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2019 SUN BELT PREVIEW
Bye Bye Benson
Karl Benson took over as the Sun Belt commissioner at a time of major transition and uncertainty for the league eight years ago. Benson, 67, steps down this season after witnessing tremendous growth of the league. Keith Gill is its new commissioner. Gill most recently served as executive associate commissioner of the Atlantic 10 Conference and played college football at Duke, lettering as a running back from 1990-93. He is a past member of the NCAA Football Rules Committee and the NCAA Division I Council.
Hitting The Alleys
Meanwhile, while building the league from the basement up, Benson has witnessed quite a few benchmarks, including a total of 16 Sun Belt teams that have gone bowling the past three seasons, the most in conference history. Those teams have gone 11-5 SU and 9-7 ATS in bowl games.
The Sun Belt is 15-13 SU and 16-11-1 ATS as underdogs in bowl games, including 13-9 SU and 14-7-1 ATS with a winning record. FYI: seven SBC teams have entered bowl games off a loss of 3 or more points. They went 6-1 SUATS – all as underdogs.
Note: The numbers following each team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. The RPR represents each team’s overall, offensive and defensive rankings in overall returning production experience.
APPALACHIAN STATE (Offense - *10/4, Defense - 6/1, RPR: 22/5/77)
TEAM THEME: DRINK THE KOOL-AID
After seven seasons of success on the mountain, head coach Scott Satterfield accepted an offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving ASU for Louisville. It opened the door for Eliah Drinkwitz, the offensive coordinator at NC State and Boise State the past four years, and we’ll drink to that. The 36-year old Drinkwitz is also out of the Gus Malzahn coaching tree from his days at Arkansas State and Auburn. He inherits a team top-heavy with returning experience, including the loop’s QB Zac Thomas and seven of his top eight wide receivers. In addition, new defensive coordinator Ted Roof also brings plenty of experience to the staff having served as DC at no less than seven various FBS schools.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mountaineers have won 35 of their last 39 Sun Belt games.
PLAY AGAINST: at UL-Lafayette (10/9)
COASTAL CAROLINA (Offense - 6/3, Defense - 8/4, RPR:40/69/33)
TEAM THEME: MOVIN’ ON UP
Head coach Joe Moglia has decided to hand the reins over to his assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell and move up to Executive Director for Football at Coastal Carolina, thus closing the books on a wild Wall Street success story. Moglia, the former CEO of TD Ameritrade, never stood a chance to see his dreams fulfilled as an FBS head coach when health issues sidelined him in 2017, and a defensive collapse of massive proportions ultimately denied him a winning season last year. The Roosters featured a total of 24 underclassmen making starts in 2018, but top pass rusher Jeffrey Gunter transferred to Syracuse, leaving 300-pound Clemson transfer Sterling Johnson to fill the gap.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Chanticleers are 1-7 SUATS at home in conference games since joining the Sun Belt.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Georgia State (10/12)
GEORGIA SOUTHERN (Offense - *7/3, Defense - 7/2, RPR: 19/31/30)
TEAM THEME: 10 DOWN, 10 UP
The ‘Georgia Power Company’ is back... sort of. After two years of outages under head coach Tyson Summers, the Eagles brought Chad Lunsford on permanently last season and while the ground attack wasn’t as explosive as past editions, Georgia Southern finished seventh in the nation in rushing offense. Coupled with the three games in which he was the interim coach in 2017, Lunsford’s squads are averaging 275.8 RYPG, which gets them closer to where they want to be. A dramatic last-second win over Eastern Michigan in the Camellia Bowl lifted them to 10 wins last year – a job well done for a team that lost 10 games the previous season. They will likely need to overcome an expected regression to the mean in turnovers (+22 last season) in order to stay on the same track.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Eagles are 37-11 SU at home the last eight years.
PLAY ON: vs. UL-Monroe (11/16)
GEORGIA STATE (Offense - *8/3, Defense - 7/2, RPR: 28/35/32)
TEAM THEME: BACK ON THE PROWL
Only 7 teams in the nation started fewer freshmen than did Georgia State last season. That ultimately spoke to a dramatic downturn for the Panthers in 2018, ruining an otherwise sterling debut by head coach Shawn Elliott the previous year. The culprit was a defense that slipped more than 12 points and 100 yards per game. With it, though, comes a unit returning loads of playing experience, including starting QB Dan Ellington and five OL that have each started 19-plus games. Every wide receiver, sans standout Penny Hart, is also back. With the secondary also benefitting from the youth movement, look for Elliot’s bad case of sophomore blues to be just a blip in history.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since becoming an FBS squad, the Panthers are 5-1 ATS in their third game of the season.
TROY (Offense – *7/4, Defense – 6/2, RPR: 41/83/24)
TEAM THEME: CASE WELL STATED
With the coaching changes at Troy this season, one thing is for certain: new Troy head coach Chip Lindsey has ‘Bama blood running through his veins. Born in the state, he played football at North Alabama and joins the Trojans after being the offensive coordinator at Auburn the past two seasons. He was also the QB coach for Troy in 2010. And according to SB Nation, he is Troy’s third coach in 30 years. He’s filling some pretty big shoes as departed coach Neal Brown won 35 games in his four-year tenure, including triple-digit wins the last three. However, Lindsey is also the benefactor of a fairly well-stocked cupboard. Some things never change.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Trojans are 11-0 ATS in regular-season games following a SU favorite loss.
ARKANSAS STATE (Offense - 6/3, Defense - 7/2, RPR: 56/101/27)
TEAM THEME: MAD AS HELL
After winning five of six prior Sun Belt titles, and going 20-4 in conference play under Blake Anderson, the Red Wolves have been forced to settle for second-place in consecutive seasons the past two years. Oddly, they dominated ‘In The Stats’ in the last two seasons, outyarding foes an average of 104.5 YPG while having only a 15-10 record to show for their efforts. To their credit, the Red Wolves have scored 22 defensive TDs the last five years, while gaining 300 or more yards of total offense in 104 of their last 115 games. The starting point this season is in having to face only 3 foes with a winning record from 2018.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Red Wolves are 47-15 SU and 41-21 ATS from Game Six out the last eight years.
PLAY ON: vs. Georgia Southern (11/23)
SOUTH ALABAMA (Offense - 6/4, Defense - 4/2, RPR: 123/114/104)
TEAM THEME: CONTINUITY FOR A THOUSAND, ALEX
Much to the chagrin of 2nd-year head coach Steve Campbell, the Jaguars will begin the season with a different starting quarterback for the 6th straight year. It goes hand-in-hand with the fact that South Alabama will be looking for its first winning season since joining the ranks of the big boys in 2012. Safe to say “continuity” is likely the answer to the Sun Belt edition of Final Jeopardy. For what it’s worth, Campbell enters the season with an overall record of 162-62, including a 63-32 mark at the NCAA level, in his 19-year career as a college football coach. Playing with no cards, he’ll get out of this... but it will take time.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Jaguars are 1-10 SUATS all-time against opponents that are coming off a SU underdog win.
PLAY ON: vs. UL-Lafayette (11/16)
TEXAS STATE (Offense - *9/5, Defense - 10/2, RPR: 3/18/5)
TEAM THEME: TIME WILL TELL FOR SPAVITAL
New head coach Jake Spavital is a former offensive coordinator and quarterback coach with lots of offense in his DNA after having coached at West Virginia, California, Texas A&M and Tulsa. He’s worked with Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin, Dana Holgorsen, Kliff Kingsbury and Sonny Dykes. He also coached Johnny Manziel in his Heisman Trophy season with the Aggies. The man can coach and will surely jumpstart the Bobcats’ dormant offense. In addition, Texas State is bursting at the seams with returning starters and playing experience. With all that experience, look for the ‘Stat You Will Like’ below to blow to smithereens this season. He has a lot of work to do – one step at a time.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bobcats are 8-36 ‘In The Stats’ versus FBS foes the last four seasons.
PLAY ON: vs. Troy (11/16)
UL-LAFAYETTE (Offense - 8/5, Defense - 7/3, RPR: 50/70/60)
TEAM THEME: RAISING THE BAR
After playing UNDER its season win total in four of the previous five years behind former head coach Mark Hudspeth, new head coach Billy Napier put his footprint on the ULL program last year with a 7-win OVER performance. A former assistant under Nick Sand and Dabo Swinney, during Napier’s playing career he quarterbacked Furman in his junior and senior years to two conference championships and a trip to the 1-AA Championship Game. If his pedigree were any better, he’d be selling breeding rights. To top if off, Napier signed one of the best-recruiting classes ever in the Sun Belt this offseason. The Cajuns just might be Ragin’ this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cajuns are 8-0 SUATS as a single-digit dog against winning opponents.
PLAY ON: vs. Mississippi State (8/31)
UL-MONROE (Offense - *8/5, Defense - 8/4, RPR: 46/74/48)
TEAM THEME: STANDING TALL
The Warhawks were one of four 6-6 teams that failed to land a bowl bid last season. A bitter season-ending loss to arch-rival UL-Lafayette sealed their fate when they missed a 36-yard field goal on the final play of the game. It was a sad ending for 19 seniors that made starts for ULM last season (only UAB and Middle Tennessee with more). A saving grace, though, was a defense that stood its ground, improving over 100 YPG. On the offensive front, a full array of wide receivers and tight ends are back in 2019. Better yet, all five starting offensive linemen return, having made 131 combined starts. It makes them the sleeper team in the Sun Belt this season. And that’s better than Viagra for head coach Matt Viator.
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 ON: at UL-Lafayette (11/30)
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