If you haven’t seen SunBelt, or as they like to refer to it, FunBelt, football, I suggest you start paying attention. The conference will have a number of televised games through the year during the middle of the year, which will make for an exciting event to watch in the middle of the week. This team has a number of fun teams that all have different approaches to playing football. Hopefully my excitement for this conference causes you to check into this conference if you haven’t already.
As it stands right now, I would rank the conference as follows:
|1. Appalachian State|
|2. Arkansas State|
|3. Georgia Southern|
|7. New Mexico State|
|8. South Alabama|
|9. Georgia State|
|10. Louisiana Monroe|
|11. Texas State|
Most probably remember Appalachian State from their stunning upset victory over then number one Michigan several years ago. That was back when they were a FCS powerhouse. This will be the teams third year in the Sun Belt, and they are a top contender to be the cream of the conference crop again. The team returns dynamic quarterback Taylor Lamb, who will be down his top receivers, but Shaedon Meadors and Jaquil Capel should give him good targets to throw too. The team will also return 1400 yard rusher Marcus Cox, who could be in for a bigger year with some of the top receiving targets gone.
The defense was the best it has been in over ten years, allowing just 19.1 points per game. That is very good for a conference that has some teams that can score. The team returns much of their top talent, including linebacker Eric Boggs, who led the team with 104 tackles in 2015. This should still be the best defense in the Sun Belt, and that is a major reason I see them being the best team in the conference.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
Arkansas State does make you look twice in terms of talking about who is the best in the Sun Belt. I put them at two for a few reasons. First, the team will be transitioning quarterbacks, and Fredi Knighten was an awesome QB who could hurt you with his arm,s legs and most importantly, his decision making. The team also drops two of their top receivers, leaving Dijon Paschal as the top-returning receiver. I don’t look at receiver as a major concern, but it will hurt a bit. The running game will be losing Michael Gordon, so was an important factor on offense. Warren Wand and Johnston White both proved capable when relieving him, so I think they are set here.
The biggest issue with this team is their defense, which has allowed 30 points per game in back to back seasons. This cannot happen in this conference. The team did score 40 points per game, but I don’t see that being the case this year. I don’t see a major drop off, but it will be significant enough. The good news is that the defense returns a ton of starters, so if they have experience on their side. I think they’ll be a tough team to beat, but it will be mostly because of the offense.
Georgia Southern Eagles
I am a bit biased toward Georgia Southern, so it actually took me a bit to move them out of the top slot. The offense is returning literally everyone, which is a big deal. Even the offensive line is experienced, which is important in a triple option offense. The team will see Willie Fritz move on to Tulane, and be replaced by first time head coach Tyson Summers. He has already established the he will keep the offense running the way it is, but many expect Favian Upshaw to unseat Kevin Ellison for the QB job. That would add more speed to the offense, who has two elite running backs in Matt Breida and L.A. Ramsby. Don’t worry about the receivers; they wont ‘t be passing the ball much.
The defense is a mixed bag coming into the year. They will have a new defensive coordinator in Lorenzo Constantini coming in, and he will manage one of the top front sevens in the Sun Belt. The issue is going to be with a vastly inexperienced secondary, which will likely see them give up more than the 207 passing yards per game from 2015. It wouldn’t surprise me if they finished at the top of the Sun Belt, but it would take a lot to go right.
Yes, I honestly have Idaho this high. They have a tough nonconference schedule, against Washington and Washington State, both on the road in consecutive weeks. I really think this offense is set to take off this year. Matt Linehan will be playing QB again, and has his best assortment of weapons yet. Callen Hightower proved to be a reliable receiving option at the end of the year after Dezmon Epps was dismissed. Deon Watson as well will provide a sure-handed option. In the backfield should see the duo of Aaron Duckworth and Denzal Brantley add a one-two punch, with speed and elusiveness that will make for an exciting offense.
Here’s the problem: the defense. That is a pretty big problem to have. The defense gave up 42.1 points in 2015. This is the 4th year for Paul Petrino in his head coaching position, which is the sweet spot for the development for recruits. I think this defense will improve enough that it will put the ball in the offenses hands to win games. One of the most exciting parts of college football is teams that can come out of nowhere, and I see Idaho as being that team this year. They won’t contest for anything serious, but they will make people pay attention.
Louisiana Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
I really had high hopes for this team in 2015, with dynamic running back Elijah McGuire having his first full season as the main running back in this offense. Well, it didn’t exactly pan out. He didn’t have a bad year with over 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns, but I just feel like there was more opportunity there. This year, he’ll take his final stab at a huge season and I believe he will have it, despite loss of experience at the guard positions. The team will break in a new quarterback too, in Jordan Davis. He will have some nice options at receiver with Al Riles, Gary Haynes and Gabe Fuselier returning.
The defense slipped quite a bit in 2015, giving up five more points than the previous year, finishing over 31 points per game allowed. This was mostly due to an uncharacteristic increase in rushing yards allowed. The team returns their run-stoppers, and they should be more effective with another year in the system, and return back to their form. This should result, much like Idaho, in the offense having more opportunities to win games.
Brandon Silvers will be back to start for the second consecutive year, and the hope is that he will improve enough for it to matter. The jury is still out in my opinion, and I think this team will have to get creative in how it scores. He loses his top receivers, with Emanuel Thompson as the top option returning. The running game will take a hit as well, with Brandon Burks leaving. Jordan Chunn was injured early last season, but returns for his junior year and is in a position to increase the production from last year. I think he could possibly break 1,000 yards but it will be tough.
The defense improved dramatically last year, which is basically what allowed them to win their four games. They lose a few key pieces, but at the same time, return enough that the defense shouldn’t slip that much. I would expect to see them back up near 30 points per game allowed, but should still provide enough resistance to see this team equal wins from 2015.
New Mexico State Aggies
The production at QB was poor in 2015, so the good news is that it should improve this year under whichever QB takes the helm in 2016. It could be any of Tyler Matthews, Tyler Rogers or Nick Jeanty. I am expecting Matthews, the TCU transfer, to wind up as the starter. He will lose some of his production, but will return his top receiver, Tyrian Taylor, as well as Gregory Hogan. Most important to this team is their stud running back Larry Rose. I firmly believe he is one of the best in the country, and he could very well have his best season yet in 2016.
So after talking up the talent, especially at RB, on this roster, why do I have them so low? Well, their defense gave up 45 points per game last year. That is ridiculous. That ultimately led to the defensive coordinator being replaced, and new DC Frank Spaziani stepping in. He comes into what is widely regarded as the teams best defense in quite some time, so I would expect to see that number to drop below 40, or be very close to 40. Even at that, they will still lose a lot of games, and really won’t contend until they can get that number down to the low 30’s, or possibly under 30 per game.
South Alabama Jaguars
Dallas Davis looks to take over the offense after UAB transfer Corey Clements had a highly questionable 2015 season. He will have one of the best TE’s in the country in Gerald Everett, as well as Josh Magee who was the number two receiver returning. Running back Xavier Johnson flirted with 1,000 yards in 2015, and could be in a good position to come close to that again this year. The team averaged 25 points per game last year, but I really can’t imagine seeing them with many more than that this year.
The defense in 2015 allowed over ten more points per game than the team in 2014. That is simply unacceptable if you want to have a quality football team. The highlight of this team is their cornerback duo, which helped this team keep opponents under 200 yards. That should continue this year, and with a great deal of experience in the middle, the run defense should improve as well. All things considered, this team should reduce their points per game allowed, by at least a few points.
Georgia State Panthers
Nick Arbuckle was one fun quarterback to watch. It is a shame he will no longer be playing for this team. Conner Manning will take over and you can definitely expect a drop-off in production. That doesn’t mean it will fall off a cliff though. The team returns their top receiving options in Penny Hart, Robert Davis and TE Keith Rucker. These pieces will help the QB get into rhythm quicker. The running backs will be components to this offense, but they return the vast majority of the contributors, with Glenn Smith leading the way.
The defense improved by an absolutely ridiculous 15 points per game, dropping from 43.3 in 2014 to 28.3 in 2015. They lose their top tackler in Joseph Peterson, but still have a lot of highly talented players returning. This defense will probably settle at around 30 points allowed per game, and it is questionable if the offense will be able to produce enough to win games this year.
Louisiana Monroe Warhawks
Garrett Smith will start the year at QB for the Warhawks, and should be able to see an increase in production off of a fairly solid freshman campaign. He will have a nice assortment of receivers in Marcus Green and leading returning receiver Ajalen Holley. Tyler Cain and Ben Luckett return at running back, and I suspect after a monster spring game that Cain has the advantage to start the year as the more prominent back.
The defense increased the amount of points allowed per game by ten in 2015, and things could get legitimately worse in 2016, as the team loses their front seven. Rest assured that it is not likely that a team can lose that much and move on without skipping a beat. I am expecting this team to finish allowing over 40 points per game, while having a record similar to last year.
Texas State Bobcats
Dual threat quarterback Tyler Jones will return for his final year as a Bobcat, looking to end his career on a high note. He will have work cut out for him, as he loses all his receiving talent and has to start from scratch. Based on how the production ended in 2015, it doesn’t look like it will be a big deal. This team basically has no true target monster and production is spread around. The talent of the incoming receivers is good, so Jones should be fine. Running back is a different story, as Robert Low is finished at the school, and freshman Tyler Tutt could win the job. He’ll have big shoes to fill.
The defense gave up almost 40 points per game in 2015, up 10 points from 2014. The team is undergoing coaching changes, and will switch formations, which usually takes some time to get used to. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this team win only two games on the year. It’s going to be a long one for Bobcat fans, but Jones should have a nice year.