CFB

@KommDog’s Sun Belt Conference Preview

After a 2021 season that saw four teams go bowling, the Sun Belt Conference will be out to prove that they are a Group of 5 school that is not to be messed with. The conference year in and year out produces quality teams, some that make big noise at a national level when cracking the top 25. Will there be a team that makes some noise again this season? There are certainly teams with the talent to do so. Let’s break down each team and look at where they will likely be standing this season. 

 

Appalachian State (10-4 overall, 8-6 ATS, 6-8 O/U)

 

Following a runner-up finish in the Sun Belt Conference championship game, the Mountaineers are back with some familiar faces that are ready to run it back. Sun Belt Newcomer of the year last season, QB Chase Brise is back for one final season under center. Last season he found himself in the top 20 in the nation in passing yards (3,337 – 18th) and TDs (27 – 18th). However, he will need to try to bounce back without his top three WR from last season. He luckily will return a solid two-headed monster backfield in RBs Nate Noel (1,128 yards, 4 TDs) and Camerun Peoples (927 yards, 14 TDs) to keep the pressure off of him. Defensively, they return a menace in the backfield in LB Nick Hampton, who had a junior season that found himself with 11 sacks (T-11th in NCAA) and 68 total tackles. They also return a true ball hawk in the secondary in DB Steven Jones Jr. who had 5 INTs last season (T-4th in NCAA), three of which he took for touchdowns. The Mountaineers open up against some dark horse power 5 teams in North Carolina and Texas A&M. If they can show out and look impressive in the first two weeks, they could very well be on their way to be one of the best teams in the conference. 

 

Arkansas State (2-10 overall, 6-6 ATS, 3-9 O/U)

 

The Red Wolves are going to look like a new squad both offensively and defensively next season, returning only four starters on offense and two on defense. After starting for the Red Wolves last season and then losing his spot to now Texas State QB Layne Hatcher, James Blackman is hoping to give the squad some sort of momentum going into this season. In only six games played last season, Blackman threw for 1,134 yards, 8 TDs, and 4 INTs. He will be returning two WRs in Te’Vailance Hunt (758 yards, 6 TDs) and Jeff Foreman (556 yards, 2 TDs) that he will have connection with next season. Defensively, they are returning Second-Team All Sun Belt DL Kivon Bennett. Bennett was one of the few bright spots on the Red Wolves last season, where he 58 total tackles and eight sacks last season. They also will be adding a few transfers that will likely see playing time right away in Illinois-transfer safety Eddie Smith, Colorado-transfer DE Blayne Toll, and Vanderbilt-transfer DT Terion Sugick. Arkansas State has struggled to find a groove and confidence the past couple of seasons. Time will tell if new faces will be beneficial for the Red Wolves or only make them worse this season.

 

Coastal Carolina (11-2 overall, 6-7 ATS, 6-7 O/U)

 

America really fell in love with Coastal Carolina when they posted an 11-1 record in 2020, and they were just as in love with them last year with a 11-2 record. Looking at the squad that is returning this season, there is no reason to believe that they won’t have a stellar record this season. One of the most slept on players in the country, and also the Sun Belt Player of the Year is junior QB Grayson McCall. McCall was stellar last season passing for 2,873 yards, 27 TDS, and only 3 INTs (T-2nd in NCAA). Although there are brand new receivers that McCall will throw to this season, they did pick up Georgia State transfer Sam Pickney in the offseason. Pickney had 27 catches last season for 311 yards and a TD for Georgia State, but will likely be a big target for McCall this season. Defensively, the Chanticleers return two First-Team All Sun Belt defensive players in Sophomore DE Josiah Stewart (43 tackles, 12.5 sacks – T-5th in NCAA) and CB D’Jordan Strong (25 tackles, 7 PD). With an out of conference schedule of Army, Gardner-Webb, Buffalo, and Virginia, it would appear that Coastal Carolina will be well on it’s way to a third-straight 10+ win season in 2022. 

 

Georgia Southern (3-9 overall, 6-6 ATS, 5-6-1 O/U)

 

To say that Georgia Southern struggled last season would be an understatement. Six of their nine losses came by over double digits, and they only had two wins in conference last season. It just seemed as if the Eagles were not able to find an identity on the offensive or defensive end of the ball last season. However, there is hope for this season with the acquisition of QB Kyle Vantrease from Buffalo. Vantrease started for Buffalo last season where he threw for 1,861 yards, 8 TDs, and 6 INTs. They are also returning two of the three starting WRs from last season as well. Defensively, the Eagles are returning all-conference third team DB Anthony Wilson to the squad. He led the team in tackles last season with 77 total tackles. Outside of all of the players, the Eagles made moves this offseason after firing coach Chad Lunsford midseason, and hiring former USC coach Clay Helton at the end of the season. Helton’s leadership and experience could be very beneficial to a very struggling squad this season. The Eagles will have a tough out of conference slate that includes traveling to Nebraska and UAB, while also some possibilities for wins hosting Morgan State and Ball State. Helton’s legacy will be in check to see if he can turn around Georgia Southern this season.

 

Georgia State (8-6 overall, 9-4 ATS, 7-6 O/U)

 

Following a 6-2 conference record and a second place finish in the division, Georgia State found themselves in the Camellia Bowl against Ball State. They not only won that game, but won by 31 points. The vibes are good for the Panthers going into this season as well. The Panthers will return their one-two punch backfield in RBs Tucker Gregg (953 yards, 9 TDs) and Jamyest Williams (859 yards, 9 TDs). Although he didn’t throw nearly as many passes as others in the NCAA, QB Darren Grainger was solid last year, completing nearly 60% of his passes, throwing for 1,715 yards, 19 TDs to 4 INTs. Grainger will also have his go-to WR Jamari Thrash returning this season to bring back an experienced corps. Defensively, a guy to watch out for is safety Antavious Lane. Lane was a first-team All-Conference last season when he had 81 total tackles and five interceptions (T-4th in NCAA). Their LB corps will also be returning two stars from last year in Jordan Veneziale (96 tackles, 4 sacks) and Blake Carroll (89 tackles, 5.5 sacks). A great majority of the pieces from last year’s bowl squad have returned. If momentum and experience can improve this Panther’s squad from last season, they are going to be a dark horse to win the Sun Belt.

 

James Madison (12-2 overall, N/A ATS, N/A O/U)

 

The team that many have talked about over the past year made some news last season when the Dukes of James Madison announced that they will be leaving the FCS Colonial Athletic Association to join the Sun Belt Conference. The Dukes lost a heart-breaker to North Dakota State in the FCS semi-finals last season, so to say they are hungry for some success is an understatement. James Madison will have eyes on them for their first season in FBS ball, and they’ll have 7 starters returning on offense to help them with that. However with the loss of CAA offensive player of the year QB Cole Johnson and star WR Antwane Wells, the Dukes will look to some new faces to be the stars this season. They got a massive transfer in former Colorado State QB Todd Centeio to take over for Cole Johnson. They are also returning WR Kris Thornton who caught for nearly 1,100 yards and 13 TDs. On the defensive end, a lot of key pieces were lost to graduation or the transfer portal. However, they will be returning EDGE Bryce Carter this season. Last season he had 16.5 tackles for loss and made his presence known in every FCS backfield last season. A lot of teams experience growing pains in their first years of playing FBS ball, so it will be interesting to see if James Madison follows suit to those teams as well. 

 

Louisiana-Lafayette (13-1 overall, 7-7 ATS, 4-10 O/U)

 

After losing their first game by 20 to Texas last season, the Ragin Cajuns finished the season undefeated, 13-0. However, this will be a new team this season with only 5 starters returning on offense, including only one returning offensive lineman. The Ragin’ Cajuns will look for production to start from RS sophomore QB Chandler Fields, who was backup Levi Lewis last season. The good news for Fields? RB Chris Smith returns for the team after a season with 855 yards and 8 TDs. He also will have 2 of the three starting receivers from last season in Michael Jefferson (481 yards, 4 TDs) and Peter Leblanc (417 yards, 1 TD) returning. Defensively, much life offensively, Louisiana-Lafayette has a lost some talented starters. However, they are fortunate to return two talented defensive ends in Andre Jones (60 tackles, 6 sacks) and ZiYon Hill-Green (58 tackles, 5.5 sacks). These two are going to need to make an impact on the edges to aid the new LBs that are coming into the scene this season. It is also hard to forget that this will be the first season under new head coach and former player Michael Desormeaux. His legacy will be established immediately if he can turn an inexperienced Ragin’ Cajuns team to the usual success it had under Billy Napier.

 

Louisiana-Monroe (4-8 overall, 5-6-1 ATS, 6-6 O/U)

 

Although the record may not show, there were some bright spots for UL-Monroe last season. The Warhawks had a very impressive win over Liberty 31-28 and within two touchdowns of LSU but lost 27-14. Although they were trying to find an identity at QB last season, it appears they have a promising QB in sophomore Chandler Rogers. As a freshman, Rogers completed 62.6% of his passes, threw for 1,311 yards, 9 TDs, and only 3 INTs in only 5 games of significant playing time. It would be a surprise if he didn’t create a solid connection with third-team All-Conference WR Boogie Knight, who led the team in receiving yards of 588 and TDs with 3. The Warhawks will also be returning their rotating RBs from last season in Andrew Henry (485 yards, 4 TDs) and Malik Jackson (451 yards, 3 TDs). Defensively, there will be some new faces that have transferred in or signed that will make an instant impact, as well as some returners that will look to be leaders on defense. Senior LB Zack Woodard had a solid season last year with 89 tackles and 3.5 sacks to help lead the LBs, as well as DB Jabar Johnson who had 57 tackles and 1 INT to lead the DBs. ULM has a tough road ahead and some challenges as well. This season will tell the direction that the program will be heading towards. 

 

Marshall (7-6 overall, 6-7 ATS, 7-6 O/U)

 

One of three teams to be joining the Sun Belt from Conference USA, Marshall has some hype coming in from last season, along with the guys they return. For starters, they will have a new QB under center in Texas-Tech transfer Henry Colombi. Columbi served as backup for Tyler Shough, but started and played in a number of games, passing for 1,291 yards, 5 TDs, and 5 INTs. Theyare also bringing back Conference-USA First-Team RB Rasheen Ali this season. Ali had a phenomenal freshman season, rushing for 1,401 yards (10th in NCAA) and 20 TDs (T-1st in NCAA). However, it was recently announced that Ali took a leave of absence from the team with a questionable timetable, which could hurt them this season/ Nonetheless, there is a lot to like defensively, as there are some key returners and transfers that should excite this team. First-Team All-Conference LB Abraham Beauplan returns for his senior year that saw him with 110 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season. They also landed four players in the transfer portal that are expected to start including Kentucky-transfer DT Isaiah Gibson Sr. and Purdue-transfer DT Anthony Watts. There is a lot of hype surrounding the Thundering Herd and understandably so. In a tough division of the Sun Belt, we will see if Marshall’s hype can lead them to the championship. 

 

Old Dominion (6-7 overall, 9-4 ATS, 5-8 O/U)

 

I talked about this team quite a bit last year on the College Football Central Show because, to be perfectly honest, this team was a LOT better than their record showed. Offensively, a lot of the pieces to their offense return. Hayden Wolff returns for his redshirt sophomore season, as he threw for just shy of 2,000 yards, 10 TDs, and 7 INTs. The Monarchs are also returning a dynamic RB-WR-TE corps this season in RB Blake Watson (1,112 yards, 8 TDs), WR Ali Jennings III (1,066 yards, 5 TDs), and First-Team All-Conference TE Zack Kuntz (692 yards, 5 TDs). Defensively, their DL and LB corps may struggle with new guys stepping up and unproductive guys probably staying in, but the secondary for the Monarchs is going to be solid. Safety R’Tarriun Johnson returns after a junior campaign where he tallied up 91 total tackles and 2 INTs. They will also be returning CB Tre Hawkins II who was fourth on the team in tackles last season with 76. Much like Marshall, Old Dominion is coming into the most competitive part of the Sun Belt Conference by far. With a fairly challenging out-of-conference schedule and already tough competition in their division, the Monarchs are going to have a challenging road ahead. However, if they can overcome those challenges early on in the season, expect them to tally up 7-8 wins this season.

 

South Alabama (5-7 overall, 5-7 ATS, 6-6 O/U)

 

Last season turned out to be a disappointment for the Jaguars, as they were a game shy of making a bowl game. However, there were a number of games against some really solid teams in the conference that could have flipped their season completely. They lost to Louisiana by 2 and lost to Coastal Carolina by 6 in OT. Although they did lose their best offensive player last season and first-team All-Conference Jalen Tolbert, they do return a number of key players from last year’s roster. QB Desmond Trotter is looking to progress from a solid sophomore season where he completed 59% of his passes for 2,476 yards, 17 TDs, and 8 INTs. They also got a pickup from the junior college league in RB La’Damian Webb, who led the National Junior College Athletic Association with just shy of 140 yards per game. He could be a newbie to the Division I level of football, but he could very well be the missing piece to this offense. Defensively, they return an All-Conference First Teamer in DB Darrell Luter who hauled in 4 INTs last season for the Jaguars. He is joined by the leading tackler from last season in safety Keith Gallomon (59 total tackles). With a couple of difficult out-of-conference games at Central Michigan and at UCLA, the Jaguars could show their true colors and set the tone for the season right away.  

 

Southern Miss (3-9 overall, 4-8 ATS, 4-8 O/U)

 

The last of the three that came over from Conference USA, Southern Miss is looking to bounce back from what was statistically one of the worst teams in 2021. The Golden Eagles averaged 250.7 yards per game, which only Colorado and New Mexico averaged less, and 15.9 points per game, which only Temple, UCONN, Indiana, and New Mexico averaged less. The offense was so poor last year and was so struck with injuries, that they actually started RB Frank Gore Jr. to play QB for them one game. However, the squad was very young and bring back a number of guys from last year. RB Frank Gore Jr. showed some promise last season rushing for 801 yards and 5 TDs last season. They also are returning Second-Team All-Conference USA WR in Jason Brownlee last season, who had 643 yards and 8 TDs last season. Defensively, they return nearly all of their starters from last season. Their secondary of Malik Shorts, Jay Stanley, Cameron Harrell, and Lakevias Daniel was solid last year as starters, combining for 6 INTs, and allowing only 212 passing yards per game (35th in NCAA). Although last year was certainly poor and unwatchable last season, it really was a young squad that was prone to injuries. However, nearly all their starters return, so they could upset a team or two this season. 

 

Texas State (4-8 overall, 7-5 ATS, 5-7 O/U)

 

Following a disappointing season in 2021, the Bobcats are fortunate enough to return six starters on offense. One starter not returning will be under center that they received via Arkansas State in QB Layne Hatcher. Hatcher showed some inconsistencies last season throwing for 2,423 yards, 19 TDs, and 13 INTs. However, they are returning everyone else at the skill position including RB Calvin Hill (714 yards, 3 TDs) and WRs Javen Banks (548 yards, 5 TDs) and Macell Barbee (520 yards and 5 TDs). WIth a new QB under center, this offense is going to look new but with familiar faces. Defensively is the complete opposite of the offense, as only 3 starters from last season return. However, there is a couple of bright spots in this defense. The Bobcats’ second leading tackler from last season in LB Sione Tupou returns after a season of 74 tackles. They also return LB London Harris, who was second on the team last year in sacks at 1.5. The defense is absolutely going to be a weak spot in this Texas State squad. However, if the inexperienced players can make plays from the jump, the team will look way better than last season, and their offense will do just enough for them to potentially become bowl eligible. 

 

Troy (5-7 overall, 4-8 ATS, 6-5-1 O/U)

 

Going into the last three games of last season, Troy had either been in every game or been with 10 points in all but one game. Their last three games they lost 35-21 to Louisiana-Lafayette, 45-7 to Appalachian State, and 37-10 to Georgia State. With the bad momentum to end the season, the Trojans will need to forget last season’s ending and focus on a positive 2022. They can do that this season as they got two big transfers at WR in UAB transfer RaJae’ Johnson (394 yards, 1 TD) and South Carolina Transfer Eric Shaw. It will be interesting to see who is throwing to them, as last year, Troy ran a two QB-set. With one QB gone, but Utah-transfer Peter Costelli coming in, it will be intriguing to see if new coach Jon Sumerall starts Costelli over last year’s starter Gunnar Watson (1,613 yards, 8 TDs, 4 INTs). Defensively, the Trojans are bringing back two big time players that both were recognized at the end of last year as First-Team All-Conference players. Redshirt sophomore Javon Soloman had a sensational Freshman year last season with 50 tackles and 11 sacks (T-11th in NCAA). Also returning is LB Carlton Martial who came down with 127 total tackles last season, sixth in the NCAA. The Trojans are going to be just fine, if not one of the best in the conference, defensively. The offense is absolutely going to determine the success of the team.

 

The Sun Belt got a whole lot interesting this year. With four new additions and division changes, the competition in the conference got a whole lot better. There are some guys on teams who will be recognized at a national level, and some of these teams could well see their games being played on major networks. This season is the best season to go all-in on the Sun Belt with all of the newness happening and the talent returning and coming into every team. Bet these games and watch these games. You will not be disappointed.

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