an added bonus, each of them pocketed a seven-figure check for what was supposed to be a loss. That’s the ultimate win-win.
This was a great day nationally for underdogs, and a humbling day for the “Power 2” conferences of the SEC and Big Ten allegedly separating themselves from the rest of the sport. Alabama was extremely fortunate to beat Texas, needing late heroics from reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, an early injury to Texas QB Quinn Ewers and a couple of curious officiating calls to win by a point. Tennessee also benefited from a QB injury to hold off Pittsburgh in overtime. Washington State, perhaps the most endangered member of the endangered Pac-12, went into Madison and upset Wisconsin. Iowa State ended its six-game losing streak against rival Iowa. Missouri was annihilated at Kansas State, Northwestern was soundly beaten at home by Duke, Vanderbilt was no match at home for Wake Forest, and Nebraska did its thing as well.
Let’s get on to a seriously reconstructed SI Top Ten with this caveat: preseason rankings are largely out the window. If your team hasn’t played anyone so far (hello, Michigan and Oklahoma), don’t expect me to rank it.
1. Georgia (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat Samford, 33-0.
Next game: At South Carolina (Saturday).
Georgia coach Kirby Smart continued his spot-on Nick Saban imitation by pouncing on an FCS opponent for a half—it was 30-0 in the second quarter between the hedges—before putting the game on ice. The Bulldogs’ offensive evolution into a passing force continued in this game, with 43 passes and just 32 runs. Quarterback Stetson Bennett had his second-straight 300-yard passing game, and fourth in his past five, dating back to last season. As for the rebuilt Georgia defense? Three points allowed in two games.
2. Arkansas (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat South Carolina, 44-30.
Next game: Missouri State, in Bobby Petrino’s return to Fayetteville (Saturday).
Should the Razorbacks be this high in our rankings? Well, consider: has any team had two better wins so far? Arkansas handed Cincinnati its first regular-season loss since 2019 in Week 1, then easily handled an improved Gamecocks squad. The Hogs have not yet trailed this season, and led most of the way Saturday by double digits. Running back Raheim Sanders had his second straight 100-yard rushing game.
3. USC (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat Stanford, 41-28.
Next game: Fresno State (Saturday).
The Lincoln Riley scoring machine kept rolling in Palo Alto, racking up 28 first-half points. Quarterback Caleb Williams was again razor sharp, completing 13 of 15 passes for 244 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone. Defensively, the Trojans continued to be opportunistic—after four takeaways and three defensive scores against Rice, they had three more takeaways in the first half against Stanford.
4. Ohio State (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat Arkansas State, 45-12.
Next game: Toledo (Saturday).
The Buckeyes drop in the rankings because their win against Notre Dame was devalued by the Fighting Irish flop against Marshall. The Thundering Herd scored more on the Irish than Ohio State did, after all. Playing again without top receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the Buckeyes still got their passing game untracked against the Red Wolves. CJ Stroud threw for 370 yards and four touchdowns, and Marvin Harrison Jr. had seven catches for 184 yards and three TDs.
5. BYU (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat Baylor, 26-20 (2OT).
Next game: At Oregon (Saturday).
The Cougars overcame receiver absences and kicker debacles to beat the Bears in a game that was well-played until it frayed at the edges late. Quarterback Jaren Hall threw for 261 yards and a touchdown, and the BYU defense kept Baylor out of the end zone in the second overtime to solidify the victory. (It helped that the Bears went Uber-conservative in the latter stages of regulation and the overtimes.) If BYU can win in Eugene, the potential path to 6-0 and hosting Arkansas in mid-October is manageable.
6. Kentucky (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat Florida, 26-16.
Next game: Youngstown State (Saturday).
For the first time in 45 years, the Wildcats have beaten Florida in consecutive seasons. This time, they did it without most of their running back depth chart—most notably star Chris Rodriguez, who is being held from competition amid an eligibility inquiry. And the Wildcats did it on the road. And they did it by making Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson’s Week 1 hype evaporate. Kentucky has mastered the ability to win games like this under Mark Stoops. Sorry, John Calipari, but is this becoming a legit football school?
7. Alabama (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat Texas, 20-19.
Next game: Louisiana-Monroe (Saturday).
Winning is really all that matters in college football—but wow did the Crimson Tide make a mess of their game against the Longhorns. Alabama had 15 penalties, and probably could have been called for a couple of other ones that might have altered the outcome. But give credit to Young for reversing a game-long struggle with some brilliant fourth-quarter possessions to pull the game out of the fire. Here is the problem with Alabama’s body of work to date: that opening rout of Utah State? Well, the Aggies followed it with a blowout loss to FCS Weber State.
Lastgame: Lost to Alabama, 20-19.
Next game: UTSA in a potential trap game (Saturday).
Texas is back? Let’s not go there yet. But as crushing as the loss to Alabama was, program progress seemed tangible. Texas was competitive at the line of scrimmage, especially on the defensive side, and had playmakers at receiver to supplement running back Bijan Robinson. If Ewers returns in short order from the shoulder injury that knocked him out early against Alabama, coach Steve Sarkisian has some stuff to work with.
9. Tennessee (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat Pittsburgh, 34-27.
Next game: Akron (Saturday).
The Volunteers eked out the win in overtime at Pitt, thanks in part to an injury to starting Panthers quarterback Kedon Slovis and backup Nick Patti being hobbled as well. Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman hooked up nine times for 162 yards and a touchdown to power the Tennessee offense.
10. Penn State (2-0)
Lastgame: Beat Ohio, 46-10.
Next game: At Auburn (Saturday).
The Nittany Lions’ road win against Purdue on Sept. 1 pays early dividends here, certainly weighing more heavily than beating the Bobcats on Saturday. Running back Nicholas Singleton, part of a talented freshman tandem at that position, ran for 179 yards against Ohio. Penn State fans keep wishing for someone to beat out sixth-year quarterback Sean Clifford, but he’s off to a good start.
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