As many teams around the country are gearing up for fall camp, the buzz around the college football world has begun to grow.
It’s almost time for the pad-popping action that we just can’t seem to get enough of. Welcome to what will be a weekly article ranking the top ten teams in the conference as the season progresses.
1. Appalachian State (last season: 11-2)
The Mountaineers from Boone are coming off of an 11-2 campaign in 2018 and are looking to pick back up where they left off following a bowl victory over Middle Tennessee State.
The Mountaineers with be without their long-time head coach Scott Satterfield, who was replaced by former North Carolina State offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz. With the coaching change aside, App is returning 87% of its offensive production while returning 61% of its defensive production. Players in the likes of Zac Thomas, Darrynton Evans, and Corey Sutton return to round out a powerful offensive attack that should thrive under Coach Drinkwitz.
The schedule is in App’s favor this year with ETSU, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, ULM, Texas State all at home. They will also face conference foe Georgia Southern at home on Halloween on a Thursday night. They will play two P5 teams this season in UNC and South Carolina. The Mountaineers should look to be a formidable opponent to opposing teams in the Sun Belt with a legitimate shot at winning the conference title once again this season.
2. Georgia Southern (10-3)
The Eagles are coming off one of the most incredible turnarounds in modern FBS football history.
The Eagles were disastrous in 2017 under head coach Tyson Summers, rounding out the season at 2-10. Enter Chad Lunsford at the end of the 2017 season and the Eagles win two out of their last 4 and go 10-3 in 2018.
Coach Lunsford has done exceptionally well in getting his players and the fans to buy back into the winning culture that Georgia Southern is known for. The Eagles are returning 75% of their production around the board. Names such as QB Shai Werts, RB Matt “Speedy” LaRoche, and Wesley Kennedy will grace the backfield this season under OC Bob Debesse’s option attack.
The Eagles will deliver a strong defensive front under DC Scott Sloan, along with names like Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson returning to help secure the secondary. Georgia Southern will face tough tests this season with App State, Troy, and Arkansas State all on the road. However, If Southern can overcome their tough schedule, I believe a conference title game may be in their sights.
3. Troy (10-3)
The Trojans of Troy are coming into the 2019 season with a fresh perspective.
After former Head Coach Neal Brown left for the West Virginia job, former Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey comes in to take his place. The Trojans should pick up where they left off on the offensive side of the ball, with senior QB Kaleb Barker taking responsibility under center this season.
The Trojans are returning 76% of their defensive production under second year DC Brandon Hall, whose squad ranked third nationally in turnovers gained in 2018.
The Trojans should be in the talk of competing for a spot in the conference championship this season with getting GA Southern, App State, and Arkansas State all at home.
If the Trojans can stay competitive throughout the season, it may be a battle between GA Southern, App State, and Troy fighting for the East division title.
4. Arkansas State (8-5)
This will be an interesting season for the Red Wolves, who are coming off a mediocre 2018 campaign by their standards. HC Blake Anderson returns for his 7th season and is looking for his squad to improve in 2019.
Arkansas State will have some adjusting to do this season after the departure of their former 2017 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, QB Justice Hansen. The offense is only returning 56% of its production and the defense is returning 75% of its production.
QB Logan Bonner Jr. hasn’t had many snaps in the past but he is a great athlete who knows the offense well; it should be interesting to watch how he develops throughout the season.
5. Louisiana (7-7)
Head Coach Billy Napier is building something great down in Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off a 7-7 season which featured an appearance in the first annual Sun Belt conference championship game against App State. Although their 2018 record may not show it, the Ragin’ Cajuns are a good football team who is only getting better.
The Ragin’ Cajuns sport a solid RB core in the likes of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas. Louisiana is returning 65% of its production around the board, however opposing teams should not count out the Cajuns.
They will be the favorite to win the west division this season.
6. ULM (6-6)
The Warhawks are coming off an even .500 season that saw them missing a bowl appearance after losing their final home matchup to in-state conference foe Louisiana, 28-31.
HC Matt Viator is doing what he can with what he’s got. ULM is a program not deeply rooted in tradition like some of the other teams in the Sun Belt, and it can be difficult to keep fan support in times when you are consistently a team that goes right at or over .500.
On the upside for the Warhawks, stud QB Caleb Evans returns to lead the offense along with 66% of their overall production. ULM goes on back-to-back road trips to Florida State and Iowa State, and will play a home game against American conference power Memphis.
If ULM can stay competitive, we may see the Warhawks making some noise.
7. Texas State (3-9)
I know what many of you are thinking. Texas State at number 7?
I understand your complacency, but hear me out on this one.
Hiring Everett Withers was a disaster and it showed over the course of three seasons. After the timely release of Withers this offseason, the folks at Texas State made an excellent hire in Jake Spavital. The former Texas A&M offensive guru is poised to make a dwindling program anew under his leadership. Spavital is a proven recruiter and it is only a matter of time before Texas State is a force to be reckoned with in the Sun Belt.
Texas State is an experienced team who is returning 83% of its total production. The Bobcats are my sleeper team going into the 2019 season.
8. Coastal Carolina (5-7)
The Chanticleers are a team that is still finding their way in FBS football.
Coastal promoted Jamey Chadwell as their full-time head coach and this will be his first full season in that role. Chadwell has head coach experience from his time at Charleston Southern and he is looking to build a culture and an identity at Coastal.
Coastal is returning 68% of its total production this season. Although this may not be THE year for Coastal, look for the Chanticleers to stay competitive in the east division.
9. Georgia State (2-10)
The Panthers are coming off of a disappointing 2-10 season. Shawn Elliot and staff must do something to improve this season or they may be looking for another place to coach.
To be fair, the 2018 Panthers were a team mired in injury, but this is a new season and a fresh start. The Panthers are returning 73% of their overall production and have home games against Troy, App State and Arkansas State.
The Panthers will have to dig deep to do well this season against good competition.
10. South Alabama (3-9)
South Alabama rounds out the bottom of the preseason rankings.
They are consistently at the bottom of the Sun Belt standings each year and I don’t see this season as being any different. South Alabama has been and always will be a tough place to win football games.
If Steve Campbell and his staff can’t turn the program in the right direction, it may be time for AD Joel Erdmann to find someone who can make South Alabama competitive again. HC Campbell has a tough job in trying to recruit players in the same state as SEC powers Alabama and Auburn, as well as fellow Sun Belt rival Troy.
Maybe the new stadium that is being built will light a spark in the fire of this struggling program.