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Sun Belt Football: Offseason Storylines

Things to obsessively think about while we wait for August to roll around

2021 Cure Bowl - Northern Illinois v Coastal Carolina Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

The season might be eight months away, but there’s plenty of intrigue already as the Sun Belt looks to bounce back with some new faces, some old faces, and some concerning urinary colors. Between now and the time Spring ball begins, we may already get some answers.

While now formal announcement has been made, it’s possible we even see Marshall, Southern Miss, Old Dominion, and James Madison join the league next season as opposed to the original date of July 1, 2023.

Here are a few other things to pay attention to this offseason if you’re invested in Sun Belt football.

Can Desormeaux Reload Louisiana?

Following Billy Napier’s move to Florida, new head coach Michael Desormeaux has a tall task ahead of him getting the defending Sun Belt champs back to full strength. While Desormeaux wisely doesn’t want much to change about the precedent that Napier set the last few years, keeping things business as usual might be easier said than done.

NCAA Football: New Orleans Bowl-Marshall at UL Lafayette Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

While Desormeaux has said multiple times that he does not plan on adding a significant amount of transfers from the portal, he may have to bend a bit on that philosophy in year one. On offense alone, the Cajuns are losing QB Levi Lewis who wrapped his college career with Louisiana’s program record in passing touchdowns, starting tackles Ken Marks Jr and Max Mitchell, and more to graduation and the draft.

They also lost running backs Emani Bailey and Montrell Johnson, offensive linemen O’Cyrus Torrence and Kamryn Waites, wide receiver Kyren Lacy, and corner Mekhi Garner to the transfer portal.

Either the remaining talent from the 2021 team is going to have to grow up fast, or Louisiana will need a few big pickups from the portal.

Grayson McCall Prepares For His Swan Song

The Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year led Coastal Carolina to an 11-2 record and their first-ever FBS bowl win in 2021. McCall also set a number of Coastal single season records this past season with a completion percentage of 73 (5th nationally) and 11.9 yards per pass attempt which was the highest average in FBS.

With a QB rating of 207.65 in 2021, McCall finished the season as the highest rated passer in college football history. Returning to the school he loves for one more season after proudly proclaiming “I piss teal” in a Twitter post, McCall will be among the top quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL draft class with a small, but not impossible chance to be a first round pick.

How Does Georgia State Get Over The Hump?

Shawn Elliott has led Georgia State to four bowl games, three of which he won, since taking over the program in 2017. The Panthers finished the 2021 campaign with a record of 8-5, which was their highest win total since the program began in 2010.

Georgia State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

This came as something of a surprise to those who saw how the Panthers started the season 1-4, but won seven of their last eight. Elliott’s team did something similar in 2020 winning four of their last five to end the season, but it was the opposite in 2019. Georgia State began that season with solid wins over Tennessee and Furman, but struggled to find consistency in the later part of the year.

When you play in a division with the always strong Appalachian State and an electric Coastal Carolina offense, inconsistent isn’t going to cut it. Panther fans hope the promotion of tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Stepp to offensive coordinator will help eliminate some of these issues.

Quarterback Darren Grainger, who finished his junior season with 19 touchdown passes and four interceptions for the Panthers will look to build on his late-season success, but will it be enough?

In 2022, the Panthers play a non-conference schedule very similar to the one they played in 2021. This includes the opener at South Carolina, followed by rematches with North Carolina, Charlotte, and Army.

How Will Clay Helton Adjust To Statesboro?

Helton makes his return to a head coaching role after six years at the helm of the University of Southern California. While Georgia Southern has relied heavily on the run in some form or another over the program’s history, Helton will look to provide more offensive balance.

Syndication: Savannah Morning News Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News / USA TODAY NETWORK

For starters, Helton poached a member of his brother Tyson’s staff at Western Kentucky in Bryan Ellis. Ellis will serve as Georgia Southern’s offensive coordinator after serving as the offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky where the Tops had the best passing offense in FBS in 2021 with 434.6 yards per game.

Former University of Washington defensive backs coach Will Harris as the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator was another promising hire for Helton.

Helton also secured the largest signing class in the Sun Belt during the early signing period with 20 signees, including Buffalo transfer quarterback Kyle Vantrease and former North Carolina defensive lineman Kristian Varner.

It sounds good, in theory. However, some coaches who have made it a point to move away from option-style offenses in the past haven’t found great success. The name Brian VanGorder still gets eye rolls around Statesboro.

Does Troy Bounce Back With A New Coach?

Former Kentucky co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall replaced Chip Lindsey as the Trojans’ head coach this offseason. Lindsey finished his time at Troy with three five win seasons after Neal Brown had at least ten wins in three consecutive seasons along with three bowl wins before moving to West Virginia. Sumrall was an assistant on each of those Brown-coached Troy teams.

Getting Troy back to the top of the league may not be immediate, but Troy has put a lot of faith in Sumrall and his ability to recruit. Sumrall has already brought former Kentucky signee Devonte Ross to Troy and included three-star athlete Blake Matthews in their signing class of five.

Since his hiring, Sumrall has made the significant hires of Joe Craddock as the offensive coordinator and Shiel Wood as the defensive coordinator.

Troy v Georgia Southern Photo by Chris Thelen/Getty Images

“Both guys I think through what they’ve done career wise stood out and I think they’re both going to take Troy football to new heights,” said Sumrall in a press conference earlier this week. “They’re going represent Troy the right way on and off the field.”

Also helping Troy’s cause, All-America honorable mention linebackers Javon Solomon and Carlton Martial both return in 2022.