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ASU's Jones has admired Sun Belt from a distance

by Eli Lederman | April 28, 2021 at 2:38 a.m.

Arkansas State University Coach Butch Jones said Tuesday he's been following the Sun Belt Conference closely dating back to his 2013 arrival at Tennessee.

During his time in charge of the Volunteers (2013-17) and later as an assistant at Alabama (2018-20), he scouted players from the same regions as the Sun Belt programs, which meant he also he recruited against and became familiar with his counterparts in that conference, too. Jones' teams also faced a Sun Belt opponent five times, including a pair of games against the Red Wolves -- first at Tennessee in 2014 and later with Alabama in 2018.

"I've had a tremendous amount of respect for this conference," Jones said. "All you have to do is do a fact-check and look at the recent results of this conference. There's some great venues in college football that are going to be difficult for us to play in on the road, and there's great coaches, great players and great fan bases."

Jones spoke via Zoom about the conference he joined in December and the 2021 football season along with the Sun Belt's other nine coaches Tuesday. The 53-year-old coach is aiming to lead a turnaround after a 2020 season in which ASU finished 4-7 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2010.

Jones joins South Alabama's Kane Wommack and Louisiana-Monroe's Terry Bowden as new additions to the Sun Belt.

During their respective podium sessions, several of the conference's returning coaches spoke about the challenges Jones and his fellow newcomers can expect from the Sun Belt.

"The thing that I had to learn when I came into it is each week really is a battle," Coastal Carolina Coach Jamey Chadwell said.

Appalachian State Coach Shawn Clark and Louisiana-Lafayette Coach Billy Napier said floor-to-ceiling improvement of the conference over the past 10 years has intensified conference games.

Napier said increased investment into individual programs has elevated the quality of the Sun Belt. Clark cited the conference's success against Power 5 opponents -- such as Appalachian State's wins over North Carolina and South Carolina in 2019, and ASU's victory at Kansas State last fall.

Chadwell looked no further than Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette's Top-25 finishes in the 2020 College Football Playoff rankings as evidence of a conference that is only becoming more challenging.

"Top to bottom, our conference has gotten better," Clark said. "You can look at the records and see how we compete out of conference. I think we have one of the best Group of Five conferences in the country."

Asked about the differences between coaching in the Sun Belt and SEC, Jones said he sees very few.

"It's very similar," he said. "The players are very driven and want to do well. You're competing in a conference where it's important to all the institutions.

"There's high commitment levels. There's high expectations in recruiting. I don't see any difference."

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