1 – The Eastern Gauntlet
The East Division in the Fun Belt is going to be a grind in 2022 for everyone involved. Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State figure to be the two favorites, but even behind them are newcomers Marshall and former FCS power James Madison, as well as a Georgia State team that is quickly on the rise. Even at the bottom of the division will be an Old Dominion squad that made a bowl appearance last season and a Georgia Southern team who is transitioning offensively under new coach Clay Helton.
My pick to win the conference will be Coastal Carolina. The Chants return starter Grayson McCall, arguably the best signal caller in the group of five as well as head coach Jamey Chadwell and his spread option system that has caused problems for many teams in the past few years. They’ll have to replace several key contributors on offense in Isaiah Likely and Jaivon Heiligh through the air plus several impact defenders, but I think McCall back under center is enough to give the Chants the edge over Appalachian State for me, as well as hosting the Mountaineers on the Teal Turf in early November.
While Coastal Carolina returns the best quarterback in G5, the Appalachian State Mountaineers return the best G5 backfield tandem in Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples. The duo combined for more than 2,000 yards on the ground and 18 touchdowns, and with a mostly returning offensive line I expect them to grow that number. Chase Brice, the college veteran returns under center for the Mountaineers but will have to work in some new targets after his receiving core graduated out and former offensive coordinator Frank Ponce departed to take the quarterbacks coach gig at Miami. On the defensive side, they’ll have to replace plenty of production with only six returning starters, but cornerback Steven Jones Jr. looks to build on a great 2021 campaign that saw him make five interceptions and return three for touchdowns.
Again, I’m siding with Coastal Carolina to win the East, but it’ll be a close race all the way to the end of the season and that early November matchup on the Teal Turf will likely have implications.
2 – Louisiana Turnover
Coach Billy Napier left the Ragin’ Cajuns after several very productive seasons to take the Florida job, and the question now facing Louisiana is what will this new era of football look like in Lafayette?
Michael Desormeaux takes over after they opted to promote from within, and with a win over new SBC foe Marshall in the New Orleans Bowl, Desormeaux will look to continue building on what Napier created. That won’t be easy, though. Veteran quarterback Levi Lewis is gone and the offensive line will be starting almost from scratch after various departures. The Cajuns also lose some depth at the running back position, though speedster Chris Smith returns after averaging more than 5 yards per carry last season.
Defensively, Louisiana also has plenty to replace on the defense. Rising star defensive coordinator Patrick Toney left as well as several key starters from last years squad. Luckily, most of the players being counted on to take steps up this season have played sparingly over the last few years as rotational pieces so the transition shouldn’t be too complicated in the early going.
The Cajuns won’t be what they were last season as Sun Belt Champions, but that’s just fine. The West side of the conference is weak in comparison to the East, so even the idea of a couple losses within conference play shouldn’t hurt their chances too much. South Alabama and Southern Miss are the most likely competitors to the Cajuns in my opinion.
3 – James Madison Goes Big Time
A team to keep an eye out for in the Sun Belt is the newest addition to not only the conference, but also to FBS: The James Madison Dukes. A long time power in the FCS world, the Dukes will look to replicate what Appalachian State once did in moving up while continuing to succeed against better competition.
It won’t be easy in year one. Cole Johnson left for the NFL after a 41/4 TD/INT season in 2021, leaving a huge hole to fill at quarterback, though they do have Todd Centeio coming in from Colorado State to potentially provide relief as a seasoned FBS starter. The Dukes will have plenty of depth out of the backfield, though, and a couple solid receiving options in Kris Thornton and Boston College transfer Kobay White.
Defensively, Isaac Ukwu was a standout pass rusher last season, accumulating nine sacks and the Dukes also return Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey, a heat-seeking missile at linebacker who put up triple digit tackles along with four interceptions. The Dukes have plenty of depth in the backend, but lack a star player like the other units on this team. With a step up in competition, I would expect the 15.4 PPG allowed to rise, but I don’t think it goes much higher than around 20.
I can’t wait to see the Dukes transition year and how they ultimately perform at this new level, and the addition of yet another exciting and strong program is why we call it the Fun Belt, folks.
4 – Predictions & Notes
5 Biggest Games
Virginia Tech at Old Dominion (Sept 2) – When these teams met in 2018, Old Dominion pulled off a huge upset against a 13th ranked Hokies squad. After finishing the 2021 regular season on a hot streak, can the Monarchs bag another upset against their in-state power five foe?
North Carolina at Appalachian State (Sept 3) – A big territorial out-of-conference matchup between the Tar Heels and Mountaineers. Appalachian State came close to an ACC win last season against Miami, can they snag one at home in the mountains against North Carolina?
Coastal Carolina at Georgia State (Sept 22) – An exciting matchup of talented G5 quarterbacks in Grayson McCall and Darren Grainger. Chants look for revenge after a shootout loss to the Panthers in 2021.
Louisiana at Marshall (Oct 12) – A rematch of last seasons New Orleans Bowl, Louisiana will need this win against a strong cross division Herd squad to cement itself atop the West. Can Marshall get a huge first year win over the defending conference champions?
Appalachian State at Coastal Carolina (Nov 3) – The biggest regular season matchup in the Sun Belt, this game very well may decide who wins the East division. With a star quarterback in Grayson McCall and the App running duo of Noel and Peoples, expect fireworks and a high scoring affair on the Teal Turf.
Coastal Carolina defeats Louisiana
Predicted Final Standings
- Coastal Carolina
- Appalachian State
- Georgia State
- James Madison
- Old Dominion
- Georgia Southern
- South Alabama
- Southern Miss
- Arkansas State
- Texas State