Forde-Yard Dash: Giving the Sun Belt the Respect It Deserves

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where Maryland regrettably has picked up right where it left off: 

MORE DASH: Count on Nothing | Rutgers Shocker | Malzahn's Luck

THIRD QUARTER: SUN BELT > BIG 12

The Dash would like to apologize to the Sun Belt Conference (21), commissioner Keith Gill, and all the coaches and players in a league that stretches from the Texas hill country to the beaches of South Carolina. It is a humble place, where the football programs toil in the shadow of Power 5 conference behemoths. And it has been disrespected.

The Dash erred in ranking Oklahoma State (22) in the Sports Illustrated Top 10 Sunday while overlooking a more deserving Sun Belt team. That would be Coastal Carolina (23), which also is undefeated and merits bonus points for its postgame wrestling match celebration after beating Georgia Southern Saturday.

coastal-carolina-big-12

As my podcast pal Dan Wetzel pointed out on our Overreaction Monday episode, the Sun Belt deserves the benefit of the doubt over the Big 12 thanks to on-field results. This is how the season started:

Louisiana 31, Iowa State 14.

Arkansas State 35, Kansas State 31.

Coastal Carolina 38, Kansas 23.

Given the paucity of other non-conference results, those games have to mean something. Those upset losses put the Big 12 in arrears of other leagues, including the one that handed it three stinging home defeats. Which means the Cowboys (4–0) are essentially defeating damaged goods. And the Chanticleers (5–0) have beaten the two other Sun Belt teams that took down Big 12 opponents.

How much credit are the Pokes supposed to get for beating Iowa State (24) by three, when Louisiana beat Iowa State by 17? Coastal Carolina beat Louisiana. The next touted “showdown” game for Oklahoma State is Kansas State (25) on Nov. 7, a battle of unbeatens in league play. But K-State lost to Arkansas State, and Coastal routed the Red Wolves by 29.

The Cowboys have only trailed for 22 minutes and 44 seconds of game time this season. But Coastal has only trailed for 10:53.

In Oklahoma State’s favor, it must be pointed out that the Cowboys defeated the Jayhawks by 17 more points than Coastal did. And the Pokes’ struggle of a non-conference victory over Tulsa could look better if the Golden Hurricane (2-1) continue to win.

You can give Oklahoma State credit for beating West Virginia and Kansas without injured starting quarterback Spencer Sanders (26). But you must give Coastal Carolina credit for beating Georgia Southern without injured starting quarterback Grayson McCall (27)—who has been the far superior of the two statistically to date.

Bottom line: This should not be a straight laundry ranking, as they always are in college football. Big 12 laundry is always more valued than Sun Belt laundry, even when it shouldn’t be. Right now, Oklahoma State is 14 spots higher than Coastal Carolina in the AP poll and 15 spots higher in the Amway/USA Today poll. That doesn’t make sense once you get past the laundry.

DOES HARBAUGH FINALLY HAVE HIS QUARTERBACK?

The starting debut of Joe Milton (28) couldn’t have gone much better. Michigan won easily, produced a spate of big plays—and, consequentially, did not turn the ball over. Last time the Wolverines went through a season opener without a turnover was 2011.

That reflects well on Milton, the large and gifted sophomore who made big plays but no big mistakes. He averaged 9.23 yards per play, tops among any Big Ten player who had 30 plays with the ball in his hands. (Ohio State’s Justin Fields checked in at 9.17.) Milton’s 169.09 pass efficiency rating is the best for a Michigan quarterback in a conference opener under Jim Harbaugh (29). While Michigan will face tougher defenses than Minnesota’s rebuilding unit, this was an ideal first start for Milton.

It also marks another attempt by Harbaugh to find the right guy for the biggest job—something that has proven maddeningly elusive in his five previous seasons in Ann Arbor. After years of trying transfers (Shea Patterson, John O’Korn, Jake Rudock) and some players he inherited (Wilton Speight, Brandon Peters), he might have succeeded this time. There is likely some mutual comfort working with a quarterback Harbaugh recruited and developed.

In terms of tempo and play selection, the Michigan offense we saw Saturday night doesn’t look appreciably different from its predecessors. The Wolverines averaged 2.26 snaps per minute of possession, identical to last year. They ran it 55.4% of the time, compared to 54.7% last season (which was down from the three previous years, when they were a 60–40 run team).

Milton diversifies things as Harbaugh’s first real running threat at the QB position. Patterson could occasionally pull the ball and keep it on the zone read, but he was more of a scrambler/free lancer than someone who could be a consistent part of the running game.

There have been some associations made to Cam Newton (30) in terms of body type and all-around gifts, and while any direct comparisons are wildly premature, here is something to keep in mind: Newton produced 206 yards on 37 runs and passes, accounting for two touchdowns, in his first conference start; Milton put up 277 yards on 30 runs and passes while accounting for two TDs.

As debuts go, pretty good.

MORE DASH: Count on Nothing | Rutgers Shocker | Malzahn's Luck