Early Sun Belt Preview
Joe Nelson
Posted: 2018-06-27

The Sun Belt splits into two divisions this season and the conference could continue to grow in stature after a strong 3-1 bowl showing last winter, plus a marquee win over the SEC in the regular season. The conference has been a proving ground for major conference coaching candidates particularly in the SEC and now having a championship game to showcase the future is bright in the SBC.

The Sun Belt trims down to 10 this season with the departure of New Mexico State (now an independent) and Idaho (now playing at the FCS level) and forms five-team East and West divisions. That count allows for a nice schedule with only one missed opponent on the league slate but also means some imbalance in the divisions and the schedules in the debut season of the division format.

Appalachian State and Troy tied on top of the conference standings at 7-1 last season with those teams absent from each other's schedules last season. This year they meet in the regular season finale with that matchup expected to decide the fate of the East division champion and title game representative. Arkansas State will be the overall favorite for the conference title as the clear frontrunner in the East.

EAST OUTLOOK:

Troy: The Trojans wound up 11-2 overall last season and shared the Sun Belt regular season title. The scheduling draw in 2018 is favorable in the new division format as they won't play West favorite Arkansas State in the regular season. The big matchup with Appalachian State will be on the road as will games with Georgia Southern and UL-Monroe as the Trojans will need to maintain Neal Brown's 9-3 S/U road record from the past two seasons to continue as a threat for the league title. Non-conference tests early with Boise State and Nebraska will be telling with Troy delivering the headline-making upset over LSU last season. Troy also must replace prolific quarterback Brandon Silvers and the top two rushers from last season but many key players return from a defense that allowed just 18.5 points per game last season and was especially stingy against the run. The offensive line should remain first rate with three All Conference caliber returnees which could help ease the quarterback transition.

Appalachian State: Scott Satterfield has turned in winning seasons in four straight years since the Mountaineers joined the FBS level, including a combined 30-9 mark the past three seasons with three straight bowl wins with an impressive 34-0 win over Toledo last season. The Mountaineers must replace highly productive quarterback Taylor Lamb, a four-year starter however as it will be difficult to maintain the recent production. Last year's squad didn't match the success of the 2015 and 2016 squads as they drew a very light schedule in the SBC and still had a number of a narrow wins vs. lesser teams. Jalin Moore returns to lead the rushing attack and Victor Johnson is one of the top offensive linemen in the conference but there are questions on the front-seven on defense while quarterback play will be closely monitored replacing a school legend.

Georgia Southern: The Eagles won nine-games in both 2014 and 2015 but made a mid-season coaching change last season with interim head coach Chad Lunsford doing enough to earn the spot full time moving forward. This year's team has a chance to make a big move forward after winning just two games last season as there were many competitive losses and this is one of the most experienced teams in the conference. The Eagles are a deep sleeper for the conference title as they will host the three Sun Belt favorites and the road schedule is manageable once a September game at Clemson is out of the way. With an upset or two a rise to bowl eligibility looks possible as Georgia Southern should get back to its winning ways of the first half of the last decade.

Georgia State: The Panthers went 7-5 in Shawn Elliott's first season in Atlanta, ultimately picking up the programs first ever bowl win with a Cure Bowl victory over Western Kentucky for a successful campaign. Most of the producers from last season depart however aside from top receiver Penny Hart who could be the top target in the conference. As one of the few pass-first teams in the conference the Panthers can be a tough matchup but this was an erratic squad that had a few ugly losses last season despite the winning final record. Georgia State has a very tough road schedule in conference play this season and falling back below.500 looks like the most likely scenario for a program that has alternated disastrous and moderately successful seasons the past four years.

Coastal Carolina: Coastal Carolina won its first FBS game last season but then lost nine in a row before a pair of wins to close the season. Well regarded head coach Joe Moglia missed last season for medical reasons as this team should find its footing with better depth but the SBC draw is fairly difficult missing arguably the worst team from the West draw and facing a challenging quartet of league home games. Opportunities for wins aren't plentiful for Coastal Carolina who had a massive statistical gap with the rest of the league in most areas but Moglia has done nothing but win since taking over the program as the Chanticleers could make a bit of noise.

WEST OUTLOOK:

Arkansas State: The Red Wolves slipped to 7-5 last season for a second straight season of slight decline under Blake Anderson. Four of five losses last season came by single-scores however and Arkansas State looks like the clear frontrunner in the West. The Red Wolves don't have to play Troy from the East draw and the roster returns most of last season's offensive talent led by quarterback Justice Hansen. This squad out-gained its foes by 150 yards per game on average in conference play but the defense regressed form the 2016 results, finishing 6-2 in league play. A tough non-conference schedule will again take a toll but the Red Wolves are deserving of the top billing in this division and the conference overall.

Louisiana-Monroe: Monroe could be considered a threat in the West if only for giving Arkansas State a battle last season with a loss despite scoring 50 points. The Warhawks improved dramatically on offense in Matt Viator's second season and a lot of key players return for an expected 2018 breakthrough. Boosting the chances for success in the SBC slate is the absence of Appalachian State on the schedule however the Warhawks will be playing seven road games with the program going 4-25 S/U on the road the past four years combined. The defense allowed 532 yards per game last season as and two of the unit's top players from last season are gone as shootouts will be the norm for this group.

Louisiana: The Ragin' Cajuns nabbed Billy Napier as their new head coach and it won't be a shock if he is leading a SEC squad a few years down the road. A former Clemson and Alabama assistant he was the offensive coordinator at Arizona State last season and could have instant success in Lafayette. The Cajuns won five games last season and were competitive in most losses. The offense wasn't the issue last season and will again be the strength of the team in 2018. The defense that allowed 40 points per game last season returns just three starters however. Winnable home games are ahead as getting back to a bowl game after last season's absence looks possible but getting stops will be a challenge.

South Alabama: Joey Jones had a number of big wins at South Alabama but provided inconsistent season results since the program joined the FBS level. He has been replaced by Steve Campbell who has been at Central Arkansas the past four years. The offense really took a big fall last season as the Jaguars offered adequate defense by Sun Belt standards last season. This year's team has some returning experience on both sides and should be competitive despite going through a major transition. Ultimately all six road games look likely to be losses and a similar season to 2017 looks realistic.


Texas State: The Bobcats have posted back-to-back 2-10 seasons under Everett Withers and this squad will again be rated towards the very bottom of the FBS ranks. There is some experience back and a couple of close misses last year offers some promise for improvement. Unfortunately the best opportunities for wins could be road games with some of the better SBC teams visiting San Marcos but there are a pair of winnable opportunities at home in non-conference play. A new quarterback takes over an offense that netted just 17 points per game however and competing with the high-powered offenses in this division will be a challenge. The defense has enough talent to keep this team in a few games as improving the win count slightly is possible.



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