Is the Sun Belt the best mid-major conference in college football? With three of the AAC’s top teams leaving for the Big 12, there is debate about the overall quality of the Sun Belt.
There have been four different champions in the past four seasons – App State, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, and Troy. And there could be five in five years.
Troy is the current bet favorite, but Western Division opponent South Alabama is right on Troy’s tail. Troy and South Alabama are a step above the rest of the West, but the East is filled with five different schools receiving first-place votes for division victory in the annual preseason poll.
The Sun Belt is going to be very competitive this season.
The Sun Belt East is loaded and Coastal Carolina is vulnerable
Coastal Carolina went 22-3 in 2020 and 2021 but fell behind last year and finished 9-4. Star quarterback Grayson McCall is back, but it’s fair to wonder if the Chanticleers can be in for a rebuilding period.
Coach Jamie Chadwell left for Liberty and the school hired longtime assistant Tim Peake as his replacement. Beyond just McCall, Beck inherits a loaded offense but brings a more general system in comparison to the unique offense used by Chadwell. When you couple that with a mediocre defense that lost De Josiah Stewart to Michigan and DT Jerrod Clark to the NFL, it could open the door for other Sun Belt East contenders.
Unfortunately, James Madison is not one of them. JMU went 8-3 in its first year as an FBS member but is still ineligible to compete for a conference title due to NCAA rules. JMU is still one of the best teams in the Sun Belt, although it may not be as good as last year with the departure of QB Todd Centeio.
Jordan McCloud and Alonza Barnett vie for the starting QB job while the Dukes have added a slew of transitions in skill positions. The majority of last year’s offensive line is back and the defense looks strong even after de Isaac Oko’s late move to Ole Mes.
With JMU ineligible, Appalachian State and Marshall look like Coastal’s main competition for the East.
App State is coming off its worst season as a member of the FBS – 6-6 with two wins over FCS teams. It was a wild season that included a 63-61 loss to North Carolina, a road win over Texas A&M and a Troy win over Hail Mary. Application returns RB Nate Noel, his top four receiver and has a strong offensive line, but must replace QB Chase Brice and some key contributors on defense. This team will return to the bowl, but can it return to the top of the league?
Meanwhile, Marshall had an up and down season that included a win against Notre Dame and a loss against Bowling Green. The defense was excellent and should be among the best in the SBC despite the departure of coordinator Lance Guidry for Miami. On offense, Cam Fancher appeared at QB late in the season and electric RB Rasheen Ali returned from injury. WR took some losses, but the Thundering Herd should be able to run the ball behind an experienced line.
A potential surprise contender in the East is Georgia Southern, who went from a dominant offense to Clay Hilton’s happy passing scheme and surprisingly got into the bull game. Elsewhere, Georgia State appears headed in the wrong direction after three straight trips from 2019 to 2021 while Old Dominion could be in for another long year.
Troy, South Alabama are preparing to compete for the Sun Belt West title
After three losing seasons under Chip Lindsay, Troy made a change and hired John Summerall. He made an immediate impact and led the Trojans to a Sun Belt championship, their first since 2009. Can Troy recapture that magic in 2023?
The Trojans rode an amazing defense during a 12-win season that included a 6-1 record in single-scoring games. All-time NCAA leader Carlton Martial and defensive coordinator Shel Wood are gone, but the unit’s top three assists and Reddy Steward are all-league returns. On offense, QB Gunnar Watson and RB Kimani Vidal returned, but the top three receivers departed, as did three starters.
That’s a lot for Troy to replace and could create an opportunity for South Alabama. The Jaguars improved from 5-7 to 10-3 in Kane Wommack’s first two seasons as head coach and a 2023 team full of production comebacks. That includes QB Carter Bradley, RB La’Damian Webb, and receivers Caullin Lavy and Devin Voisin on offense and DB Yam Banks and DT Wy’Kevious Thomas on defense.
From a schedule perspective, things are set up better for Troy. The Trojans will host JMU, South Alabama, and Louisiana and won’t have to face App State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, or Marshall.
Can Louisiana regain its place among the Sun Belt elite?
The Sun Belt introduced the divisions in 2018 and Louisiana quickly became the dominant team in the West, winning four straight seasons from and then finally an outright conference title in 2021. After 2021, head coach Billy Napier left for Florida and turned the reins over to the offensive coordinator. , Michael Desormeaux.
When Napier left, the UL core saw their eligibility come to an end as a few other teams in the division – Troy and South Alabama – showed rapid improvement. The end result was a 6-7 record in Desormeaux’s debut season. Will this be a sign of things to come? Or will Ragin’ Cajuns climb back toward the top of the division?
Having one of the easiest schedules in the conference should result in a better record and the staff can allow UL to return to the heavy, efficient offense that worked so well a few years ago. However, there is a lot to replace on defense, so it may be another year before UL gets back into contention for the Sun Belt title.
Another team in the West that could make some noise is Southern Miss. Golden Eagles running back RB Frank Gore Jr. and a few other key players on offense. The USM defense struggled last year, but this team must have enough offensive power to reach a bowl if one of the transitional QBs can provide some stability.
Elsewhere in the West, Arkansas State is entering its third season under Butch Jones. The Red Wolves are 5-19 in Jones’ first two seasons and he could have another tough season. Like Jones at Jonesboro, Terry Bowden is entering his third season at UL Monroe. The Redhawks have gone 4-8 both seasons but have been fairly competitive in conference play.
JJ Kane at Texas is the only freshman coach in the West. Kinne did the G5 version of what Deion Sanders did in Colorado with great roster turnover. There are quite a few Power Five transfers on this list, including Malik Hornsby (Arkansas) and TJ Finley (Auburn) at QB.
Which Sun Belt team is the most overrated?
Sam Cooper: Coastal Carolina. I’m right on Chanticleers this year. They won a bunch of close matches over bad teams last year and were really bad defending in general. It also feels like a step back from Jamey Chadwell to Tim Peake. Even with the return of Grayson McCall, I think CCU is fading in the middle of the pack in the league.
Nick Bromberg: Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns should be in a bowl game and have a chance at being contenders in the West, but the division is so strong that a fourth-place finish wouldn’t be surprising. Louisiana is the #5 favorite to win the conference at +800 but Miss Southern is at +4000. The Eagles may be as good as Louisiana.
Which sleeper team is vying for the Sun Belt title?
Sam: South Georgia. I thought Southern Miss, but USM plays Southern Alabama, Louisiana, and Troy down the road. Georgia South should have a high-scoring offense again, so if the defense can be marginally better, the Eagles can pull off some upsets in the east.
nick: South Georgia. The Eagles added former Tulsa QB Davis Breen and brought back lead rusher Jalen White. If the defense can be reconfigured after the departure of eight starters, this team has a chance to make some noise in what could be a wide open Eastern Division.
What’s your favorite Sun Belt bet?
Sam: application state of more than 6.5 times. The app had a crazy start last season and then lost four points to one Sun Belt game. The Mountaineers should be able to bounce back even as a QB question enters the season. The app can build on the running game, pass play, and play some good defense on its way to seven or eight wins.
nick: Miss South more than 5 wins. With games against Florida State, Tulane, and Mississippi, the Eagles will likely need to go 5-3 in conference play to hit the end. This is possible with a schedule that includes Arkansas State, Texas State, Old Dominion and Louisiana Monroe. I am confident that this bet will pay off at the very least.
Who would you pick to win the Sun Belt title?
Sam: South Alabama. Troy’s schedule is better set up, but I have my doubts about the Trojans attack and think the defense is taking a step back. This opens the door for South Alabama to break out of the West and eventually win the conference. The United States has a better list and ousts Marshall, elective to get out of the East.
nick: South Alabama. I think Jaguars have had enough to get past Troy this season and win the West. With Coastal Carolina likely to take a step back following the departure of Jamey Chadwell, the United States should be the clear favorites over whomever they face in the title game. Another 10-win season would make Kane Wommack a hot commodity in the coaching market.
Sun belt title odds
South Alabama: +325
Coastal Carolina: +500
Appalachian State: +850
South Georgia: +2000
Miss South: +4,000
Arkansas State: +5,000
Old Dominion: +8,000
First Monroe: +10,000