With the season now complete, it’s time to shift our focus to the 2018 season and give our first power ranking for the Fun Belt. It’ll be the first year for divisions in the league and the season will culminate with a championship game on the first weekend in December. After taking a look at returning production, depth charts, and recruiting classes, here’s how the Sun Belt stands going into next season.
1.) Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-5 last season)
It is again conference title or bust in Jonesboro in 2018. It was a record setting year for Blake Anderson’s offense last season as the Red Wolves averaged 37.8 points per game and nearly won the Sun Belt for the third straight season. They have plenty of weapons returning. Justice Hansen enters the year with a great chance to rewrite the record books after tossing for nearly 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns last season. Most of the offensive line is back as well as weapons at running back and receiver. This will be the league’s best offense for the second season in a row. The secondary will lead the defense thanks to Justin Clifton and B.J. Edmonds. The Red Wolves will be depending on junior college talent from the conference’s top recruiting class as they rebuild the front seven.
2.) Troy Trojans (11-2)
It was a magnificent 2017 season for Troy as they knocked off LSU, brought home a Sun Belt title, won a bowl game, and somehow kept Power Five programs away from Neal Brown. The Trojans lose a lot on both offense and defense, but this is a program that is setup to compete for conference titles for the near future. Four-year starter Brandon Silvers is gone and in steps in Kaleb Barker at quarterback. The junior is a dual-threat and has received snaps in his first two seasons. Expectations are high for running back Jamarius Henderson after flashing potential this season while Deondre Douglas and Damion Willis are the best wideout duo in the Sun Belt. The conference’s top defense loses six starters but you’ll be hard pressed to find a better corner tandem than Blace Brown and Marcus Jones. Cedarius Rookard will be an all-conference safety but defensive coordinator Vic Koenning must find answers along the front. Troy will enter the year as the favorite to bring home the first ever Sun Belt East division title.
3.) Appalachian State Mountaineers (9-4)
The Mountaineers picked up their second consecutive Sun Belt title as Scott Satterfield now owns an impressive 31-9 conference record. Gone will be four-year starting quarterback Taylor Lamb and his 90 career passing touchdowns but there are weapons remaining. Jalin Moore is fresh off consecutive thousand yard rushing seasons and he’ll pace the offense. The future of the wideout group is bright after freshmen Thomas Hennigan and Jalen Virgil made a big impact in 2017. On the other side of the football, Clifton Duck is a top five corner in all of college football and 2018 may be the junior’s final year in Boone. Tae Hayes wasn’t too bad himself after recording four interceptions and 12 pass break-ups. Anthony Flory is one of the better linebackers in the league while the defensive line has plenty of experience. Losing defensive coordinator Nate Woody to Georgia Tech hurts but this should still be a solid unit. The quarterback spot is a big question mark but the surrounding pieces are strong.
4.) ULM Warhawks (4-8)
Matt Viator enters year three in Monroe with only a 8-16 record but the pieces are there for a big jump in year three. The offense was flat out awesome in 2017 and the Warhawks get 10 starters back on that side of the ball. Caleb Evans will receive preseason player of the year recognition after accumulating 30 total touchdowns as a sophomore. The receiver group is stacked and they’ll be led by Marcus Green who is one of the best kick returners in the country. The defense has been brutal but with nine starters returning the Warhawks should make a step forward. On paper, ULM will be Arkansas State’s biggest competition in the West division.
5.) South Alabama Jaguars (4-8)
The Steve Campbell era has begun in Mobile and Joey Jones left him plenty of talent. The Jags were pitiful on offense but new offensive coordinator Kenny Edenfield will inherit 10 starters as he implements his Air Raid scheme. South Alabama has three good wideouts in Sam Harris, Malik Stanley, and Jamarius Way so they should be able to move the football. There is plenty of experience on defense and Nigel Lawrence will be one of the better safeties in the conference. There is plenty of talent on the roster and bowl eligibility is a realistic goal in Campbell’s first season.
6.) Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (3-9)
It was a rough first season in Conway, but head coach Joe Moglia will be back in 2018 and so will a roster with a lot of experience. The gem of the group is wide receiver Malcolm Williams who had seven touchdown catches and averaged over 18 yards per catch. Coastal will need better quarterback play from Kilton Anderson but he has plenty of help surrounding him. The Chants played a ton of freshmen on defense last year and now will be shifting to a new defensive coordinator. Marvin Sanders takes over the defense and he inherits potential all-conference performers in linebacker Silas Kelly and safety Fitz Wattley. Expect the Chanticleers to be very competitive in 2018.
7.) Georgia State Panthers (7-5)
It was an outstanding debut year for head coach Shawn Elliott as Georgia State recorded their first bowl win in program history. It was an outstanding season for the Panthers but they must replace a lot in 2018. There will be a quarterback battle in Atlanta and its likely that junior college dual-threat transfer Dan Ellington will be the opening day starter. The Panthers have big questions at running back but Penny Hart may be the best receiver in the Group of Five. The defense was very strong under coordinator Nate Fuqua but the Panthers lost difference makers at each level in his 3-4 scheme. Chase Middleton and Michael Shaw are a nice duo at linebacker and should lead the team in tackles. The Panthers were 3-0 in one-possession conference games and it’s hard to envision that trend repeating. It will be a tall task for this program to get back to the postseason.
8.) Georgia Southern Eagles (2-10)
It was a brutal season in Statesboro, but Chad Lunsford circled the wagons and landed the full-time job. Now after a year of lumps, he’ll take the field with a very experienced squad in 2018. After an up-and-down freshmen year, quarterback Shai Werts seems poised to have a big season under first year offensive coordinator Bob DeBeese. Westley Fields is a solid back and the offensive line has a ton of experience. This should be the most improved offense in the Sun Belt. The defense also has a good amount of experience and Logan Hunt is the best returning defensive end in the conference. Safeties RJ Murray and Joshua Moon are both very good. Georgia Southern should be much better but honestly, that’s not saying much.
9.) Louisiana Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (5-7)
Billy Napier takes over in Lafayette and he’ll inherit a very nice offense. Jordan Davis returns at quarterback, Trey Ragas was an impressive freshman running back, and leading receiver Ryheem Malone is back. This group is going to put up yards and points. However, defense is a huge concern as this group was shredded last season and only returns three starters. The Cajuns desperately need defensive end/linebacker Joe Dillon to play at an all-conference level.
10.) Texas State Bobcats (2-10)
It’s been a slow rebuild for Everett Withers in San Marcos as he is 4-20 after two seasons with only one conference victory. Texas State is accumulating talent but surprisingly they’ll still be the youngest team in the Fun Belt in Withers third year. The Withers era is likely going to be determined by sophomore quarterback Willie Jones III who flashed potential in spot playing time. Anthony D. Taylor is a very dependable running back but the Bobcats are still searching for other weapons. Linebacker Bryan London II and safety A.J. Krawczyk are both very good but they need help. It could be another long year for the Bobcats.