Predicting the Futures: Sun Belt


(This is the fifth in a series previewing the Group of 5 conferences based on their O/U win totals, as provided by Draftkings. For the AAC Preview, click here. For the Conference USA Preview, click here. For the MAC Preview, click here. For the Mountain West, click here.)

If you squint real hard, you can see the similarities between the Fun Belt and the SEC.

No you aren’t going to find Sun Belt teams in the CFP, but think about it. Thanks to the additions of Marshall, Old Dominion, James Madison and Southern Miss, the Sun Belt has two divisions of seven teams each (like the SEC). Alabama and Georgia are the cream of the crop in their conference, with a bunch of quality depth behind. That sounds a lot like App State and Louisiana’s status. And there is the general it just means more-ness of college football in the South that both conferences provide.

You can have Arkansas. Give me Arkansas St. (That sounded a lot better in my head, but you get the point.)

So here now is my look at the Sun Belt through the eyes of (and for) a degenerate gambler. (Based on the numbers provided by DraftKings as of 7/29.)

Appalachian St. (O/U 8.5) – App St. seems to be the prohibitive favorite in the conference. I’m not 100% convinced, but there is a lot to like.

First off, their running game. The combo of Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples is probably the best in all of G5 and a case can be made they are one of the top duos in all of college football. Each could go off for over 1,000 yards this season. I love them, so there is that.

Secondly, the defense. It’s traditionally very good, and this year is expected to be no exception. Six starters return from a unit that gave up just over 22 points per game last year, with a 41 point outlier against Louisiana included. Quite frankly, it comes down to one thing.

Chase Brice.

Brice threw for over 3,300 yards and 27 touchdowns last year. Those were terrific numbers, but he is breaking in an entirely new receiving corps. So expecting him to duplicate those numbers is expecting a lot. But he doesn’t need to, as long as he cuts down on the 11 interceptions. Put another way, if last year’s -4 turnover margin turns into this year’s +4 TO, look out.

Looking at the schedule, the Magic Number is 8.5. The season starts with North Carolina visiting Boone in a game a lot of people think could go the Mountaineers way. After that, they travel to Texas A&M before conference play starts. If they can come out of that anything but 0-2, they should be in very good shape. The team has two road games before November, both in Texas oddly enough (at A&M and at Texas St.) There is no Louisiana, who proved to be their albatross last year but the back-to-back at Coastal and at Marshall will not be fun. Does this feel like a 9-3 team? Absolutely. But wild cards in the conference like James Madison could throw a wrench in things. Take the Over.

Louisiana (O/U 8.5) – For the past few years, the West Division has felt like “Louisiana and everybody else”. This might be the year everybody else gets their revenge. Unless you are Alabama or Ohio St., you can’t lose your head coach and one of the most successful quarterbacks to ever put on your uniform and not expect some sort of drop off.

It’s not just Levi Lewis and Billy Napier that are missing from the 2022 Ragin’ Cajuns squad. In fact, they return only five starters on offense and four on defense. Is Chandler Fields the guy to run the offense? And can the defense come close to the +15 turnover margin (second in the nation) they had last year? That’s asking a ton.

Vegas seems to think Louisiana will be just fine, setting the number at 8.5. I know the schedule looks pillowy soft to begin (S.E. Louisiana, Eastern Michigan, at Rice, at UL-Monroe, South Alabama are the first five games), but believe me when I say this team will not be as good as the past three seasons. Games at Marshall and at Florida St. will likely prove that. But there is no App St. and no Coastal Carolina on their schedule. I don’t see this as a 9-3 team, but someone in the West Division has to rise up and take the title from them. Stay Away.

Coastal Carolina (O/U 8) – Now we find out how good Grayson McCall really is.

The man who famously proclaimed “I piss teal” when announcing his return to Coastal is going to see a lot of new faces on an offense that put up almost 41 points a game last year. They have a similar situation on defense, as they return their star (DE Josaiah Stewart) but also lose a lot of other key contributors. The star power on both sides will have to carry the day early on while the rest of the team finds their respective roles.

Here’s the problem. They start their season against an opponent who could shake your confidence. Army.

I personally think that is a bad matchup for Coastal, but it may be the only one on their schedule. The good news is that they should be able to bounce back with a could wins at home against Gardner-Webb and Buffalo before opening conference play against a team that beat them last year, Georgia St., on the road. They are a potent offense, but can be beaten by teams that can hang with them point for point. There are road dates at Marshall and at Virginia and and home game with App St. that could prove that true. The number for Coastal is set at 8 and that feels like a worst case scenario. Not to mention the plus money is actually on the over. Roll with it with confidence. Take the Over.

Georgia St. (O/U 7.5) – This is the first team in this preview that I irrationally love, so take my bias into consideration.

Georgia St. finished last season winning of 6 of their last 7 games and return eight starters on offense from last year’s team, including at quarterback, running back, two receivers and both tackles. Oh yeah, they were a Top 10 team in the nation in rushing and were t-h-i-s close to upsetting Auburn. There’s a ton to like about this particular Atlanta football team, especially on offense. Probably more than any other Atlanta football team (pro included).

If the defense can show signs of improvement, this is going to be the sleeperest sleeper that ever sleepered. The problem is that their schedule does them absolutely no favors. Their first five games are as follows: At South Carolina, North Carolina, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, at Army. (By the way, Sun Belt teams should really stop scheduling Army if they can help it.) The number is set at 7.5. If you think they are going to go at least 8-4, then they better not go 1-4 against that schedule, especially since there are road conference games at App St., Southern Miss, James Madison and Marshall to deal with. That division is loaded. I love this team so much…but they may struggle to get to a bowl. I want to be wrong but Take the Under.

Marshall (O/U 7) – Marshall is one of the new kids on the block, and honestly, they might be coming in hot.

The Thundering Herd just might have the best running back and best wide receiver in the conference with Rahseen Ali and Corey Gammage. If Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi can guide this offense efficiently, they could be scary good. Defensively, there is some concern about a run defense that didn’t finish in the Top 100 nationally facing the top tier teams like App St., Georgia St. and Coastal Carolina. But there is absolutely enough talent to figure it out.

Vegas set the number at 7 because Marshall is in the loaded East Division, has a non-con schedule at Notre Dame and crossover conference games against Louisiana and at Troy. That’s not going to be fun. But the likely Top 3 challengers in the East all go to Huntington, including a season finale against Georgia St. that I would have strongly considered putting in my G5 Road Trip column if it wasn’t on Thanksgiving Weekend. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a non-conference game at my MAC Crush Bowling Green as well. I wish there was a hook because 7 feels right on, but if they can come out of September 2-2, then I like their chances to go on a run. Take the Over.

James Madison (O/U 6.5, 11 games) – The conference X-factor.

No, they aren’t the best team in the conference. They couldn’t win the crown this year anyway. But they are far from the worst team either, despite the stigma that may come from moving up from FCS to the FBS. Wherever you think they will finish in the conference, they have the potential to spoil a lot of other team’s plans.

They only return four starters on offense from a team that hung with defending FCS Champs before losing 20-14 in the semifinals of their very cool sounding playoff system. But they were able to bring in a quarterback with Group of Five experience through the transfer portal in former Colorado St. starter Todd Centeio. So there are pieces in place that won’t have the Dukes feeling overmatched in any game they play.

Defensively, there are a few question marks. They only return four starters from a defense that had a bonkers +19 TO margin last year against inferior competition than they will face this year. Finishing anywhere in the positive in that stat will be a positive accomplishment.

Looking at their schedule, their “Welcome to the Sun Belt” moment is likely to come Sept. 24, when they go to Boone to face App St. That follows two winnable home games against Middle Tennessee and Norfolk St. The problem is, Vegas set their number at 6.5 and they only play 11 games as they ease into the FBS life. So that mean you have to think they will finish at least 7-4 for the Over to hit. With games at App. St., at Louisville and Marshall, Georgia St. and Coastal Carolina (all demonstrably better than JMU) also on the schedule, I just don’t see it. Even though they will be respectable, Take the Under and lock it in.

Troy (O/U 6.5) – Many people seem to think the toughest challenger to the Louisiana’s stranglehold on the West Division is Troy. An argument can definitely be made if the offense catches up to a defense that is filthy.

There is a ton of returning talent on both sides of the ball, with the offense bringing back almost every skill position player of note and four starters on the offensive line. They weren’t bad last year as much as they were just young. Quarterback Gunnar Watson is a junior, running back Kimani Vidal and all-conference receiver Tez Johnson are sophomores. Defensively, they bring back eight starters from a unit that dares offenses to pass on them.

Here’s the thing. Unless you are the 2021 Georgia Defense, being terrific against the pass allows teams to run on you. Here are four teams on Troy’s schedule: App St., Marshall, Southern Miss, Army. (Seriously, stop scheduling Army.) To compound things, also on Troy’s schedule are two teams that are not going to be intimidated by Troy’s Pass D, Ole Miss and Western Kentucky. And by the way, they go to Louisiana. With a schedule like that, the offense has got to keep pace.

Troy definitely is not going to look like a half team, but with that schedule I just don’t see them as the team to pose the stiffest challenger to the Ragin’ Cajuns in the West Division. Take the Under.

South Alabama (O/U 5.5) – There are a lot of teams to get excited about in the conference. But for me, South Alabama is not one of them.

It’s nothing personal, and I will be glad to have my mind changed. But they are one of the few teams breaking in a new quarterback and a new running back. Sure, they have four starters returning on the line and a couple receivers but what’s their identity as an offense? Defensively, they are in a similar situation. There is talent, especially in the secondary, but the whole operation feels good, not great.

They feel like one of those teams who “beats the teams they are supposed to”. And the first half of their schedule should reflect that. They have winnable home games against Nicholls, Louisiana Tech and Louisiana Monroe, but they also have tough road games at Central Michigan, UCLA and Louisiana during that initial stretch. The back half is almost exclusively 50-50 games that could go either way. Are they better than, say, Old Dominion? How about Arkansas St. or Texas St.? They could be, but I’m not excited about them. Stay Away.

Arkansas St. (O/U 5) – As tempted as I am to just write “See South Alabama” in this section, there is a little more intrigue with the Red Wolves.

Back at quarterback is James Blackman, who started his career at Florida St. many, MANY years ago. He actually split time last year with Layne Hatcher, who has since transferred to Texas St. He’s a playmaker, but he is probably going to have to be with not a ton returning on the offensive line. Defensively, they return only three full-time starters, but that may not be the worst thing in the world. Last year’s run defense was comically bad, giving up 260 yards a game on the ground. They have some transfers coming in, so they can’t be worse than they were last year.

Vegas predicts a bit of a jump, as the team was 2-10 last season and the number is set at 5 for the 2022 version. I’m not entirely sure what that bit of confidence is based on. Blackman kinda is what he is at this point. He has a good receiver in Te’Vailance Hunt to throw to, but will he have enough time and the decision making prowess to use him?

If you are looking for at least five wins, you have to hope that the home games will offer plenty of wins. There are two in Grambling and UMass (probably) and Louisiana-Monroe, James Madison and South Alabama all visit Jonesboro. There’s your 5 I guess. But the road slate has games at Ohio St. (lol NOPE), at Memphis, and at Louisiana. It’s a favorable schedule in theory, I just need to see more improvement to believe it. Stay Away.

Georgia Southern (O/U 4.5) – They may be good. They may not. But Georgia Southern is one of the most interesting teams in the Sun Belt.

I absolutely love the combination of former USC head coach Clay Helton and Buffalo arrival Kyle Vantrease together. I don’t know if Vantrease is a world beater, but he is a solid, steady hand who will help an offense transitioning from the triple-option to a pro style. And Helton is a very good coach who was just in a tough situation at USC. That’s as good of a start as you can ask for if you are an offense essentially starting from scratch.

Defensively, there is some work to do, but they brought in a defensive coordinator that Helton is familiar with from his days in the Pac-12, Will Harris from Washington. He is implementing a 3-3-5 defense that will emphasize stopping the pass but may struggle against the run.

Looking at their schedule, they have winnable non-conference games against Morgan St. and Ball St. as well as two stiff challenges on the road at Nebraska and at UAB. They then begin conference play with back-to-back road games at Coastal Carolina and Georgia St. They also go to Louisiana and host Marshall and App St. All part of life in the East Division.

Expecting them to win at least 5 games might be asking too much in a transition year, but I do think you will see a fun offense and signs that they are a year away from being much better. Take the Under.

Old Dominion (O/U 4.5) – Marshall is considered the crown jewel of the 4 new teams. James Madison may offer the most interest. Southern Miss may have the most potential. But don’t oh-by-the-way Old Dominion.

ODU finished last season winning their last five games to become bowl eligible, and despite the loss to Tulsa in the bowl, the point was made in the five games prior.

The Monarchs are headed in the right direction.

Sophomore Quarterback Hayden Wolff seized the position about halfway through last season and the team took off. Alongside Wolff is a 1,000 running back in Blake Watson and a 1,000 receiver in Ali Jennings III. There are also four starters returning on the line. They will be more than fine offensively, but Wolff’s development is crucial, as he has the physical tools to be a legit pro prospect down the road.

Defensively, they are sort of the inverse of a lot of teams I have mentioned. They return a lot of experience from a very good run defense. If the secondary can hold up their end of the bargain, they may be one of the top units in the league.

The schedule actually sounds more difficult than it probably is. They start the season with a home game against a Virginia Tech team that is rebuilding. That’s winnable. So is the following week at East Carolina. (I’m not saying they will, I’m just saying they can.) They follow that up with a game at Virginia before back-to-back home games against Arkansas St. and Liberty. This was a bowl team last year and will put up quite a few points again this year. This feels too easy. Take the Over.

Southern Miss (O/U 4.5) – In a column where I compare the Sun Belt to the SEC, are you beautiful cats and kittens ready for the hottest take of the whole column?

Southern Miss is the biggest challenger to Louisiana in the West Division.

*mind blown emoji*

Honestly they remind me a lot of Troy, but with more potential. Ty Keyes showed enough as a Freshman before a season-ending injury that he was named starter once he received a clean bill of health. He will have potential all-conference RB Frank Gore Jr. (in this conference that’s saying something) to hand the ball off to. The numbers looked rough overall last year, but the Golden Eagles won the last two games of the year running primarily the Wildcat offense, showing that there were talented pieces in place. And second year coach Will Hall (who is from the same hometown as my husband but try to ignore that piece of biased information) is definitely an offensive mind. They’ll be more than fine on that side of the ball.

Defensively, the concern is with the line, who is breaking in all new starters. But if they hold up, the back eight (it’s a 3-4 defense) is very good.

The schedule has challenges, as schedules for any team projected to win 4.5 games might. But there are absolutely wins to be had. They open the season against a Liberty team without Malik Willis under center and without an established identity at this point. A game at Miami will likely be cancelled out in the standings with a game the following week against Northwestern St. That is followed by back-to-back games at Tulane and at Troy that will really gauge where the team is. But those aren’t impossible games by any means. The toughest stretch likely will be when they face Louisiana, Georgia St. and Coastal Carolina, but the first two games are at home. Maybe it’s a gut feeling, but in a wide-open division, they have the most potential. I’ll ride with that. Take the Over.

Texas St. (O/U 4.5) – If you read my MAC preview, I highlighted Bowling Green as a team who had been building for the past couple of years and looked at this as the year it would all come together.

Texas St. is giving off very similar vibes.

The past couple years you could see glimpses of them trying to kinda sorta figure things out, just needing stability at the quarterback position to essentially “tie the room together”. It turns out, they needed to look no further than their own division, as in comes former Arkansas St. signal caller Layne Hatcher. All he’s done is throw for almost 7,500 passing yards and 65 touchdowns in his career in this very same conference. He’s going to improve the offense, and if they can get complementary production from running back Calvin Hill, they offense will be significantly improved.

On the defensive side, there is work to be done, especially along the defensive line. You may see a lot of shootouts involving Texas St. which, hey, those are fun to watch.

The Bobcats are also in the cluster of teams that Vegas set at 4.5 victories, and may have the most manageable schedule of all those teams. They start the season at a Nevada team that is very much in rebuilding mode after losing almost their entire offense to Colorado St. Then they get CUSA bottom-dweller FIU at home. At Baylor may be a lost cause, but they wrap up the non-con against Houston Baptist. (Not an easy game by any means, but Bailey Zappe isn’t walking through that door.) Their road games at James Madison, Troy, Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama offer opportunities to steal victories. And you can bet Hatcher is licking his chops for when Arkansas St. comes to visit. They are better than last year’s team that won 4 games, but I wish I trusted the defense more. Stay Away.

UL Monroe (O/U 2.5) – If you remember way back in the AAC preview, I mentioned the dilemma of using my head vs. using my heart when it came to some teams’ projections. So here we are, the last preview in the Group of 5 series…

I’m going with my heart.

I am a Florida St. fan and Bobby Bowden may be my favorite coach ever. So I will have a soft spot for any team a member of the Bowden family coaches. So when I saw Louisiana-Monroe hired Terry Bowden last year, I decided to WarHawk Up or whatever they do. Expectations were pretty low last year, but they actually got off to a 4-3 start including wins over Jackson St. and Liberty, in which they were more than a 30 point underdog.

There is returning talent at the skill positions. Sophomore Chandler Rogers has the position to himself all to himself after splitting time last year. Boogie Knight is more than the coolest name in college football. He is an all-conference caliber receiver. They have some returning production in the ground game, but need more. It will be interesting to see what the offense looks like since Rich Rodriguez is no longer there, taking the Jacksonville St. head coaching job.

Defensively the Warhawks will look different as well, hiring well-travelled coordinator Vic Koenning to implement a more aggressive style. They weren’t great last year on that side of the ball, so a change of approach might do them some good.

Asking a team that won 4 games last year to win at least 3 this year doesn’t seem like asking too much. Focus less on the games at Texas, at Alabama and (*heavy sigh*) at Army, and focus more on the games at home against Nicholls, Texas St., at South Alabama and at Arkansas St. I don’t know exactly how they will do it, but in Bowden I trust. Take the Over.

Overs – App. St., Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Old Dominion, Southern Miss, Louisiana-Monroe
Unders – Georgia St., Troy, James Madison (lock), Georgia Southern
Stay Aways – Louisiana, South Alabama, Arkansas St., Texas St.

Conference Projections
East Division
1. Coastal Carolina
2. Marshall
3. Appalachian St.
4. Georgia St.
5. Old Dominion
6. James Madison
7. Georgia Southern

West Division
1. Louisiana
2. Southern Miss
3. Troy
4. Arkansas St.
5. Texas St.
6. South Alabama
7. Louisiana-Monroe

So there is my (exhausting) deep dive into the Sun Fun Belt Conference. If you use any of my recommendations or decide to use my picks as motivation, feel free to tweet me (@justincripe).

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