- Of the Arkansas State-Appalachian State-Troy trio presumed to rule the Sun Belt, only the Red Wolves return their quarterback. That alone may be enough to propel them to the top.
2018 marks a new era for the Sun Belt, with the league having split into two divisions whose winners will play each other in the conference's first-ever championship game on December 1. It's a 10-team conference, now, with Idaho and New Mexico State having left for independence after last season. So how do the divisional alignments affect who might win the league, who does Vegas like in the new-look Sun Belt and, most importantly, who should you like in the new-look Sun Belt?
Odds to win Sun Belt
Arkansas State +138
Appalachian State +250
Georgia Southern +1200
Georgia State +4000
South Alabama +5000
Coastal Carolina +10000
Texas State +10000
1. Appalachian State
Appalachian State must finally bid adieu to four-year starting quarterback Taylor Lamb, and redshirt sophomore Zac Thomas is next in line. Thomas's running ability should allow him to fit right in with the conference's best rushing attack. Two-time first-team All-Sun Belt running back Jalin Moore is still in Boone and so is Marcus Williams Jr., who rushed for 500 yards as a freshman. The defense loses six starters and its coordinator, but returns the majority of a dominant secondary and some experienced backups in the front seven.
App State isn't the only program replacing a four-year starter at QB, as Troy says goodbye to Brandon Silvers. Sawyer Smith and Kaleb Barker have two years of experience in the program, so whoever wins the competition to replace Silvers won't be entirely green. Troy also loses its two leading rushers along with six defensive starters. Head coach Neal Brown gave backups plenty of playing time last season though, so no one will be seeing significant action for the first time. Former Louisville wideout Traveon Samuel enters the picture as a high-profile transfer.
3. Georgia Southern
The Eagles fired their coach after an 0-6 start in 2017, and after the season Chad Lunsford was promoted to full-time head coach after scraping out two wins down the stretch in the interim role. Improvement is a near certainty, with every key contributor to this triple-option offense coming back. Only one defensive starter departs, and all-conference performers DT Logan Hunt and CB Monquavion Brinson headline a unit that needs to put an emphasis on surrendering fewer big plays.
4. Georgia State
A 7-5 record in 2017 marked the best season in the Panthers' short history, and the future is bright for this young program. This year, however, they might take a small step back. Pint-sized wideout Penny Hart is a stud, but QB Conner Manning's exit means there should be some regression in the passing game. That's bad news, given that State loses its top two rushers from an attack that averaged a paltry 3.2 yards per carry. The defense loses some key guys, and the secondary in particular will rely on youngsters. Georgia State's recruiting has picked up in the last couple of years, so there is talent to pull from.
5. Coastal Carolina
Calling Coastal Carolina's 2017 campaign tumultuous would be an understatement. Former FCS Coach of the Year Joe Moglia missed the entire season with a lung infection, and four different quarterbacks took snaps behind an inexperienced offensive line. Given all that, plus a 1-6 record in one-possession games, it's easy to understand how a decently talented CCU team went 3-9. Expect improvement this year with some solid pieces returning—including Moglia—but not a crazy turnaround.
1. Arkansas State
There are a couple reasons Arkansas State was given better odds than Troy and App State to win the Sun Belt. One, the Trojans and Mountaineers inhabit the same division, so they'll need to duke it out just to make the conference title game. Two, the Red Wolves are the only team of those three to return their starting quarterback. And Justice Hansen, the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, is one talented quarterback. The Wolves do lose conference DPOTY Ja'Von Rolland-Jones along the defensive front, but retain talent at all levels of the D.
If you enjoy high-scoring football, make a point of circling a couple ULM games on your calendar this year. The Warhawks were 21st in the country with 485 yards per game last season, and return dual-threat weapon Caleb Evans at quarterback. Louisiana-Monroe also brings back starting RB Derrick Gore, and loses only one player each in its receiver and O-line groups. The problem here is the D: A defense that allowed 41 points per game can only improve so much in a single season.
Former Arizona State OC Billy Napier was a great hire at head coach for Louisiana-Lafayette, and he'll have a fun offense to work with in his first year. RB Trey Ragas ran for 813 yards as a redshirt freshman, while Ryheem Malone is one of the conference's best slot receivers. The Cajuns never seemed to settle on a single quarterback last season, although Napier seems intent on choosing one at some point. Like Monroe, Lafayette doesn't have much hope for even a halfway decent defense this year, which limits its ceiling pretty significantly.
4. South Alabama
If you thought Georgia State's 2017 rushing offense was bad, get a load of what South Alabama managed on the ground: 3.1 yards per carry and 97.3 yards per game, each fifth-worst in FBS. Livening up that attack—and a passing game that wasn't great, either—will be Steve Campbell's biggest task in his first year as head coach. The defense will be anchored by a tenacious secondary, but there are plenty of questions up front.
5. Texas State
Head coach Everett Withers is still in the process of bringing talent to San Marcos, but this year he'll field a genuinely experienced team for the first time. The defense is particularly intriguing, with difference-making linebackers Frankie Griffin and Bryan London II back in the fold. This Bobcats team will top its two-win total from last season.
Pick to win the Sun Belt: Appalachian State
A 34-0 bowl win over Toledo last December saw the Mountaineers dominate in multiple respects, and App State brings back key components on both sides of the ball this year. New QB Zac Thomas is the X-factor here: If he can do a credible Taylor Lamb impression, there's no reason to expect a drop-off.
Best value bet: Appalachian State +250
The two Louisiana schools would be fun sleepers if not for their atrocious defenses, leaving the Sun Belt's big three of Arkansas State (+125), Appalachian State (+250) and Troy (+250) as the only realistic picks to win the conference. The Red Wolves aren't a value at +125, and the Mountaineers have a talent edge on Troy, making them the pick here.