For every best, there must be a worst, even in the world of college football. And among the sport’s 10 conferences, the Sun Belt takes the spot of the worst. Yes, four Sun Belt teams made it to bowl games last season, and the two who won – Appalachian State and Georgia State – are new additions who were both victorious in their first year of bowl eligibility. That’s not to say that there’s not decent football being played in the Sun Belt. There is. But there’s also a passel of less-than-good teams in the conference. Our average pre-season ranking of Sun Belt teams is almost 89 – close to four more than C-USA, which has been hit hard by conference expansion.
Still, there are some competitive teams in the Sun Belt (just ask Florida, which fell prey to Georgia Southern two years ago). However, once you get beyond the lead pack (Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern), the level of competition drops off sharply. While the top teams will dominate their conference schedule, they will still struggle to win games against tough out-of-conference competition. Meanwhile, the bottom three (ULM, New Mexico State and Texas State) are among the bottom 10 teams in the country.
- Arkansas State (10-2). The Red Wolves return eight players on a defense that should shut down most Sun Belt offenses. Chad Voytik, a transfer from Pitt, should win the starting QB job, and will enjoy blocking from the conference’s best offensive line. DE Ja’Von Rolland-Jones is the best defensive player in the Sun Belt. He’ll anchor a much-improved unit that should keep ASU in most of its games. The Red Wolves don’t play Appalachian State, so a tie for the top spot is very possible. The Sept. 10 game at Auburn could be interesting, and the Oct. 5 home game vs. Georgia Southern will be vital for their conference title hopes.
- Appalachian State (9-3). In their first full year as an FBS team, the Mountaineers proved that they made the right move to step up to the top level. QB Taylor Lamb was the best passer in the Sun Belt in 2015 and will be again this year. He’ll pace an offense that scored almost 37 points per game last year, though he’ll need some wide receivers to step up. Nine players return on defense, and experienced juniors replace the other two spots. LB John Law is a beast in the middle. The early schedule (Sept. 3 at Tennessee; Sept. 17 vs. Miami) could be brutal. After that, they’ll challenge Arkansas State for the conference title. Pay attention to the Thursday night, Oct. 27 game at George Southern. It could be a great one.
- Georgia Southern (8-4). Like Appalachian State, the Eagles have quickly proven they belong at the FBS level, taking Georgia to overtime and drubbing Bowling Green in the postseason. QB Kevin Ellison will lead a rushing attack that will also feature all-conference RB Matt Breida. The defense is rebuilding, but will be strong up front with DE Bernard Dawson and NT Jay Ellison. The Sept. 24 game at Western Michigan will be fun to watch, as the Broncos could be in the running for a major bowl. Two weeks later, they travel to Arkansas State in a game that will have conference implications. Overall, the schedule is rough for the Eagles – they have only five home games, and only one in October.
- Louisiana (7-5). The Ragin’ Cajuns have one of the best mascot names in college football, and the moniker has often carried over to the team’s fighting spirit. Last year, however, they had a severe drop-off to 4-8 after four straight nine-win seasons. They’ll be hard-pressed to return to that level, but will have the benefit of 14 returning starters (seven on both sides of the ball). Even so, the depth is thin at too many positions. RB Elijah McGuire will pace the offense, but the QB position could be a spot for trouble. Even with added experience, the defense is likely to give up a ton of points. SS Savion Brown is an all-conference player, but as a whole, the defense will likely be involved in a lot of high-scoring affairs.
- Georgia State (6-6). The Panthers surprised practically everyone last season when they crushed Georgia Southern 34-7 to pick up a sixth win and bowl eligibility. They could be good enough to return to a bowl this year, but will have to replace all-conference QB Nick Arbuckle to do it. Utah transfer Conner Manning is the top candidate for the job, and will get to throw to the conference’s top two wideouts – Penny Hart and Robert Davis. The offensive line should also be strong. Nine starters return on defense, and its development will be the key to the success of the team. DE Shawayne Lawrence and CB Chandon Sullivan are the stars, but more players definitely need to step up. The Oct. 1 game at Appalachian State will tell a lot about GSU’s progress.
- Idaho (6-6). The pieces are in place for the Vandals to make a run at a bowl for the first time since 2009, and for only the third time in school history. QB Matt Linehan is a potential all-conference pick, and will enjoy an experienced offensive line and two starters returning at receiver. The team has some experience on defense – especially at safety – but only one “star,” DT Tueni Lupeamanu. It should be improved from last year, but not enough to be greatly competitive. The second-best player on the team is probably kicker Austin Rehkow, who serves as placekicker and punter. Back-to-back games at Washington and Washington State will battle-test the Vandals.
- Troy (5-7). Watch closely in the first two weeks of the season. Troy gets Austin Peay on opening day, and then travels to Clemson. They’ll look great, and then be exposed for every weakness they have. Granted, there’s experience at most positions, but not enough depth. QB Brandon Silvers is probably the third-best in the league and has good receivers, but a patchy line. They’ll likely struggle to run again this season. On defense, the Trojans were solid against the pass last year, but must replace almost the entire secondary. DE Rashad Dillard and LB William Lloyd will be the strongest players on that side of the ball. The season-ender at Georgia Southern will likely be a must-win for a bowl bid.
- South Alabama (5-7). Q. What do you do when your best offensive player is your kicker, your offense ranks 101st in the country and you have the 114th-ranked scoring defense? A. You don’t win much. Such is the lot of South Alabama, which returns a total of only nine starters from last year’s 4-8 squad. On offense, TE Gerald Everett is the best in the conference, but will have an unproven QB throwing to him. The offensive line will be sketchy. On defense, LB Roman Buchanan and CB Jeremy Reaves are all-conference caliber, but they’ll anchor a defense that will likely still give up more than 30 points per game. PK Aleem Sunanon will provide reliable scoring in field goal range.
- ULM (2-10). This is the part of the conference review where things take a definite turn for the worse. The Warhawks only won two games last year, and don’t look much better this season. New head coach Matt Viator (who had tons of success at McNeese State) inherits a team that returns little talent on offense and only two returning starters on defense. Offense may be a bright spot with QB Garrett Smith and WRs Marcus Green and Ajalan Holley stretching the field. But the defense, which gave up more than 36 points a game last year, might actually be even worse. DT Tyler Johnson, a JUCO transfer from Coffeyville (Kansas) CC will have to instantly provide leadership to a unit devoid of top-level talent.
- New Mexico State (1-11). If one great player could carry an entire team, then New Mexico State would be bowl-bound. Instead, they’re just a terrible team with a great player. RB Larry Rose III is by far the best rusher in the conference, but will be running behind a rebuilt line that replaces three starters. In fact, aside from Rose, most of the offense is rebuilt and will struggle to score. The defense is only slightly better. FS Jacob Nwangwa is the best talent in the group, which gave up 45 points per game in 2015. Even if the Aggies improve by 10 points (which they won’t), they’ll still lose virtually every game on the schedule. The schedule is fairly brutal – home games against Texas State (Nov. 19) and South Alabama (Dec. 3) are the best opportunities for wins.
- Texas State (1-11). After five years under head coach Dennis Franchione, the Bobcats are hoping for a resurgence under first-year coach Everett Withers, who guided James Madison to back-to-back nine-win seasons. He’ll have his hands full, inheriting only seven returning starters from the 2015 team, which won only three games. Aside from four-year starting QB Tyler Jones and two offensive linemen, the entire offense will feature new starters. On defense, four starters return, but the front seven will be depleted. The defense’s best hope might be punter Lumi Kaba, who is probably the Sun Belt’s second-best. Unless Withers works a miracle or two, the team’s only win might come on Oct. 1 against Incarnate Word.
Bowl teams: Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Louisiana, Georgia State, Idaho.
Offensive player of the year: Larry Rose III, RB, New Mexico State
Defensive player of the year: Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, DE, Arkansas State
Coach of the year: Paul Petrino, Idaho
Tomorrow: 2016 MAC preview
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt