2017 Sun Belt Football Preview

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

The Sun Belt has settled into a familiar pattern in the past six years as Arkansas State has taken home at least a share of the title in five of those six seasons. The Red Wolves were joined at the top last season by Appalachian State, and the Mountaineers look poised to maintain a spot as a power player in the conference. As a new year dawns, the conference’s surprise contender from last year, Troy, once again looks primed to cause trouble. Let’s dive in to the conference known colloquially as the “Fun Belt”.

Contenders

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Appalachian State QB Taylor Lamb. Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Appalachian State Mountaineers

Scott Satterfield’s group went 10-3 (7-1 Sun Belt) in their run to a co-conference title with Arkansas State last season, which was particularly impressive considering the fact that it was just the program’s third season of being back at the FBS level. It was their second consecutive year of double-digit wins, and their second consecutive Camellia Bowl win. Satterfield’s group has wasted no time in adjusting to life at the FBS level as they’ve yet to have a losing record. This year should be no different as long as everyone stays healthy.

On offense, senior QB Taylor Lamb (60.6%, 2,786 combined yards 15 pass TDs 8 INTs) returns as does running back Jalin Moore (237 carries 1,402 10TDs) along with top wide receiver Shaedon Meadors (45 receptions 716 yards 2 TDs).  The offensive line brings back four starters from last year’s group, but lacks experience behind them, which could be a problem in the case of injuries.

On defense, defensive ends Tee Sims and Caleb Fuller are back as are outside linebackers Devan Stringer, Rashaad Townes and Akeem Davis. The secondary brings back one of the best corners in the league in sophomore Clifton Duck and gets back Latrell Gibbs after missing last year due to academic ineligibility.

The big key for App State this year is the schedule as the Mountaineers miss both Troy and Arkansas State this year in conference. So, they open as the favorites purely by not having to play the other favorites. Bovada has them listed at 9 wins. That means they have the wiggle room to lose all of their out of conference games, which they won’t (they play UMass who will be bad, even Wake Forest is a winnable game). Over 9 wins

Troy Trojans

Remember that game? Troy had the eventual national champions on the ropes for much of the contest. Now, the Trojans bring back a lot of that same offensive talent this season, which will hopefully make up for the loss of four linebackers on the defensive side.

Senior QB Brandon Silvers (63% 3,180 yards 23 TD 12 INT) returns , with top running back Jordan Chunn (279 carries 1,288 yards 16 TDs) who is joined by former Memphis top-recruit Jamarius Henderson in the backfield. Silvers will have two of his top receivers to throw to as senior Emanuel Thompson and junior Deondre Douglas are back (141 catches 1,569 yards 12 TDs). With all three interior linemen returning, that could lead to an improved running game, but the loss of both starting tackles is concerning.

On defense, they lose four linebackers who combined for 157.5 tackles 22.5 TFL 5 sacks and 3 INT last season. That’s a lot of production to replace, so that’s the biggest question mark with this team. Solid up front with both defensive tackles returning and in the back end, six of the top seven DBs are back. The schedule is fairly light, with the biggest match-up coming against Arkansas State. Bovada has them listed at 8.5, based on the amount of returning talent on offense, I’ll take the over. Over 8.5 wins

Arkansas State

If I’m being honest, the Red Wolves place in this tier is largely based on their recent history than it is on the talent returning this year. Last season’s team started out 0-4 and looked to be headed for a down year before ripping off a 7-1 run in conference and finishing with the 31-13 win over UCF in the Cure Bowl. The offense should be loaded but the defense has some big shoes to fill.

Last year’s top two running backs Warren Wand and Johnston White (305 carries 1,351 yards 12 TD) return, as do a trio of receiving threats in tight end Blake Mack and wide receivers Kendall Sanders and Cam Echols-Luper. That provides a good foundation of weapons for junior QB Justice Hansen to work with, but he’ll do so behind a severely inexperienced offensive line that returns just one player (sophomore guard Troy Elliott) who has started a game (2). How the line comes together will determine how explosive this team can be, but at the very least, they should get better as the year goes on.

On defense, they lose four of the top six linemen and three of four defensive backs from last year’s team. Filling those spots will be key, but they do have some key returnees. Seniors like LB Kyle Wilson, defensive end Ja’Von Rolland Jones and corner Blaise Taylor should provide a good experience base to work with. They do get Troy at home which could be big in the conference race. The offensive line should come together as the season goes on, and they’ve shown a tendency to dominate conference foes, which leads me to see eight wins as a possibility. Over 7.5 wins.

Bowl Bidders

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Conner Manning #7 of the Georgia State Panthers. Credit: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Georgia State Panthers

The Panthers bring in a new head coach after a disappointing 3-9 season, as Shawn Elliott takes the helm. Elliott’s name is known largely for his stint as interim head coach at South Carolina after Steve Spurrier’s surprise in-season retirement two years ago. He was the offensive line coach for the Gamecocks before and after that stretch and he’ll have an experienced offensive line to work with here.

The offensive line brings back four starters in front of senior QB Conner Manning (55.5% 2,684 yards 16 TD 13 INT). That, combined with top receivers Penny Hart and Todd Boyd returning (104 catches 1,451 yards 9 TDs) means the passing game is likely to be pretty good. The biggest question new coordinator Travis Trickett has to answer is in the running game as this offense averaged just 87 yards per game an 3.1 yards per carry on the ground last year.

On defense, the new defensive coordinator is Nate Fuqua, formerly of Wofford. Defense was good against the pass (54.4% 173.9 YPG) and bad against the run (206.8 YPG, 4.3 average). This year, they’ve got plenty of returning experience with 10 starters back. Defensive end Mackendy Crider (6 TFL 2.5 sacks) and linebacker Michael Shaw (12 TFL, 3 sacks) are the main playmakers for the unit.

The schedule does give them both App State and Troy at home, but they’re likely to be an underdog in both of those games which means most of their “winnable” games are going to be on the road. They’ll need to play well on the road to hit that 6-win bar necessary for a bowl bid. Push 5 wins.

Idaho Vandals

This will be the Vandals last year in FBS as they prepare to move down to the FCS level and join the Big Sky. Paul Petrino and company picked up the program’s first bowl win in seven years last season and they’ll hope to exit the FBS stage with another bowl appearance. There’s enough talent here to think they could do it.

Senior QB Matt Linehan is back after completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 3,184 yards and a 19-10 TD-to-INT ratio. He loses his top two receivers and top two tight end threats from last year, so finding guys to step up will be the key question for this offense. The running game should be solid once again, with both senior Aaron Duckworth and junior Isaiah Saunders back this season (303 carries 1,403 yards 14 TDs combined) and three starting offensive linemen returning.

On defense, the line and the secondary are the question marks as four of the top five linemen and all four secondary starters from last year are gone. They do return three junior linebackers with Tony Lashley, Ed Hall and Kaden Elliss all back. Senior defensive end Aikeem Coleman had 11 TFL and 8 sacks last season and should provide a solid pass-rush threat again. They draw Appalachian State at home and Troy on the road, with an out of conference game against Missouri also on the slate. So, nine wins is unlikely, but pushing for a final bowl bid is not. Over 4.5 wins.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

Welcome the Chanticleers to the FBS ranks! Joe Moglia’s squad makes the jump this year after a 10-2 campaign last year in FCS and should have some success in year one due to their depth and starting experience.

Last year, the Chanticleers racked up those ten wins despite six, yes SIX, different QBs getting starts due to a compilation of injuries. That leaves the QB spot unsettled heading into this season, but, there’s plenty of help for them with four returning starters on the offensive line and a Power 5 transfer at running back in Boston College transfer Marcus Outlow.

The defense loses four guys in the secondary but returns a pair of play-making ends in senior Marcus Williamson and sophomore Myles White (15.5 TFL 7 sacks combined) and senior linebacker Shane Johnson (5.5 TFL).

The problem is, in Year 1, the conference schedule does them no favors with App State, Arkansas State, and Troy all on deck. Throw in a trip to Idaho and a game at home against Georgia State and the Chants(?) are going to have to pull a few upsets to make a serious run at a bowl bid, but they could hang around and five wins feels about right. Over 4 wins.

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Tyson Summers (R) shakes hands with Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson. Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Georgia Southern Eagles

Georgia Southern, like Appalachian State, stormed onto the scene at the FBS level with back-to-back nine win seasons under Willie Fritz in 2014 and 2015. That included the program’s first ever bowl victory over Bowling Green in the 2015 GoDaddy bowl. Fritz left to take over the reigns at Tulane and in came Tyson Summers. Year 1 under Summers was a disappointment as the team faltered to 5-7 despite plenty of returning pieces. This year could be another middle-of-the-road campaign as many of last year’s contributors are gone.

Georgia Southern has traditionally been an option football team and that requires a certain level of precision and decision-making from its QBs. In this case, the Eagles lose both Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw from last year, but do bring back sophomore Seth Shuman who saw some time under center. They’ll also be without top rusher Matt Breida and three of the top four receivers. Three starters are back on the offensive line and new coordinator Brian Cook (Georgia Tech) has plenty of experience with the option coming from Paul Johnson’s staff. Still, there’s numerous question marks that need to be answered on this unit.

The same goes for the defense where the front seven saw the top three linebackers and seven of the top nine defensive linemen move on from a group that was solid allowing 400 yards (229 pass 171 rush) and 26.5 PPG last season. The secondary has plenty of experience, but without the guys up front finding their form, they could be hung out to dry.

The Eagles also draw all three of Arkansas State, Appalachian State and Troy this season but they do get rival South Alabama at home. Vegas has them at 5 wins and that feels about right. Push 5 wins.

South Alabama Jaguars

South Alabama has been a model of consistency since the 2013 season finishing 6-6, 6-7, 5-7, and 6-7. Not necessarily the kind of consistency that wins you wide acclaim, but it is the type that puts you in a position to be in a bowl game every year. They enter 2017 under head coach Joey Jones hoping to take a step forward and to break through that six win ceiling they’ve consistently bumped up against the past four seasons.

Last year’s offense averaged 25.4 PPG (92nd FBS) and relied a lot on explosive passing plays to rack up those points. Neither QB, Dallas Davis or Cole Garvin, was particularly accurate (56.7% and 54.7% respectively), but the receivers made big plays when the ball got to them. This season, both Davis and Garvin return, but they lose their top four receivers. The line in front of them should be solid with three returning starters and a pair of major-college transfers in Tyler Grimsley (Miami) and Sean Barrette (Mississippi State). That should help not only the QBs, but a running game that mustered only 145.6 yards per game on four yards per carry last year.

The defense loses its top pass-rusher in Randy Allen (19.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks), but five other linemen who saw time last year return. Behind them, linebackers Darrell Songy (leading tackler) and Bull Barge will be there to clean up messes. That experience should hopefully help improve a run defense that got gashed to the tune of 215.5 yards per game last year.

The schedule is tough with games against Troy, Georgia State and Georgia Southern all coming on the road. Add a home date with Arkansas State and out of conference games against Ole Miss and Oklahoma State and the Jaguars will have to win a couple of games that are toss-ups to get to six wins. Still, based on their history, the Jaguars feel like a safe bet to beat their four-win projection by Vegas. Over 4 wins.

Rebuilding

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Head coach Mark Hudspeth of the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns. Credit: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns

After four straight 9-4 seasons with wins in the New Orleans Bowl from 2011-2014, Mark Hudspeth’s program has taken a step back the past two years. A 4-8 record in 2015 followed up by a 6-7 record and their first ever loss in the New Orleans Bowl last year. This season, they’re breaking in a new QB and RBs behind an experienced offensive line and on defense, they’ll look to replace two major pieces after the departures of LBs Otha Peters and Tre’maine Lightfoot. The Cajuns could return to a bowl game, but there’s too many question marks on offense to predict that just yet.

The QB battle will likely come down to sophomore Dion Ray and junior Jordan Davis, with a RB combo of sophomore Jordan Wright and Darius Hoggins. There’s a lot of inexperience there as the running backs carried just 114 times for 476 yards combined, while the two QBs attempted a combined four passes last year. That lack of experience combined with a new system under new coordinator Will Hall (West Georgia), tends to point towards a less effective offense this year. But, it can’t be much worse than the 23.6 PPG (109th) they averaged last year.

The defense was the strong point last year and will be again this season with seven of eight defensive linemen and six of the top eight defensive backs returning. Losing Peters and Lightfoot hurts, but there’s some playmaking talent still here. DE Joe Dillon (12.5 TFL 7 sacks) and tackles Taboris Lee and Kevon Perry on the interior could be disruptive enough to allow some young linebackers to grow into their role.

The schedule is tough with road games against Appalachian State and Arkansas State along with a home date against Georgia Southern. Unless the defense is dominating, the five wins Vegas has for them feels right. Push 5 wins

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Matt Viator had a difficult first year as the team went 4-8 but, the starting QB got hurt in Week 6 and that forced two freshmen QBs into rotating duties. Year 2 promises the return of Smith from injury with plenty of options at running back and a solid line. The defense was really bad (39.1 PPG, 480 YPG) last season with a lot of young guys. How much improvement can they make on that side of the ball?

Even when Smith was healthy, the passing game wasn’t particularly explosive as Smith averaged just 206 yards passing per contest with a 9-7 TD-to-INT ratio. Smith returns along with three of his top four receivers, so improvement is expected. With four running backs that had at least 45 carries last season, there are options to help in the ground game after the team averaged 180 yards rushing last season. The running game, behind an experienced line, should be solid again. If the passing game catches up, they should eclipse the 23.3 PPG average from last season.

On defense, the good news is there are a lot of guys back from last year’s group. Granted, that can also be taken as bad news because of the stats that they allowed last season. David Griffith and Chase Day are two guys to watch as they combined for 22 TFL and five sacks last season. Home dates with App State, Arkansas State, and Georgia State along with hitting the road for the rivalry match-up with the Cajuns makes for a tough slate. No numbers on the Warhawks at the moment from Bovada, but it’s hard to see more than four wins.

New Mexico State Aggies

The Aggies haven’t recorded a winning season since 2002 and current coach Doug Martin’s tenure has been a tough one with a 10-38 record over the last four seasons. Last year, that guy you see above, Larry Rose III, got injured, the passing game was inefficient and the defense was disastrous (38.8 PPG, 497.3 YPG). This season, with better health, the offense should be pretty good. The defense? Still a question mark. Oh, and this is NMSU’s final year in the Sun Belt after being voted out along with Idaho last year. No pressure.

Larry Rose III returns for his senior season with 3,624 rushing yards and 27 TDs under his belt already. He’s averaged a healthy 6.2 yards per carry in his career and with most of the offensive line back, he should provide similar explosiveness this year. The passing game, led by senior Tyler Rogers, completed just 55.4 percent of his passes last year, but he does have his top five receivers back. That experience points towards improvement on the 24.8 PPG last year, but the defense is problematic.

The top tackler from last year, Rodney Butler, is gone, but fellow linebackers Dalton Herrington and Terrill Hanks return. They did add eight junior college transfers on the defensive side in an attempt to help the beleaguered unit. The schedule is tough. All three of the conference big boys (Troy, App State, Arkansas State), plus out of conference games against Arizona State and Arkansas, with Georgia Southern and Lafayette on the road? Vegas has them at 3.5 wins, I’ll take the over, barely. Over 3.5 wins

Texas State Bobcats

Everett Withers had a large task ahead of him when he took the job last year and last season was a perfect example of a Year 0 in a rebuilding project. A 2-10 record with a bad offense (18.6 PPG, 124th) and defense (41.1 PPG, 125th), there wasn’t much going right last season.

This season, the top RB, top six WRs and four offensive linemen are back. The biggest question is QB, but they welcome in a Power 5 transfer in Damian Williams from Mississippi State. Williams attempted just 117 passes for the Bulldogs, but he showed flashes in that limited action. With skill position talent surrounding him, the offense projects to be better than last year but, then again, it’s hard to be much worse.

On defense, the line has three guys back, but none of them had more than one sack. Sophomore linebacker Bryan London led the team in tackles last year (142 total, 10 TFL) and you’d expect him to continue to grow. Again, the defense should take a step forward, but there’s nowhere to go but up.

The most winnable games on the schedule come against New Mexico State (home) and UL-Monroe (home) along with their opener against Houston Baptist. If they win all three of those games, they hit the over. But, I’m not sure they win all three of those games. Signs of progress this year from the Bobcats, but not necessarily in the win column. Under 2.5 wins

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