The Sun Belt’s breakout season just keeps getting better.
Coastal Carolina cracked the top 10 in the latest Associated Press poll Sunday, setting a new standard for a conference that before this season never had a team ranked better than 19th.
The very top of the rankings held steady again, with No. 1 Alabama leading the way. No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Clemson and No. 5 Texas A&M also stood their ground during an idle week.
The failings of Florida and Miami opened up some space in the top 10 and Coastal Carolina jumped in at No. 9, another milestone for the Chanticleers.
The Sun Belt championship game is next and for the first time in its three-year history will be a matchup of ranked teams. Louisiana-Lafayette is No. 17, with its only loss to Coastal and a victory over No. 8 Iowa State.
In fact, the ranked matchup is the first in Sun Belt history at any time.
When it comes to non-Power Five conferences putting two ranked teams in their league championship games, it’s pretty rare.
Conference USA has held 15 championship games and just one has matched ranked teams: No. 24 Southern Mississippi beat No. 7 Houston in 2011.
The Mountain West has played seven title games and only the 2018 game in which No. 25 Fresno State beat No. 19 Boise State featured two ranked teams.
The Mid-American Conference has been playing a championship game since 1997 and only twice (2003 and 2012) have both participants been ranked.
The American Athletic Conference, which likes to consider itself more P5 then Group of Five, has had three matchups of ranked teams in its five championship games, and will have another when No. 20 Tulsa faces No. 6 Cincinnati on Saturday.
Reality Check salutes the Sun Belt. Sure, not playing as many Power Five teams as normal has limited the conference’s exposure to losses, but its best teams have proved worthy of all the attention and been one of the best stories of pandemic-altered season that at times has been hard to get excited about.
No. 1 Alabama (10-0)
Next: vs. No. 11 Florida, SEC championship, Saturday.
Reality check: Alabama’s offensive line is almost always among the best in the country. Why is this one especially good? Experience to go with the talent in senior tackle Alex Leatherwood and fifth-year seniors Deonte Brown at guard and center Landon Dickerson at center.
No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0)
Next: vs. No. 4 Clemson, ACC championship, Saturday.
Reality check: Irish have the third-best third-down defense in the country, allowing opponents to convert 26.4 percent of the time. Against Clemson last month, 26.7%.
No. 3 Ohio State (5-0)
Next: vs. No. 15 Northwestern, Big Ten championship, Saturday.
Reality check: The Big Ten did not bend over backward to put the Buckeyes in the playoff. It bent over backward to make sure its league championship game was not relegated to the conference undercard as Ohio State played a regular-season game at Iowa.
No. 4 Clemson (9-1)
Next: vs. No. 2 Notre Dame, ACC championship, Saturday.
Reality check: Conventional wisdom after the Notre Dame loss was QB DJ Uiagalelei was so good that not having Trevor Lawrence wasn’t as much of a problem for the Tigers as the absence of three defensive starters. There is some truth to that, but make no mistake, Lawrence changes everything.
No. 5 Texas A&M (7-1)
Next: at Tennessee, Saturday.
Reality check: Looks pretty simple for the Aggies to make the playoff: Beat the Vols, root like heck for Clemson to take another L and make sure the committee doesn’t suddenly fall in love with the Big 12 champion or an undefeated Cincinnati or USC — all of which seems unlikely.
No. 6 Cincinnati (8-0)
Next: vs. No. 20 Tulsa, AAC championship, Saturday.
Reality check: Bearcats are not traditionally built for style points, but they have been blowing teams out much of the season and any slim chance of making the playoff is contingent on hammering the Golden Hurricane.
No. 7 Indiana (6-1)
Next: vs. Purdue, Friday.
Reality check: The rivals get another crack at the Old Oaken Bucket, with a New Year’s Six bowl hanging in the balance for the Hoosiers.
No. 8 Iowa State (8-2)
Next: vs. No. 12 Oklahoma, Big 12 championship, Saturday.
Reality check: The Cyclones have their highest ranking in program history.
No. 9 Coastal Carolina (11-0)
Next: vs. No. 17 Louisiana-Lafayette, Sun Belt championship, Saturday.
Reality check: Chants summed up in one stat: In the first meeting with ULL, Coastal outgained the Ragin’ Cajuns by 1 yard (414-413), but held a 16-minute advantage in time of possession.
No. 10 Georgia (7-2)
Next: vs, Vanderbilt, Saturday.
Reality check: Enough voters decided to overlook the head-to-head and put the Bulldogs ahead of Florida. Credit J.T. Daniels. Easy to convince yourself this Georgia team is very different from the one that lost to the Gators without Daniels at quarterback.
No. 11 Florida (8-2)
Next: vs. No. 1 Alabama, SEC championship, Saturday.
Reality check: Kyle Trask threw for 474 yards against LSU and his Heisman chances dropped? The senior wasn’t bad, but he was far from his best.
No. 12 Oklahoma (7-2)
Next: vs. No. 8 Iowa State, Big 12 championship, Saturday.
Reality check: Sooners’ run defense (2.99 yards per carry against) is their best in years, but can they hold down Iowa State’s Breece Hall?
No. 13 USC (5-0)
Next: vs. Washington, Pac-12 championship, Friday.
Reality check: Trojans keep pulling games out. A credit to their grit or an indictment of their underachievement?
No. 14 BYU (10-1)
Reality check: With a bunch of teams opting out of the postseason, maybe the Cougars could play two bowl games?
No. 15 Northwestern (6-1)
Next: vs. No. 3 Ohio State, Big Ten championship, Saturday
Reality check: Wildcats ran for a combined 735 yards in their first game against Maryland and last game against Illinois. In between, they ran for 458 yards in five games.
No. 16 North Carolina (8-3)
Reality check: Confounding losses to Florida State and Virginia derailed what should have been a better season for the Tar Heels.
No. 17 Louisiana-Lafayette (9-1)
Next: at No. 9 Coastal Carolina, Sun Belt, Saturday
Reality check: Third straight Sun Belt title game appearance for the Ragin’ Cajuns since coach Billy Napier arrived.
No. 18 Iowa (6-2)
Next: vs. Michigan, Saturday.
Reality check: Six straight victories, including a rout of Wisconsin, have Reality Check wondering if the Hawkeyes would have been a tougher challenge for Ohio State than Northwestern.
No. 19 Miami (8-2)
Reality check: The biggest questions for the Hurricanes going forward: Does QB D’Eriq King stay for another year and will offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee do the same?
No. 20 Tulsa (6-1)
Next: vs. No. 6 Cincinnati, AAC championship, Saturday.
Reality check: Golden Hurricane have overcome double-digit deficits in the second half four times. Probably won’t work against the Bearcats.
No. 21 Texas (6-3)
Reality check: Longhorns will give it another spin with om Herman next season. No obvious reason why things will get substantially better, but it’s not out of the question. Sometimes coaches improve with experience, but rarely are they allowed to do so.
No. 22 Liberty (9-1)
Reality check: Now that Auburn has fired Gus Malzahn, the Hugh Freeze-back-to-the-SEC watch starts.
No. 23 Buffalo (5-0)
Next: vs. Ball State, MAC championship, Friday.
Reality check: RB Jaret Patterson reached 1,000 yards rushing in five games. The other FBS players to do that: Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, Ricky Williams and Bryce Love.
No. 24 North Carolina State (8-3)
Reality check: Wolfpack pieced together a solid season on the strength of six victories by 11 points or fewer.
No. 25 San Jose State (6-0)
Next: vs. Boise State, Mountain West championship,
Reality check: Spartans are ranked for the first time since 2012, and it’s no fluke. San Jose State averages a Mountain West-best 6.87 yards per play and is fourth in defense at 5.03.
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