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2018 SUN BELT PREVIEW
The Sun Belt Conference is entering its final football season under the leadership of commissioner Karl Benson, who took over at a time of major transition and uncertainty for the league seven years ago. Benson — who at 66 - has decided to step down next summer. Like his hit TV counterpart, Benson DuBois, he has witnessed the growth of the league.
“The Sun Belt for so long has been labeled as the bottom of the 10 conferences and that’s no longer the case,” insists Benson. “We have established a brand. We’ve established credibility.”
This season will be a historic one for the 18-year-old league, which will have its first championship game between the winners of two newly formed, five-team divisions that were designed to foster geographic rivalries and make travel easier for fans.
Hitting The Alleys
Meanwhile, while building the league from the basement up, Benson has witnessed quite a few benchmarks, including a total of 11 Sun Belt teams that have gong bowling the past two seasons, the most in conference history. Those teams have gone 8-3 SU and 7-4 ATS in bowl games.
The Sun Belt is 14-11 SU and 15-9-1 ATS as underdogs in bowl games, including 12-7 SU and 13-5-1 ATS with a winning record. FYI: five SBC team have entered bowl games off a loss of 3 or more points. They went 5-0 SUATS – all as underdogs.
Note: The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
APPALACHIAN STATE (Offense - 6/3, Defense - 5/1, 29 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: LAMB CHOPPED
This close. That’s how close the Mountaineers came to winning their first game against a Power 5 opponent when they fell 20-19 at home against Wake Forest, a game in which ASU won the stats by 149 yards. Nonetheless, the Apps emerged victorious 9 times last season and have won 30 games the last three years. This season, though they will go at it without 4-year starting QB Taylor Lamb, while also losing coveted DC Nate Woody to Georgia Tech. The good news is star RB Jalin Moore is back, as well as All-conference LT Victor Johnson. And leading WR Shaedon Meadors returns after missing last season with an injury. If back-up QB Zac Thomas can’t cut it, three big and talented QBs lurk in the shadows. It’s why ASU is favored to win the Sun Belt East Division by football coaches in the 2018 preseason poll.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mountaineers have won 27 of their last 30 Sun Belt games.
ARKANSAS STATE (Offense - *7/4, Defense - 5/1, 55 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: CATCH US IF YOU CAN
After winning or sharing five of the previous six Sun Belt titles, and going 20-4 in conference play under HC Blake Anderson, the Red Wolves settled for second-place with a 6-2 record in the Belt. The fact of the matter is they were arguably the best 7-win team in the land, one that out-yarded opponents by 116 YPG, going 10-2 In The Stats (8-0 the last eight games). At 26-6 the last four seasons in the loop, they are favored to win the West Division by SBC coaches in 2018. An explosive offense is led by former Oklahoma QB Justice Hansen (3,967 yards and 37 TDs last season) who returns with a cast of big, talented WRs, including five of who stand 6’3” or better. Hansen has named to the Walter Camp, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and Manning Watch Lists for 2018. In addition OL Lanard Bonner was placed on the Outland Trophy Watch List. Our math has them favored in 11 games this season (save Alabama). It’s what happens when you go up against the 4th easiest schedule of all FBS schools in 2018 with foes going 59-87 (.404) last season. Lookout Sun Belt lovers – the Wolves are talented and mad as hell.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Red Wolves are 42-12 SU and 36-18 ATS from Game Six out the last seven years.
PLAY ON:vs. South Alabama (11/3)
COASTAL CAROLINA (Offense - 8/5, Defense - 5/2, 50 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: TAKE TWO
We chronicled the Joe Moglia story on this page last season: Left coaching to become CEO and Chairman of the Board of Ameritrade, then returned as an unpaid Nebraska assistant to Coastal Carolina head coach. Along the way he won 51 games in five years, with four trips to the FCS playoffs. “My story is 10 times better than the Rudystory,” insists Moglia. Last year, though, he contracted an infection in his lungs and was forced to hand the reins over to OC Jamey Chadwell. The 2015 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year is back this year with his all-star coaching staff. And WR Malcolm Williams (1,093 all-purpose yards last year) has been named to the 2018 Biletnikoff Award Watch List. Yes, after a false start, the most interesting coach in the world is now finally ready to take on the FBS.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Chanticleers’ offense has averaged at least 34 PPG every season under head coach Moglia.
PLAY ON:vs. UAB (9/8)
GA SOUTHERN (Offense - *8/4, Defense – 9/3, 42 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: POWERING BACK UP
So much for first impressions. After a 3-0 start, former Georgia Southern head coach Tyson Summers proceeded to lose 13 of his next 15 games, and his job in the process when he was canned after an 0-6 start last year. Summers’ fake resume was exposed: he purported to be an option-first coach when in fact he was a non-option guy coaching an option team. Enter Chad Lunsford, who stepped in as interim last year while guiding the Eagles to a 2-4 finish. What he did was re-ignite a ground game over the course of the final three games (942 yards) that was reminiscent of the Georgia Power Company they used to be in the past. To top it off, they bring back the best secondary in the loop.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Eagles went 3-6 SU at home the last two years after going 29-4 the previous five years.
PLAY ON:vs. Arkansas State (9/29)
GEORGIA STATE (Offense - 7/4, Defense - 5/2, 52 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: LIKING THEIR NEW DIGS
The Panthers welcomed both new coach Shawn Elliott and a sort-of-new home stadium (the former Turner Field in Atlanta with a seating capacity of 24,333) last season, and they each fit like a glove. As a result, GSU earned 7 wins, as well as its first bowl victory. Elliott, the former South Carolina interim head coach, improved the offense over 50 YPG, but will be tested this season. That’s because he’ll break in a new QB with a powder-puff running attack to support him (ranked dead last in 2017 in carries that gained at least five yards). Instead, the new signal caller will lean heavily on a solid receiving corps led by Penny Hart (Biletnikoff Award Watch List) and two SEC transfers from Florida and South Carolina. Stay tuned.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since becoming an FBS squad, the Panthers are 5-0 ATS in their third game of the season.
PLAY ON:at Memphis (9/14)
LIBERTY (Offense - *9/3, Defense - 7/2, 44 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
Liberty makes its FBS debut in 2018 and if the name sounds familiar, it should. The Flames torched Baylor, 48-45, as 34-point dogs in Waco in their season opener last year. The good news is head coach Turner Gill, the former Nebraska star QB, has had a winning record each of the six years he’s been in Lynchburg. The bad news is he was 25-49 at two other FBS schools (Buffalo and Kansas) before becoming the lead Flame. Gill did mange to win the MAC title in 2008. He also beat Coastal Carolina when the Chanticleers were No. 1 in the FCS at the time. And for what it’s worth, LU returns 81% of its overall production from last season, seventh in the FBS. Bon voyage.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Conference USA and the Sun Belt turned down Liberty, the nations’ largest private university, for admission.
SOUTH ALABAMA (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 7/2, 55 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: EXTRA WIDE
New head coach Steve Campbell knows the shoes he is about to fill are big wide ones. That’s because departing head coach Joey Jones helped turn a fledgling football program from neophytes to mighty mites after they moved from FCS to FBS waters in 2012, averaging nearly 5.5 wins a season five years thereafter, while bowling twice. Perhaps Jones’ undoing was a 52-0 loss to winless Georgia Southern late last season. Nonetheless, Campbell brings pedigree, having led Central Arkansas to 20 wins and a Southland title the last two years behind a QB that completed 67 percent of his passes at over 15 YPC. With both of last year’s QBs back (and QB Cephus Johnson named the preseason Freshman Player of the Year), along with WR Jamarius Way on the 2018 Biletnikoff Award Watch List, look for a smooth transition into Phase II.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Jaguars are 1-5 SUATS following a SU underdog win the past three seasons by an average loss margin of 29 PPG.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Troy (10/23)
TEXAS STATE (Offense - 7/4, Defense - 8/4, 49 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: BABY STEPS
From an itinerary standpoint, the Bobcats’ 2018 schedule sets up favorably as they open the season against seven consecutive opponents that were home for the holidays last year. It’s the final five games that will likely tell the tale as they close against five bowlers. Through it all, they stand a good chance of recording as many or more wins this campaign as they managed in head coach Everett Withers’ first two years on the sidelines in San Marcos. The good news is he brings back a young but experienced group that improved its stats on both sides of the ball last season. The better news is that Withers has inked 17 three-star prospects in his first two years with the Bobcats. One step at a time.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bobcats are 5-28 In The Stats versus FBS foes the last three seasons.
PLAY ON:vs. Appalachian State (11/10)
TROY (Offense - 8/4, Defense - 5/2, 54 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: WHAT BROWN CAN DO FOR YOU
A 44th ranked offense - which topped the nation in the Red Zone - and a 24th ranked defense carried the Trojans to a school-best 11-win season in 2017. And that came on the heels of a 10-win effort in 2016. So why is Neal Brown still its head coach? Stories like this often times find these coaches moving on to a Power 5 program. FYI: of the thirteen Power 5 jobs to open in 2018, ten hires were by fellow Power 5 coaches or assistants, along with Herm Edwards at Arizona State. The problem this season is four-year starting QB Brandon Silvers (10K passing yards and 71 TDs) and 3K rusher Jordan Chunn are gone. The good news is the backups saw lots of playing time last season. That and Hunter Reese is the top linebacker in the conference.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Trojans are 10-0 ATS in regular season games following a SU favorite loss.
PLAY ON:vs. Boise State (9/1)
UL LAFAYETTE (Offense – *9/3, Defense - 4/1, 54 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: GEAUX CAJUNS
After playing UNDER its season win total each of the last five years, there is a new head coach roaming the sidelines in Lafayette and he goes by the name of Billy Napier. He replaces Mark Hudspeth, who won 9 games four consecutive seasons from 2011-2014 before the tires went flat. The 38-year-old Napier is a former QB at Furman who led the Paladins to the FCS playoffs in 2001 and 2002. He was Dabo Swinney’s OC at Clemson, as well as an assistant with Nick Saban at Alabama as well as an OC at Arizona State last season. His resume outweighs the neighborhood in which he now resides, but he’s now calling the shots. He’ll need to rebuild the trenches but the talent that does return is formidable.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cajuns are 8-0 SUATS as single-digit dogs vs. winning opponents.
UL MONROE (Offense – *9/4, Defense - 8/3, 56 Lettermen)
TEAM THEME: POINTS APLENTY
Safe to say that with the arrival of head coach Matt Viator two years ago, the Warhawks have become an OVER machine in Sun Belt Conference wars. Thanks to a non-existent defense and an offense led by one of the best tandem QB/WRs in Group of 5 College Football (QB Caleb Evans and WR Marcus Green – each on the Manning and Biletnikoff Award Watch Lists respectively), ULM and its foes have averaged over 75 combined PPG in Sun Belt battles under Viator (85 last season). After going just 2-6 SU in his first eight games with Monroe, Viator’s troops have shown signs of progress since. With 8 starters back on defense, and nearly everyone returning on offense, we’re not overstating it when we say they can become a prime player in the SBC… when-and-if a defense shows its face.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: ULM had been shut out 7 times in 8 previous seasons against Power Five conferences before Viator... and none since.
PLAY AGAINST: at Coastal Carolina (10/13)
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