In Stillwater, South Alabama hopes to join Sun Belt’s giant-killing club

In Stillwater, South Alabama hopes to join Sun Belt’s giant-killing club

The Sun Belt has fashioned a reputation for upsets. Sun Belt teams in the 2020s have beaten Notre Dame, Nebraska, Kansas State, Baylor, Virginia Tech, Iowa State, Virginia and Kansas twice.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 16, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 16, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Dave Wommack’s son asked him to bring home a piece of Georgia football’s famous shrubs. 

Kane Wommack knew about the between-the-hedges tradition, how visitors who win in Georgia’s Sanford Stadium would grab a souvenir. A small branch from the iconic foliage that surrounds the Bulldogs’ field.

On Sept. 1, 1996, 9-year-old Kane awoke on a Sunday morning to find a piece of Georgia’s hedges lying on his pillow. Dave Wommack, in the middle of a seven-year stretch as a defensive coach at Southern Mississippi, had remembered his son’s request. Southern had beaten Georgia 11-7 the day before.

Southern Miss got the reputation of a giant-killer in those days. When Dave Wommack was on staff, the Golden Eagles beat Louisiana State (1994), Georgia (1996), Oklahoma State (2000) and Alabama (2000), the latter a 21-0 shutout.

And that 9-year-old boy grew up to be a head coach who stands among giant-killers. Kane Wommack is head coach at South Alabama, which plays in Stillwater at 6 p.m. Saturday, and while the Jaguars have yet to spring a big upset, they have come close, and they come from a league of upset-makers.

In the 2020s, the Sun Belt has zoomed up the college conference food chain. Past the Mid-American Conference, which has a penchant for upsets but can’t keep up with the Sun Belt. Past Conference USA. Past the American Conference, which keeps losing members to the power leagues.  Maybe even past the Mountain West.

By next season, with the disintegration of the Pac-12, the once-lowly Sun Belt could rise to No. 5 in the ranking of major-college conferences, just as the 12-team College Football Playoff arrives with likely five automatic berths reserved for league champions.

The Sun Belt’s reputation rise was built on continuity and upsets.

Amid all the realignment craze, the Sun Belt has stabilized. No football school has left the Sun Belt since 2014, and the likes of Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, North Texas and Middle Tennessee might wish they had stayed.

Taking their places have been schools like Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, James Madison and Marshall. Those schools have helped the Sun Belt’s football brand (and Coastal’s baseball program won the 2016 Men’s College World Series).

And the Sun Belt has fashioned a reputation for upsets. Sun Belt teams in the 2020s have beaten Notre Dame, Nebraska, Kansas State, Baylor, Virginia Tech, Iowa State, Virginia and Kansas twice.

In September 2020, Louisiana knocked off Iowa State 31-14 and Arkansas State shocked Kansas State 35-31, and within a couple of weeks, both Big 12 victims had beaten Oklahoma.

Last September, Marshall beat Notre Dame 26-21, Georgia Southern ended Nebraska’s Scott Frost era with a 45-42 shocker and Old Dominion, getting a rare home game against a power-conference foe, beat Virginia Tech 20-17.

The upsets keep coming. On opening day, Texas State walloped Baylor 42-31. The Bobcats are 13-51 in Sun Belt play since the start of the 2016 season.

The upsets are “huge in the sense, it creates a lot of visibility for us,” said Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill, who was OU’s senior associate athletic director from 2004-07. “Gives us a chance to tell our story.

Creates a lot of momentum for our conference.

“We’re already kind of picking up where we left off last year. The visibility, that’s one of the hardest things, to get people to notice you.”

The Sun Belt has more opportunities in 2023. Saturday, Louisiana-Monroe plays at Texas A&M (not likely), Georgia Southern visits Wisconsin (worth watching), Old Dominion goes to Wake Forest (interesting) and South Alabama visits Stillwater (pray the rosary, Cowboy fans).

South Alabama story

Kane Wommack followed his dad into coaching and shot quickly up the ranks. Kane went to high school in Fayetteville, Arkansas, then played fullback for the Razorbacks before transferring to Southern Miss.

By 2016, he was the 28-year-old defensive coordinator at South Alabama, which led to being hired by Indiana. Wommack spent two years as the Hoosier defensive coordinator, during which IU remarkably fashioned a 14-7 record.

South Alabama beckoned back Wommack as head coach, and the Jaguars are 16-11 in his two-plus seasons. Last September, South Alabama went to UCLA and lost 32-31 on a last-play field goal.

Now South Alabama gets another crack, this time against the Cowboys, and OSU is favored by only seven points.

“I think playing at a competitive level in big moments are always going to create exposure for your program,” Wommack said. “These are opportunities. But that’s all they are. What you do with that opportunity dictates the amount of exposure your program is going to receive.”

Wommack has been building the Jaguars toward such a stage. South Alabama’s program was founded in 2009, the Jags in 2011-12 played as a transitional program into Division I-A and by 2013 were full members of the Sun Belt.

South Alabama had some success but never posted a winning record until Wommack’s 10-3 season in 2022.

The Jaguars hosted OSU in 2017 – those Mason Rudolph-led Cowboys rolled 44-7, and OSU beat South Alabama 55-13 the next year in Stillwater.

Wommack was the South Alabama d-coordinator in 2017

“This program is light years away from where we were back then, just in terms of the resources, community support,” Wommack said. “The talent level is significantly different. Certainly the depth of our team is a lot more considerable.”

When OSU went to Mobile, Alabama, in 2017, the game was played at antiquated Ladd-Peebles Stadium, known mostly as the home of the all-star Senior Bowl each January.

But the Jaguars opened the on-campus Hancock-Whitney Stadium in 2020.

“We had periods of success and periods of growth, but then four years ago, we were able to do what really needed to be done, and that was to play on campus,” said South Alabama athletic director Joel Erdmann, who has been on the job since 2009.

“At the beginning, you have some unknowns, and sometimes the unknown can create some anxiety, but the intent of the football program was to create a point of rallying, for our student body, our campus, our faculty/staff, our alumni, our community.”

South Alabama, with an enrollment of 14,000, has averaged 16,365 fans per game the last two seasons, near the Sun Belt median. It’s not easy marketing a football team in Alabama that is not Alabama or Auburn, but Erdmann has a plan.

“We do have to fight for our share of the marketplace,” Erdman said. “We have to be innovative.

“What differentiates us from others? How can we attract others and grow, getting new fans and customers in our stadium and buying our gear and cheering for the Jags?”

Erdmann has a plan. Build from the base. Get students engaged, and those students eventually become alumni, and those alumni eventually have children, and soon enough you might have tradition.

Whitney-Hancock Stadium was built next to the university’s Greek Row and near the dorms. And students aren’t required to clear out of parking lots to make way for donors on game days. A public relations investment.

“Their relationship and pride in the University of South Alabama and the Jags is galvanized, if you will, through their experience on football game days,” Erdmann said. “This is the group … they will be your main sales people out there.”

Mobile is three hours from Auburn, 3½ hours from Tuscaloosa. Lots of people make those treks. But many don’t. Become Mobile’s team, win over the students, and maybe South Alabama can build a fan base like fellow Sun Belt member Appalachian State, which over the last two years has averaged 32,000 per game.

And of course, the biggest marketing tool out there would be knocking off a name brand.

Sun Belt story

The Sun Belt’s success lies in part on geography. For a quarter century, we’ve heard about the talent shift south in college football. That’s mostly been in the context of the Southeastern Conference’s rise.

But the rise of Georgia and Louisiana and the Carolinas, to go with Florida and Texas, as high-school football talent hotbeds, helps the Sun Belt, too.

The league stretches from Texas State (San Marcos) to Old Dominion (Norfolk, Virginia). Lots of ballplayers are in between.

“Our schools are located in talent-rich places where football matters,” said Gill, the commissioner. “But it also helps in the transfer place.”

When talented players want to go back home, there are options beyond the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference.

Additionally, the Sun Belt schools have mostly committed to investing in their football programs. 

“Our institutions made a determination they wanted to be the best football conference they could be,” Gill said. “Look at our facilities, improvements, the last 5-10 years. We’ve invested in coaching, the budgets, those kinds of things. It’s really paid off. Really created some quality football programs.”

Just ask Notre Dame and Nebraska and Kansas State and Baylor.

Oklahoma State’s mission Saturday night is to avoid joining the club of Sun Belt victims.

“The fun thing about being in the Sun Belt right now, high tides raise all ships,” Kane Wommack said. “The exposure the Sun Belt has as a whole, and the notoriety we’re getting from those signature wins, help the league collectively. Those things are really important. It confirms your relevance in college football.”

Wommack comes from giant-killing stock. In his dad’s seven years at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles played 24 games against power-conference opponents. Southern won six times.

Most of those games were not in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That’s the plight of the Sun Belt. They want to make their mark, it must come in road games.

Of the Sun Belt’s games against major-conference teams in the 2020s, 37 of the 40 have been on the road. The three home games? Coastal Carolina’s 49-22 win over Kansas in 2021, Old Dominion’s 20-17 victory over Virginia Tech in 2022 and Appalachian State’s 63-61 loss to North Carolina in 2022.

The Sun Belt teams will get occasional home chances. Appalachian State is scheduled to host North Carolina State in 2025 and South Carolina in 2033. South Alabama hosts Ole Miss in 2029. Coastal Carolina hosts Virginia in 2024. Georgia Southern hosts Houston in 2026. Georgia State hosts Vanderbilt in 2024, Georgia Tech in 2026 and Wake Forest in 2030. Marshall hosts Virginia Tech in 2023. Old Dominion hosts Virginia Tech four times from 2024-31, plus Wake Forest on Saturday and Virginia in 2028. Arkansas State hosts Iowa State in 2025. Southern Miss hosts Mississippi State in 2025 and 2030. Texas State hosts Arizona State in 2024. Troy hosts Mississippi State in 2027, North Carolina State in 2028 and Brigham Young in 2035.

But mostly, the Sun Belt’s chances at glory come on the road. Like Saturday night in Stillwater, where there will be no hedges to clip should the Jaguars slay the giant, but there will be memories to be made and status to be gained.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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