2017 Sun Belt Conference College Football Preview and Predictions
ByMike M,NCAAFootballHandicapper, Predictem.com
With the start of college football season just around the corner, below is a breakdown of the Sun Belt Conference with projected standings, odds and picks for each team. Why take the time to learn the teams of the Sun Belt Conference? There’s money to be made here! Bookmakers spend way more time analyzing the big conferences such as the SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12 etc. which creates a ton of value for those of us that follow and like to bet on smaller schools such as the teams in the Sun Belt.
1.Appalachian State Mountaineers
Preseason ranking: 40
Odds to win Sun Belt: +120
Over/Under regular season wins: 9
Head coach Scott Satterfield enters his fifth season as the sideline leader in Boone and riding a wave of recent success.Over the past two years his team has finished with back-to-back double digit win seasons, victories in their first two bowl appearances in school history while also finishing 2016 with a share of their first ever Sun Belt Conference Championship.
The offense ranked 10thin the nation in rushing and will continue to be paced by its backfield, with Sun Belt Offensive Player of the yearJalinMoore back after rushing for 1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.Moore will have the added benefit of running behind the conferences best offensive line which is anchored by senior starters Colby Gossett and Beau Nunn, who will also be in charge of protecting quarterback Taylor Lamb, with the senior signal caller back for his fourth and final season after having started nearly every game of his Mountaineer career.
Seven starters are back for an Appalachian State defense that ranked 9th nationally in scoring and 17thin yards allowed per game and returns nearly all of their top contributors from a year ago.The defensive line will be anchored by junior tackle Myron Stout and senior endAntoniousSims, who led the team with in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (7) a year ago.Senior Eric Boggs is the best of the linebackers and was tops in tackles last season with 98, while reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Clifton Duck returns at cornerback after pacing the team with five interceptions and eight pass breakups.
Even with all their returning talent, the best thing the Mountaineers have going for them entering the season is their schedule, which ranks 125thin the country with only four of their opponents ending last season with a winning record and all twelve combining to have won only 42% of their games last season.Their recent conference dominance, 20-2 in their last 22 Sun Belt games, is sure to continue as they avoid both Arkansas State and Troy on the schedule this year, and App St. should only be tested early in the season with September games against Power 5 opponents Georgia and Wake Forest, though they do get the Demon Deacons at home in Kidd Brewer Stadium where the Mountaineers are 13-2 in their last 15 games.
Spread Selection-There is definite value to be found in taking Appalachian State to go over 9 wins on the season and considering their cakewalk of conference contests, betting them to win their second consecutive Sun Belt title as well.
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Preseason ranking: 63
Odds to win Sun Belt: +350
Over/Under regular season wins: 8.5
After finishing last season with their most wins, ten, in school history, Troy will be looking to duplicate that success with an experienced team led by the third youngest coach in college football, 37 year old Neal Brown.
The Trojans offense returns eight starters from last years squad that ranked 1stin the conference in scoring and passing yards per game while also finishing 11thin the country in total offense.All of their top skill position players return from last season, including three seniors who were 1stTeam All Sun Belt a year ago; quarterback Brandon Silvers, running back JordanChunnand wide receiver Emanuel Thompson.
They dont return nearly as much production on the other side of the ball, as they begin the year without five of their top seven tacklers from a year ago, most notably since graduated 2016 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the year Rashad Dillard.The strength of the Troy defense is their backfield, which returns three of four starters including senior safety Kris Weatherspoon, and should be able to greatly improve on their numbers from last season when they ranked 85thin the nation against the pass.
Troys schedule lines up nicely for them, ranking 98thin strength and should see them favored in nine of their games.The first month does bring two very tough non-conference road matchups against LSU and Boise State, where the Trojans will be putting to test a recent run of road spread success that has seem them go 6-1 against the number in their last seven games as underdogs away from home.After that, the only difficult team remaining on their schedule is a final week of the year trip to play Arkansas State.And seeing as though they avoid conference favorite Appalachian State on their schedule, their December 2ndgame against the Red Wolves could very likely be a chance to claim at least a share of their first Sun Belt title since 2010.
Victory March-Considering the likely importance of that Arkansas State game, if you want to avoid taking the favorite and look for some underdog value, going with either of those teams to win the conference at +350 might not be a bad idea considering neither have to play App St. and the Sun Belt doesnt have a definitive championship game until next season.
3.Arkansas State Red Wolves
Preseason ranking: 72
Odds to win Sun Belt: +350
Over/Under regular season wins: 7.5.
The Red Wolves were able to rebound strong after a disastrous 0-4 start in 2016 and ended their year by winning eight of their last nine games and finishing off their season with a 31-13 Cure Bowl victory over UCF.
The offense returns only five starters, including zero to their offensive line, and will need playmakers such as running back Warren Hand and tight end Blake Mack to open things up for themselves and in turn junior quarterback Justice Hansen, who will look to continue his success after taking over the starting position last season and leading the team to a 7-1 conference record.
A similar lack of experience affects the defense as well, as they will also start the year with just five starters back.Three key seniors will anchor each section of the defense; safety Justin Clifton, the returning team leader in tackles after recording 87 last season and is the lone returning to their defensive backfield, linebacker Kyle Wilson, who returns after contributing 79 tackles including 15.5 for loss, and most notably defensive endJaVonRichard, the all-time conference career sack leader and 2016 Sun Belt Player of the Year after putting up 13.5 sacks and 57 tackles with a whopping 21.5 for loss a season ago.
The Red Wolves are another Sun Belt team that will greatly benefit from a soft schedule, as theirs ranks 109thin strength going into the season.They have struggled in recent years to start the season, thanks in large part to a 2-9 record in their last 11 games against non-conference opponents, including an 0-4 mark last season thats saw them lose by an average of over 20 points per game.This season they face a similar fate with games against Nebraska and Miami in weeks one and two, but after that they should have little difficulty duplicating their successful October/November/December of the past until they face Troy at home to end the season and win their sixth conference championship in seven years.
Wolfpick-They will likely start the season 0-2, but much like last season they should gain momentum as the year goes on and considering they will likely be favored in at least nine of the their games, going with the over of 7.5 on their regular season wins looks like a wise wager.
4.Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns
Preseason ranking: 104
Odds to win Sun Belt: +1200
Over/Under regular season wins: 5
Mark Hudspeth is back for his seventh year as the Cajuns head coach and has done quite a job in Lafayette in his time there, leading the team to their most successful run in school history, this despite the distraction of an NCAA investigation that hung over the school due to violations by a former assistant coach that eventually cost the team 22 victories and multiple scholarships.
It is never easy to start a season on offense when you have to replace your starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, but that is what Lafayette is faced with entering the year in which they will rely on the strength of their offensive line to give some extra time for the newcomers behind them.Keenan Barnes is the best of the returning receivers and the only one to have caught more than one touchdown a year ago, and will likely need to elevate his game even further to offset the inexperience of junior quarterback Jordan Davis.
The defense returns seven starters but had losses of their own with first team All-Sun Belt linebackerOthaPeters and leading tacklerTermaineLightfoot both having graduated.Sophomore linebacker Joe Dillon is back after having led the team with 7 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, and will be joined up front by endTaborisLee and a defensive backfield led by cornerbackDamarrenMitchell and safety Tracy Walker.
A schedule that contains seven road games including travels to play non-conference opponents Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Tulsa along with Sun Belt matchups at Arkansas State and Appalachian, leaves little room for error if the Ragin Cajuns want to continue their recent postseason run that includes a 4-1 bowl record with appearances in five of the last six season.
Cajun Cash-If the Louisiana Lafayette gets back to another bowl game, it appears to be a safe bet to count on Mark Hudspeth to have his team ready to not only beat the other team but more importantly for some the point spread, as they are also 4-1 against the spread in their last five bowl games with their only non-cover coming by just a half point.
Preseason ranking: 105
Odds to win Sun Belt: +1400
Over/Under regular season wins: 4.5
2017 will be the Vandals last in the FBS conference, as they will be moving down to the FCS level after the season ends due to financial concerns.With that cloud looming over the program, it will be up to head coach PaulPetrinoto do his best to fire up his team to end their FBS tenure with a season similar to last, when they put up a 9-4 record (their best since 1998) and ended the year with a 61-50 win over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Bowl as a 15 point underdog.
After leading the Sun Belt in passing yards in 2016, quarterback MattLinehanis back for his senior season and will need to be on his game early as he looks to gel with a new group of targets with the team losing five of their top six in receptions from a season ago.The offense will also look for a spark from a backfield that returns two players that each gained over 700 yards and scored five touchdowns a year ago and will need senior tackle Jordan Rose to help compensate for the inexperienced offensive line surrounding him.
The strength of the defense is in the middle with alinebackingcore led by juniors Kaden Ellis and returning team leader in tackles, TonyLashley.They were at their best against the run a year ago, and with the return of second team all-conference endAikeemColeman, they will look to continue that front seven success from 2016.The biggest area for concern for the Vandals is attempting to stop the pass, as they ranked just 121stin yards in the air allowed per game and return only one starter amongst their defensive backs in a conference that gets back nearly all of their best pure passers.
Motivation will be a key factor in the how the Vandals handle their final season at the FBS level, and with the way their schedule sets up should give them a chance to go out on top.They were 4-3 on the road last season after having gone 1-25 in the previous four, and this year they face only three tough road games with matchups against Missouri, Western Michigan and Troy while also avoiding having to play Arkansas State in conference play.If coachPetrinocan keep the teams head straight and avoid the dropping down distractions, they should put themselves in position for a successful final season and a hopeful bowl berth to end their FBS run.
Idamo Money-The Vandals have been a lively road dog of late, going 14-3 against the spread in their last 17 underPetrinowhen getting points away from home, which include three outright wins as double-digit underdogs.
6.Georgia Southern Eagles
Preseason ranking: 107
Odds to win Sun Belt: +1200
Over/Under regular season wins: 5
A diversion from the option turned out to be a diversion from success for the Eagles last season, as they struggled through to their first losing season in seven years after head coachTysomSummers decided to alter the tried and true strategy of the offense.
Offensively they return top running back Wesley Fields and a solid line up front, both of which will be relied on heavily to offset the lack of returning talent at both the quarterback and wide receiver positions.Redshirt freshman ShaiWertsis expected to take over as the starter at quarterback, and the team will hopes he has a quick learned curve considering how important the position is to a successful option attack.
They are shorthanded on the other side of the ball as well, returning only five starters and having lost two players who recorded over 100 tackles a season ago including linebackerUkemeEligwe, who was the only Sun Belt defensive player to be chosen in the 2017 NFL Draft.The Eagles will need the backs led by junior safety and top returning tackler Joshua Moon to help offset the weaknesses in front of them.
Coach Summers has stated that the team will go back to what has worked previously in the option, but may not have the personnel to find the success that the fans in Statesboro had grown accustomed to in recent years.Seven road games including three out of conference combined with the previously mentioned lack of personnel may be too much for the Eagles to overcome in their hopes of getting back to a bowl game for the second time in school history.
Eagle Scouting Based on name and previous success alone, Georgia Southern may seem like a value bet for a conference title getting 12-1 odds, but realistically only the top three teams in the Sun Belt have any sort of chance of winning it.I cant imagine them being favored in more than half of their games, so taking the under in wins may be the most logical route to go.
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7.South Alabama Jaguars
Preseason ranking: 109
Odds to win Sun Belt: +1800
Over/Under regular season wins: 4
This will be the just the ninth year ever for the South Alabama football program, and head coach Joey Jones has been patrolling the sidelines ever since its inception.The team has at least five wins in each of the past four seasons and has gone to a bowl in two of the past three.
There are holes to fill on offense with only five retuning starters back and the top four in receptions having graduated, including star tight end Gerald Everett who was drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft by the LA Rams.They will need junior running back Xavier Johnson to continue to find success like he did last season when he ran for 831 yards while averaging 5.5 per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns.
The defense looks to be in better shape and is led by junior safety Jeremy Reaves, who has been 1stTeam All Conference the past two seasons and the biggest reason why the Jaguars ranked 9thall of the NCAA against the pass.They were the opposite against the run (100thin rushing yards allowed per game), but should be to improve on that stat with returning leader at tackles DarrellSongyanchoring the linebackers and Tre Alford/Tyree Turner headlining up front.
South Alabama faces a tough non-conference schedule with games against Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and Louisiana Tech, meaning they will have to find their victories within conference if they want to have any chance of getting to their third postseason game in four years and in turn their first ever bowl win.
SAJ wagers The Jaguars may have found relative consistent success in recent years, but they have been rather terrible against the spread, going 11-26-1 versus the line since 2014 including 1-8-1 as a home favorite and 3-10 as a road underdog.Staring at a 1-3 non-conference record in 2017, they would need to go 4-4 in the Sun Belt to get over four wins, and to do so they would need a major reversal of their current conference performance, as they have gone just 2-9 straight up and against the spread in their last 11 conferences games.Going with the under seems like the better choice.
8.New Mexico State Aggies
Preseason ranking: 120
Odds to win Sun Belt: +1800
Over/Under regular season wins: 3.5
In what will be their final year in the Sun Belt Conference before joining the ranks of the independents, the Aggies will start the year with their most experienced team in head coach Doug Martins fifth year in Las Cruces as they return a total of 16 starters.
The offense welcomes back nearly all of their playmakers from a season ago, including the best of the bunch with running back Larry Rose back for his senior year after running for 865 yards and scoring four touchdowns in what was an injury marred season after having won Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2015.He will be joined by quarterback Tyler Rogers, a wide receiving group that returns their top five players in receptions, and a solid line that should help open up some space for Rose and rest of the offense.
Nine starters are back on defense, but they will undoubtedly miss the talents of 2016 1stTeam All Sun Belt linebacker Rodney Butler, who departs after having led the nation in tackles a year ago with 165.There was only so much Butler could do last season, and those coming back will look to immediately improve on their less than stellar stats that saw the defense rank 118thagainst the run and 121stin scoring, and yards allowed per game.
The schedule isnt overly kind to the Aggies, as it includes eight teams that made a bowl last season, all three of the conference heavyweights and also consists of seven road games, not something they can be looking forward to after having gone 3-28 over the last five years on the road including a 10-20-1 record against the spread.It is sure looking like that this will be the 57thseason in a row with no bowl berth for New Mexico State.
Saggy Aggies- The only two games the Aggies will likely be favored in are against UTEP in September and at Texas State in November as the schedule also has them avoiding the Sun Belts lower tier teams like Georgia State, UL Monroe and Coastal Carolina.Thanks mainly to their schedule and despite their returning experience, going with the under of 3.5 wins is likely the best way to go.
9.Georgia State Panthers
Preseason ranking: 121
Odds to win Sun Belt: +4000
Over/Under regular season wins: 5
Shawn Elliot enters his first season as Panthers head coach after previously having served as sideline leader at South Carolina for seven games after SteveSpurrierdecided to quit midway through the 2015 season.He inherits an experienced team that will be looking to get back to a bowl game for the second time since starting their football program in 2010.
The Panthers offense lost two of their top three in receiving yards but more importantly returns Penny Hart, who was injured last year after putting up 71 catches for 1,099 yards and earning 2015 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors.He along with the rest of the offense will hope that senior quarterback Conner Manning improves on his accuracy from last season, when he completed just 55% of his passes and threw all of his thirteen interceptions during the teams losses.
Defensively they will begin without their top two in tackles from 2016, but still return an experienced group with all eleven starters either seniors or juniors and seven back from a year ago.The strongest part of the defense is easily their backfield, which ranked help the team rank 9thnationally against the pass, returns three of four starters and is led by All Sun Belt Conference Honorable Mention at cornerbackChandonSullivan.
A return to the postseason is likely not in the cards for the Panthers and new head coach Shawn Elliot this season, as they face a difficult home lineup in their first year playing at Turner Field in Atlanta, while also having to battle through six road games in a eight week span including all four of their conference matchups away from home, of which they have gone winless on the road against in three of their four years in Sun Belt play.
Pricing the Panthers Getting over five wins may be too much to ask for Georgia State considering they will likely be favored at home only once this upcoming season.Having to count on the Panthers road success is not an ideal situation to be in considering the stats above and the fact that they are just 6-32 away from home in their teams history.
Preseason ranking: 122
Odds to win Sun Belt: +4000
Over/Under regular season wins: 3.5
MattViatorenters his second year as theWarhawkshead coach and will be looking to get his team flying in the right direction after going just 7-26 in their last 33 games including a 5-15 record against Sun Belt opponents.
The offense will be led up front by junior quarterback Garrett Smith and an offensive line featuring one of the conferences best guards, senior Frank Sutton.Behind them will be a backfield that returns all of their major cogs from a season ago that helped them rank 3rdin the conference in rushing yards per game, while the team also benefits by getting back its top three in receiving yards from a year ago.With that many returning playmakers, it shouldnt be a problem improving on a paltry offense that ranked 110thin scoring and 122ndin yards per game in 2016.
Eight starters are back for the defense, most importantly junior linebacker David Griffith, the team leader in tackles/sacks/tackles for loss a season ago and senior end Caleb Tucker anchoring the team up front. There is plenty of room all over for improvement with the D ending last season ranked 122ndin scoring, 125thagainst the run and 119thin yards allowed per game.
TheWarhawksmay return 15 starters overall, but if you look at the first and second team players on offense and defense, only 5 of their 44 players are seniors, which combined with a tough schedule that includes 9 teams that went to bowls last season means that the ULM may be a year away from truly competing in the Sun Belt conference.
UL Money-That schedule ranks 26thmost difficult in the country, includes seven road games (they are 2-20 the last three years away from home) and is bookended with difficulty in the first and last month of the year, meaning their only good chance at wins comes in a three game span against Coastal Carolina, Texas State and Georgia State.Even with all those starters back, getting over 3.5 wins may be a tough stretch for theWarhawks.
12.Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Preseason ranking: 129
Odds to win Sun Belt: +10000
Over/Under regular season wins: 4
2017 will be the first at the FBS level for Coastal Carolina who are known as the Chanticleers, which for those curious is a rooster fromTheCanteburyTalesand is reflected by a team mascot that looks like a steroid induced version of Foghorn Leghorn.
This will be head coach JoeMoglia6thseason as the CCC coach and he has led his team to a 51-15 record in his tenure, including 10-2 last season with both losses coming by just a point each, which is a continuing trend for the team as they havent lost a game by more than one possession since 2013.
The team returns just four starters on offense and will rely on transfers at quarterback Austin Wilson (Syracuse) and running back Marcus Outlaw (Boston College) to help offset a backfield that lost its two top in yards and a wide receiving corps that gets back only one of its top four in receptions.Defensively they will count on end Marcus Williamson to lead up front, linebacker Shane Johnson in the middle and cornerback AnthonyChesleyto head up the backfield.
Its never easy to guess how a team will handle their first season after making the jump up to the FBS, though you could make a case study of the recent results from the Sun Belt that has seen six other teams joining the FBS ranks over the past few years-Idaho (1-11 in 2011), Texas State (4-8 in 2012), South Alabama (2-11 in 2012), Georgia State (0-12 in 2013), Georgia Southern (9-3 in 2014) and Appalachian State (7-5 in 2014).They will need to build momentum early against a soft beginning schedule that has home games against Western Illinois and UMass while also taking on the 130thranked team in the country UAB on the road or else find themselves in danger of duplicating an opening season lack of success like their conferences cohorts like Idaho and Georgia State.
Taking them by the Caroline-Three winnable games to start plus matchups against three of the other bottom teams in the conference (Texas State, UL Monroe and Georgia State) give the Chanticleers at least a fighting chance of hitting the over in wins, though late summer news that head coach JoeMogliawill miss the season due to medical concerns adds an unfortunate variable to the mix.