By 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, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we look to the Sun Belt Conference, where the league administrators may need to make sure they’re brushed up on their tie-breaking procedures as it looks to be a three team race for the title with no conference championship game.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Appalachian State Mountaineers
2) Arkansas State Red Wolves
3) Georgia Southern Eagles
4) Georgia State Panthers
5) Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
6) Troy Trojans
7) South Alabama Jaguars
8) Idaho Vandals
9) New Mexico State Aggies
10) Texas State Bobcats
11) Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks
Appalachian State Mountaineers
The Mountaineers have yet to have a losing season at the FBS level. They went 7-5 in 2014, 11-2 last year, and look to be primed for a good year once again as they try and chase their first conference title. They’ll do so with an experienced QB, loaded stable of running backs and a potentially dominant defense.
Junior QB Taylor Lamb enters his second season as the full-time starter having put up solid numbers last season (2,823 combined yards 36 combined TDs). He has 1,000 yard rusher Marcus Cox back (1,423) and change of pace back Jalin Moore as well who added 731 yards of his own. The running game looks stacked, but Lamb will be working without three of his top four targets from last year, so new playmakers will need to be found in the receiving corps. The offensive line brings back three starters from the unit that helped the Mountaineers pound out 271 yards per game on the ground last season. This offense looks to be on track to once again put up big numbers (36.7 points and 467 yards per game last season).
As good as the offense looks, the defense might just be better. All four starting linebackers, three starters in the secondary and one starter (out of three) on the defensive line return. The team does have to find a way to replace All Sunbelt 1st Team defensive end Ronald Blair, but the talent that’s back collectively should make-up for most of his production. The linebacker corps of Eric Boggs, John Law, Kennan Gilchrist and Devan Stringer combined for 300 tackles last season. The three starters back in the secondary (Latrell Gibbs, Tae Hayes and Alex Gray) combined for 10 interceptions last year and should be stingy once again this season. The defense might just be the best in the conference.
The Mountaineers have two tough out of conference games at Tennessee and home against Miami, FL. In conference, they face fellow top dog Georgia Southern on the road but don’t play Arkansas State. Hence why the lead in paragraph said to get your tie-breakers ready. This could get interesting.
Toughest Games: @ Tennessee (9/1), vs. Miami, FL (9/17), @ Akron (9/24), @ Georgia Southern (10/27)
Arkansas State Red Wolves
The Wolves went undefeated in conference play en route to their fifth straight winning season and bowl appearance. Despite having multiple coaches move on in that time (Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, Bryan Harsin), the Red Wolves have just kept on rolling and look poised to do so once again in year three with Blake Anderson. Anderson will need to find a new signal caller in order to keep the streak alive though.
The Wolves have all five starters back from an offensive line that paved the way for 231 yards per game on the ground last season and while they do lose their lead back, Michael Gordon, the 2nd and 3rd leading rushers return. The Warren Wand/Johnston White combination put up 1,323 yards and 19 touchdowns last season and seem more than capable of replacing Gordon’s production. The questions for the offense come as mentioned at QB, but also in the receiving corps. To replace Fred Knighten, Anderson has brought in Pitt transfer Chad Voytik and Oklahoma transfer Justice Hansen. The battle is ongoing in camp but whoever wins the job will be working with just one of the top four receivers from last year in Dijon Paschal. The Wolves do add a couple of transfers at that spot in Texas transfer Kendall Sanders and TCU transfer Cameron Echols-Luper. It comes down to who can win the starting job and how quickly they develop chemistry with the receivers to determine whether this unit can match the 40 points per game they put up last year.
Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen has some good talent to work with as three starters from a secondary that produced 26 interceptions last season return (the departure Rocky Hayes had 6). Meanwhile, the unit’s top two tacklers in linebackers Khari Lain and Xavier Woodson-Luster are back as well. The defensive line loses a couple of key starters but gains an Alabama transfer in massive tackle Dee Liner who should be able to offset some of the lost production. While not as much overall experience returns as App State, the Wolves have a chance to be just as good on D and will almost certainly cut down on the 30 points per game they allowed last year.
The Wolves also face Georgia Southern, but they get the Eagles at home. Outside of that, the conference slate looks favorable except for an end of the season stretch of four road games in five weeks, albeit against beatable opponents. The Red Wolves along with our next team are likely to challenge the Mountaineers for the conference title.
Toughest Games: vs. Toledo (9/3), @ Auburn (9/10), @ Utah State (9/16), vs. Georgia Southern (10/5)
Georgia Southern Eagles
The Eagles, similarly to Appalachian State, have had no problems adjusting to FBS level competition as they’ve gone 9-3 and 9-4 in their first two seasons and got their first-ever bowl victory last season. Now, however, the man that led that transition, Willie Fritz, is gone and to replace him the school tabbed Tyson Summers (Colorado St DC) as the new head coach.
The Eagles run the triple option offense, which means that the passing numbers can generally be tossed out the window and the real focus is the run game. They ran a two-QB system last year with Favian Upshaw and Kevin Ellison and I see no reason why they wouldn’t do so again this season considering the pair led an offense that scored 36 points per game. Aside from the two QB’s, top rushers Matt Breida (1,608 yards 17 TD), LA Ramsby (816 yards 13 TD) and Wesley Fields (682 yards 7 TD) are all back at running back. Behind an offensive line that returns three starters, the Eagles should be right around the 363 yards rushing they averaged last season again this year.
On defense, the biggest question mark comes in the secondary where all four starters from last year depart. DC Lorenzo Costantini will have some help from the fact that the front seven is very good bringing back six of the seven starters. That includes two 2nd team all Sun Belt linemen in Jay Ellison and Bernard Dawson and linebackers Deshawntee Gallon and Chris DeLaRosa. The Eagles also add in Florida State transfer Ukeme Eligwe to the linebacker group making the front seven very talented. The back end will have some of the pressure taken off it by virtue of how good the front is, but these guys will still need to grow up fast for the Eagles to truly harbor title hopes.
Georgia Southern’s easiest road to winning this conference is to beat both Arkansas State and App State when they play them in October. If they can do so, the road to a SBC title is clear. There’s a couple of interesting non-conference tests on the schedule particularly against fellow triple option school Georgia Tech on October 15th.
Toughest Games: @ Western Michigan (9/24), @ Arkansas State (10/5), @ Georgia Tech (10/15), vs. Appalachian State (10/27), @ Ole Miss (11/5)
Louisiana Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
The Cajuns posted four straight 9-4 seasons from 2011-2014 before falling back to just 4-8 last season. It was only the second losing season under Mark Hudspeth and this year they look ready to turn things around. They could be the dark horse in this conference as they play each of the top three with two of the games coming at home.
The QB position was a bit of a mess last season with three different guys seeing playing time. Two of those guys in sophomore Jordan Davis and senior Jalen Nixon are back. However, Nixon is now listed as a running back on the roster so it looks like the job is Davis’ to lose. He only played in two games last season so this will be his first true taste of starting action. The good news is he’ll have plenty of help with six of the top seven receivers back (top guy is gone) and an experienced running back in Elijah McGuire. Speaking of McGuire, he rushed for 1,058 yards and 13 touchdowns last season despite an offensive line that was banged up last year. That line should be healthier but does lose two starters. How quickly Davis develops will determine what kind of season we can expect and whether or not the Cajuns are still a year away from beating the top dogs.
The defense doesn’t have any glaring question at any level. The line will be solid with two starters back from last season in tackles Karmichael Dunbar and Taboris Lee. The linebackers return star Otha Peters (68 tackles 6 TFL) and outside linebacker Tracy Walker (74 tackles 5 TFL) along with former LSU transfer Trey Granier. In the secondary, corner Savion Brown and safety Travis Crawford will be joined by corner Simon Thomas who was out for the year due to injury last season. This has the makings of a very solid group, but they’ll need to prove it on the field as last season with most of those players they gave up 32 points and 421 yards per game.
The schedule features home games against App State and Arkansas State plus the road game at Georgia Southern. The two big non-conference games are Boise State and Georgia. There’s a unique opportunity for this team as they get to play all three of the expected top teams in the conference and wins against those three would almost assure a conference title. Alas, with a new QB and offensive coordinator I don’t think this is they year they’ll get it done, but they will likely be bowl eligible.
Toughest Games: vs. Boise State (9/3), vs. Appalachian State (10/12), @ Georgia Southern (11/10), @ Georgia (11/19), vs. Arkansas State (11/26)
Georgia State Panthers
The Panthers are in their third season in the FBS and have steadily improved in each season (0-12, 1-11, 6-7) reaching a bowl game last year, the first in school history. Now, Trent Miles has an experienced group on both sides of the ball, but has to replace SBC Player of The Year QB Nick Arbuckle. However, the Panthers have enough talent that a return to a bowl game is very possible.
Despite losing Arbuckle, offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski has plenty to work with. Four of the top five receivers are back, including the top duo of Penny Hart and Robert Davis, who combined for 2,079 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. The offensive line brings back three starters and all four top rushers return. Granted, last season the running game was anemic (92 ypg), but with a more experienced line and RB group, those numbers should improve. Now, for the important question, how to replace Arbuckle? Utah transfer Conner Manning, sophomore Emiere Scaife and red-shirt freshman Aaron Winchester are competing for the job in camp. None have started a game at the FBS level. The inexperienced QB will have good talent around him which should ease the transition and allow the Panthers to replicate their 26.9 points per game.
On defense, the picture is even rosier. All four defensive line starters are back, two top linebackers in Kaleb Ringer and Alonzo McGee return and the secondary has three returning starters including safety Bobby Baker who had three interceptions last year and was third on the team in tackles (76). They do lose their top two tacklers, but DC Jesse Minter has a lot of returning talent and should be able to improve upon the 28.3 points and 408 yards per game they gave up last season.
The schedule is tough with games against all three of the top teams in the conference, but the Panthers did beat Georgia Southern last year on the road and now get the Eagles at home this season. If they can quickly integrate the new QB, this team can make a bowl run.
Toughest Games: @ Air Force (9/10), @ Wisconsin (9/17), @ Appalachian State (10/1), vs. Arkansas State (11/4), vs. Georgia Southern (11/19)
The Trojans had a tough first year under Neal Brown going just 4-8 last season. The program hasn’t had a winning season in the last five years. They look to turn that around this year with a quarterback entering his third year as the starter.
Brandon Silvers won the starting job in 2014 and hasn’t looked back since. He’s steadily improved in his first two years and now entering his junior season looks ready to break out. He’ll be protected by an offensive line that returns four starters from last year’s group that allowed only 18 sacks. The questions on offense come at the skill positions however as the top rusher and four of five leading receivers depart. At running back, the team will get Jordan Chunn back from injury this season and should be able to help offset the loss in production. Head coach Neal Brown runs an “Air Raid” offense so I would expect the receivers to be productive even though they’re inexperienced purely because they’ll have plenty of opportunities. With a more experienced QB and a solid line, this team should eclipse the 28 points per game they averaged last season.
On defense, the big question mark for me is the defensive line which loses three starters from last year’s group including All SBC defensive end Tyler Roberts. The good news is the Trojans have their entire linebacker corps back and lose just one starter in the secondary, albeit a big one in All SBC safety Montres Kitchens. The defensive line will be key to whether or not the Trojans can cut down on their points per game (28) from last season, watch for how that develops early.
The Trojans also play all three of the top teams in the conference, but I don’t see the same level of talent here as with the Cajuns. They also draw Clemson and Southern Miss in non-conference play. The rest of their seven games are winnable and they could pull an upset or two so I see this team getting back to a bowl game this season.
Toughest Games: @ Clemson (9/10), @ Southern Miss (9/17), vs. Appalachian State (11/12), vs. Arkansas State (11/17), @ Georgia Southern (12/3)
The Vandals are going to be taking the step down to the FCS in 2018 as they’ll join the Big Sky conference. The move makes sense for a team that has had just one winning season since 2000 and just four since rejoining FBS in 1996. Just because they’re taking a step down doesn’t mean they can’t go out with a bang this year and next however.
Matt Linehan is back at QB after throwing for 2,972 yards 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year as a sophomore. With another year of experience under his belt and an offensive line with four starters returning in front of him I’d expect Linehan to improve on those numbers with more time to pick out his receivers. Speaking of the receivers, three of the top five are back and that trio of Callen Hightower, Trent Cowan and Deon Watson combined for 1,924 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The passing game looks ready to surpass the 300 yard per game mark. The run game leaves a little to be desired as top back Elijhaa Penny (1,159 yards 10 TD) departs and the 2nd leading back, Aaron Duckworth had just 260 yards last season. Overall, the passing game looks good and fully capable of improving on the 30 points per game the Vandals averaged last year.
Defensively, the team was horrid last year allowing 42.1 points and 485 yards per game. So, despite the loss of two starters on the defensive line, two linebackers and one in the secondary it’s hard to predict this unit being much worse. The secondary also gets back senior corner Jayshawn Jordan, who played only three games before being out for the year with an injury. As I said, despite the losses, it’s hard to see them doing worse with six starters and more experienced players back.
The Vandals play App State but avoid the other two big boys, which means conference play is wide open for them. There’s enough here to think that six wins (they had four last year despite the bad defense) could be had and a bowl berth could be earned.
Toughest Games: @ Washington (9/10), @ Washington State (9/17), @ Appalachian State (10/22) @ Louisiana Lafayette (11/5)
South Alabama Jaguars
This will be the Jaguars fifth season in the FBS (eighth year of football total) and they are still searching for their first winning season. They came close in 2014 going 6-6 and earning a bowl bid, but they lost the Camellia Bowl to Bowling Green to fall to 6-7. This season, head coach Joey Jones will have to work some magic to get them into another bowl as this squad is significantly less experienced.
The good news on offense is that the top two running backs and top two receivers return from last season. The bad news is that the offensive line must replace the center, right guard and right tackle and there will be a new QB under center. For the signal caller spot, sophomore Dallas Davis battles Marshall transfer Evan Garvin. The battle is still ongoing as Davis recently suffered a minor shoulder injury and missed the team’s scrimmage this past weekend. Offensive coordinator Bryan Vincent does have weapons at the skill positions at his disposal in backs Xavier Johnson and Tyreis Thomas along with receivers Gerald Everett and Josh Magee. That said, a rebuilding offensive line and new QB generally isn’t a recipe for success.
The defense was less than stellar last year particularly against the run where the Jaguars gave up 221 yards per game. This season, they lose two starters along the defensive line and one expected returning starter in Caleb Butler, who tore his ACL in the spring. Combine that with a secondary that loses both corners and the outlook for the passing game doesn’t look great as there’s no obvious candidates for generating a pass rush (had just 11 sacks last year) and the two cover guys are gone. The linebackers group should be very good with three returning starters and the back end of the secondary brings back safety Devon Earl who forced three fumbles last season. New defensive coordinator Kane Wommack (Eastern Illinois) has some work to do in order to get this unit to cut down on last year’s numbers.
The non-conference features two SEC foes (Miss State and LSU) and the top team in the Mountain West (SDSU). In conference, they have to face Georgia Southern and Arkansas State. Those games, barring upsets, looks like five tallies in the loss column already. That doesn’t bode well for the Jaguars bowl hopes.
Toughest Games: @ Mississippi State (9/3), vs. Georgia Southern (9/10), vs. San Diego State (10/1), @ Arkansas State (10/15), @ LSU (11/19)
New Mexico State Aggies
The Aggies haven’t had a winning season since 2002. The last time they played in a bowl game was 1960. In the first three years under Doug Martin they have gone 2-10, 2-10, and 3-9 last season. Unfortunately, due to a very difficult schedule, the Aggies will likely continue their streak of futility this season.
The offense has one of the more not talked about, good running backs in the country in Larry Rose who entering his junior season has had back-to-back 1,000 yard years. This season he’ll go for three straight, and he’ll do so behind an offensive line that brings back two starters but also returns tackle Thomas McGwire, who missed last season with a knee injury. The top receiver, senior Tyrian Taylor, is also back following a 39 catch 691 yard season in which the Aggies shuffled between three QB’s. Quarterback is the trouble spot once again, but the team did add TCU grad transfer Tyler Matthews who is battling Tyler Rogers (53% 966 yards 7 TD 3 INT last season) for the job. Either way, this offense looks capable of at least replicating last year’s 28.6 points per game.
There’s a new defensive coordinator in town in Frank Spaziani. He will have an experienced line that gets two ends back from injury to add to two returning starters already in the group. With all three starters at linebacker and two starters in the secondary back, Spaziani should be able to put together a unit that allows fewer than the 45 points and 522 yards per game that last year’s D gave up.
The Aggies schedule is rough. Away games at SEC schools Kentucky and Texas A&M along with a rivalry game against New Mexico litter the non-conference slate, while they also draw the top three in the Sun Belt in conference. Martin has a good team that should be better on both sides of the ball, but it’s hard to see much improvement in the win column.
Toughest Games: vs. New Mexico (9/10), @ Kentucky (9/17), vs. Georgia Southern (10/22), @ Texas A&M (10/29), @ Arkansas State (11/12), vs. Appalachian State (11/26)
The Warhawks have trended in the wrong direction over the past four seasons. The high water mark was 2012 when they went 8-5 and reached the first bowl game in school history. Since then the team has gone 6-6, 4-8 and 2-11. That led to a change in leadership and Matt Viator of McNeese State steps in to try and build the program. He has a lot of talent to work with on offense, but some gaping hole on defense.
Starting QB Garrett Smith is back for his sophomore season following a freshman year in which he threw for 2,033 yards 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions before being lost for the year due to injury in Week 10. Now healthy, Smith will have three of his top four targets back and top running back Ben Luckett to work with. The offensive line should be strong too with three starters back and this unit under the direction of new coordinator Matt Kubik should be able to top the 21 points and 311 yards that they averaged last year.
New defensive coordinator Mike Collins has a lot to work to do on his side of the ball. Switching to a 4-2-5 from a 3-3-5, the Warhawks have zero returning starters on the defensive line and in the linebackers corps. Collins will have three secondary starters to work with in safeties Tre Hunter and Wesley Thompson and corner Lenzy Pipkins. The Warhawks gave up 36.5 points and 423 yards per game on defense last year and Collins will have to work some magic to cut that down this year.
Toughest Games: @ Oklahoma (9/10), @ Georgia Southern (9/17), @ Auburn (10/1), @ Arkansas State (10/29), @ Appalachian State (11/19)
Texas State Bobcats
The Bobcats are another relatively new program to the FBS level as they enter their fifth year at the top level. They’ll do so with a new coach following the resignation of Dennis Franchione. In steps Everett Withers, formerly of FCS James Madison. He’ll bring a new staff with him as Brian Elliott takes over the offense and Randall McCray takes over the D. This will be a rebuilding project as there are a lot of question marks on this team.
One area that isn’t as much of a question mark is the QB position. Tyler Jones enters his senior season with two full years of starting experience under his belt and needs 3,723 yards to become the school’s all-time leading passer. Who he’s going to be throwing to is a big question as eight of nine receivers from last season are gone. The lone returnee, Demun Mercer, caught just 19 passes for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns. The running back position is a little less shaky but they do lose last year’s leading rusher. The good news is that the offensive line brings three full-time starters and a couple of part-time guys back from last year so that should be a healthy unit.
On defense, things look a little better, though they will be switching schemes to more of a 3-4. There’s just one starter back on the defensive line, two starters at linebacker and three back in the secondary. The one defensive lineman is less of a concern as they move to a three man front and the back end should be solid. The Bobcats allowed 39.2 points and 522 yards per game last season and despite being in a new system should be able to cut down on that this year.
Toughest Games: @ Ohio (9/3), @ Arkansas (9/17), vs. Houston (9/24), @ Appalachian State (11/5), vs. Arkansas State (12/3)
Conference Winner- Appalachian State
I’ll give the Mountaineers the edge here due to the experience they have back at the QB spot. Arkansas State should be just fine there with either of the transfers, but they’ll still be in a new offense and that takes some time to adjust to in games. I think the Mountaineers will get rolling right from Week 1 and they take home the SBC title. That said, it’s very likely that the Wolves and Mountaineers tie leaving us all scrambling for the tiebreaker procedures.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.