Welcome to the fireworks factory.
There is a reason this conference has been appropriately dubbed “the Fun Belt”. Games are rarely boring and predictable, and this year expects to be no different.
The East Division is likely to be the more balanced of the two, with almost every team feeling like they have a chance to take the division. (Except ODU probably.) The West is more top heavy, with many people projecting a two-horse race between Troy and South Alabama. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but we will get there.
So in the midst of so much uncertainty, here are four bets that I feel confident will get you to the pay window. (Odds courtesy of FanDuel as of July 21.)
Texas St. Over 4.5 Wins (+152) – Stop me if you have heard this one before. A new coach comes to a team with low expectations and completely changes the offense, including bringing in a transfer at quarterback. That sounds an awful lot like the 2022 Georgia Southern blueprint, and that worked out pretty well for them. There’s no reason to believe that the Texas St. Bobcats can’t make a similar turnaround.
GJ Kinne is bringing a high-octane offense with him from Incarnate Word. While it’s asking too much to expect them to put up 51.5 points a game like UIW did, being gifted former Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby from the transfer portal gives them the most athletic player on the field almost every time Texas St. has the ball.
The West is the less balanced of the two divisions, so there are wins to be had against the Arkansas States and Louisiana-Monroes of the world. It’s not impossible to think they can get at least one of the road games against Southern Miss or Louisiana either. They also get a Jackson St. squad that looked a lot more interesting before Deion Sanders left for Colorado and a Nevada team that Kinne beat last year at Incarnate Word. There’s a very real chance this team can make some noise, but even if they finish 5-7 that’s good enough to win some cash.
Georgia Southern Over 6.5 Wins (+128) – I am all the way in on this Georgia Southern team.
In a very short time, Clay Helton has come in and completely changed the Eagles identity from a Triple Option run offense to an Air Raid passing offense. It was a drastic change that provided a shock to the East Division system. (And also ended the Scott Frost era at Nebraska. You are welcome Cornhusker fans.) Sure, it can be said that the Eagles struck gold in the transfer portal with Kyle Vantrease, but the dirty little secret about the offense is that they were second in the nation in sacks allowed, return running back Jalen White, who should threaten the 1,000-yard mark this season, and two receivers in Khaleb Hood and Derwin Burgess Jr. who should garner all-conference consideration. All incoming quarterback Davis Brin (Tulsa) has to do is be solid and this offense will be really dangerous yet again.
The defense is another story. However good the offense was last year is exactly how bad the defense was. They do bring in a new defensive coordinator, so it’s unlikely they will be worse than they were last year. Even if they aren’t dramatically better, incremental improvement will be nice.
The schedule looks tough, but I think they get teams at just the right time. Starting off with games at home against The Citadel and UAB, they should head into Madison for a game against Wisconsin 2-0. The road game at Ball St. is a major swing game (Especially since I picked Ball St. to also go over their win total in my MAC preview.) The conference slate starts off with 3 of their first 4 at home against Coastal Carolina, ULM and Georgia St. with a game at JMU sandwiched in there. November will be a gauntlet with games at Texas St., at Marshall and at App St. (with a breather at home against ODU tucked in there). The talent is definitely there to be 7-5, at the very least. And if the defense comes around and they establish themselves as more than a great half-team, they can easily aim higher.
Georgia St. Over 5.5 Wins (+138) – I know that Georgia Southern and Georgia St. are in-state rivals, but I have room in my heart for both.
Georgia St. finished 4-8 last year, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of the 2022 season. They had a very difficult September, with games against South Carolina and North Carolina to start. Those took a lot out of the Panthers, considering both were winnable if you watched them. At that point, games against Charlotte and Coastal Carolina took the rest of their soul. Before you knew it, they were 0-4. But once the calendar turned to October, they righted the ship a bit, finishing the season a respectable 4-4.
So let’s call last September an aberration and look at the big picture. They return team leader Darren Grainger at quarterback. That’s a very good starting point. And while leading receiver Jamari Thrash transferred to Louisville, someone will catch passes from Grainger. I’m not worried about it.
The schedule gives the Panthers an opportunity to get off to a good start in a way that last years didn’t. Rhode Island and Connecticut at home followed by an opportunity for payback against a rebuilding Charlotte team could get GSU halfway to the Over. The conference schedule is very difficult and a game at LSU is towards the end of the season. I just think they will find a way to be at least mid.
Arkansas St. Under 4.5 Wins (+100) – Not everyone can go over their projected win totals.
There is definitely something wrong at Arkansas St. Butch Jones came in 2021 to seemingly continue a trend of outstanding coaches – see Hugh Freeze to Gus Malzahn to Bryan Harson to Blake Anderson – but that train has derailed. Jones is 5-19 the past two seasons with wins only over ULM, UMass and whatever FCS schools they have scheduled. They add a decent talent at quarterback in JT Shrout, another casualty from the mass exodus at Colorado. But other than the return of receiver Corey Rucker, who transferred back after a stint at South Carolina, he doesn’t have a lot in the way of help around him.
Having said that, I could be wrong and the Red Wolves could continue their slow and steady climb up the Sun Belt West ladder, improving from 2 to 3 to 4 wins. Cool. The Under still hits.
The schedule offers an early 3-game stretch that could make or break their season. They take on Stony Brook, Southern Miss and at UMass in consecutive weeks. Sweeping those games would put them at likely 3-2 and give them more than a legit chance to hit the over. But I expect Southern Miss to be very good and a road game, even at UMass, is far from a gimmie. On top of that, their game against fellow bottom feeder ULM is on the road, where the Warhawks are more dangerous. I just don’t see five wins on their schedule, or Jones surviving another losing season.