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Sun Belt football predictions: Top contenders, sleepers and championship picks

Is the Sun Belt the best mid-major conference in college football?

Is the Sun Belt the best mid-major conference in college football? With three of the top teams departing the AAC for the Big 12, there’s an argument to make 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 a fifth in five years.

Troy is the current betting favorite, but West Division foe South Alabama is right on Troy’s tail. Troy and South Alabama are considered a step above the rest of the West, but the East is loaded with five different schools receiving first-place votes to win the division in the annual preseason poll.

The Sun Belt is going to be extremely competitive this season.

Previously: AAC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-12

Sun Belt East is loaded and Coastal Carolina is vulnerable

Coastal Carolina went a combined 22-3 in 2020 and 2021 but took a step back last year, finishing 9-4. Star quarterback Grayson McCall is back, but it’s fair to wonder if Chanticleers could be in for a bit of a rebuilding year.

Coach Jamey Chadwell departed for Liberty and the school hired longtime assistant Tim Beck as his replacement. Beyond just McCall, Beck inherits a loaded offense but brings a more generic system compared to the unique attack employed by Chadwell. When you couple that with a mediocre defense that lost DE Josaiah Stewart to Michigan and DT Jerrod Clark to the NFL, it could open the door for other contenders in the Sun Belt East.

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Unfortunately, James Madison is not one of them. JMU went 8-3 in its first year as an FBS member but remains ineligible to compete for the conference title due to NCAA rules. JMU is still one of the better teams in the Sun Belt, though maybe not as good as last year with QB Todd Centeio gone.

Jordan McCloud and Alonza Barnett are competing for the starting QB job, while the Dukes added a slew of transfers at the skill positions. The majority of last year’s offensive line is back and the defense looks strong even after DE Isaac Ukwu’s late transfer to Ole Miss.

With JMU ineligible, Appalachian State and Marshall look like Coastal’s main competition for the East.

HUNTINGTON, WV - OCTOBER 29, 2022: Grayson McCall #10 of the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers looks on during the first half against the Marshall Thundering Herd at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on October 29, 2022 in Huntington, West Virginia. (Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
After a foray into the transfer portal, Grayson McCall is back at Coastal Carolina for another season under new coach Tim Beck. (Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images) (Diamond Images via Getty Images)

App State is coming off its worst season as an FBS member — 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 win over Troy on a Hail Mary. App returns RB Nate Noel, its top four receivers and has a strong offensive line, but has to replace QB Chase Brice and some major contributors on defense. This team will get back to a bowl, but can it get back to the top of the league?

Marshall, meanwhile, had its own up-and-down season that included a win over Notre Dame and loss to Bowling Green. The defense was excellent and should be among the SBC’s best even though coordinator Lance Guidry left for Miami. On offense, Cam Fancher emerged at QB late in the season and electric RB Rasheen Ali is back from injury. The WR corps 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, which transitioned from a run-dominant offense to Clay Helton’s pass-happy scheme and surprisingly got to a bowl game. Elsewhere, Georgia State appears to be trending in the wrong direction after three straight bowl trips from 2019 to 2021, while Old Dominion could be in for another long year.

Troy, South Alabama set to square off for Sun Belt West title

After three losing seasons under Chip Lindsey, Troy made a change and hired Jon Sumrall. He made an immediate impact and guided the Trojans to a Sun Belt championship, their first since 2009. Can Troy recapture that magic in 2023?

The Trojans rode an incredible defense through a 12-win season that included a 6-1 record in one-score games. Carlton Martial, the NCAA’s all-time tackles leader, and defensive coordinator Shiel Wood are both gone but the unit’s top three pass rushers and all-league corner Reddy Steward return. On offense, QB Gunnar Watson and RB Kimani Vidal are back, but the top three receivers departed, as did three line starters.

That’s a lot for Troy to replace and could create an opening for South Alabama. The Jaguars improved from 5-7 to 10-3 in Kane Wommack’s first two seasons as head coach and the 2023 team is loaded with returning production. 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 set up better for Troy. The Trojans will host JMU, South Alabama and Louisiana and don’t have to face App State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern or Marshall.

Troy quarterback Gunnar Watson (18) looks to pass during the second half an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Mississippi won 28-10. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)
Troy quarterback Gunnar Watson (18) looks to pass during the second half an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Mississippi won 28-10. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Can Louisiana regain its footing among the Sun Belt elite?

The Sun Belt introduced divisions in 2018 and Louisiana quickly became the dominant team in the West, winning four consecutive seasons and then finally the outright conference title in 2021. After 2021, coach Billy Napier left for Florida and handed the reins to his offensive coordinator, Michael Desormeaux.

As Napier departed, the core of the UL team saw their eligibility expire 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 that be a sign of things to come? Or will the Ragin’ Cajuns ascend back toward the top of the division?

Having one of the easiest schedules in the conference should result in a better record and the personnel could allow UL to go back to the run-heavy, efficient offense that worked so well a few years ago. However, there’s a lot to replace on defense so it may be another year before UL is back in contention for a Sun Belt title.

Another team in the West that could potentially make some noise is Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles return star RB Frank Gore Jr. and a few other key players on offense. USM’s defense struggled last year but this team should have enough offensive firepower to get to a bowl if one of the transfer 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 could be in for another tough season. Like Jones in Jonesboro, Terry Bowden is going into his third season at UL Monroe. The Redhawks have gone 4-8 in both of his seasons but have been fairly competitive in conference play.

G.J. Kinne at Texas State is the only new coach in the West. Kinne has executed the G5 version of what Deion Sanders has done at Colorado with a huge roster turnover. There are quite a few Power Five transfers on this roster, including Malik Hornsby (Arkansas) and T.J. Finley (Auburn) at QB.

Which Sun Belt team is most overrated?

Sam Cooper: Coastal Carolina. I’m down on the Chanticleers this year. They won a bunch of close games over bad teams last year and were just overall really bad on defense. It also feels like a coaching downgrade from Jamey Chadwell to Tim Beck. Even with Grayson McCall back, I think CCU fades into the middle of the pack in the league.

Nick Bromberg: Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns should get to a bowl game and have a chance to be contenders in the West, but the division is so strong that a fourth-place finish wouldn’t be all that surprising. Louisiana is the No. 5 favorite to win the conference at +800 yet Southern Miss is at +4000. The Eagles may be just as good as Louisiana.

Which team is a sleeper to contend for the Sun Belt title?

Sam: Georgia Southern. I thought about Southern Miss, but USM plays South Alabama, Louisiana and Troy all on the road. Georgia Southern should have a pretty high-scoring offense again, so if the defense can just be marginally better the Eagles could pull off a few upsets in the East.

Nick: Georgia Southern. The Eagles added former Tulsa QB Davis Brin and bring back leading rusher Jalen White. If the defense can be restocked after the departure of eight starters, this team has a chance to make some noise in what could be a wide-open East division.

What is your favorite Sun Belt win total bet?

Sam: App State over 6.5 wins. App had such a crazy start to last season and then had four one-score losses in Sun Belt play. The Mountaineers should be able to rebound even with QB being a question entering the season. App can lean on the run game and play-action pass and play some good defense en route to seven or eight wins.

Nick: Southern Miss over 5 wins. With games against Florida State, Tulane and Mississippi State, the Eagles likely need to go 5-3 in conference play to hit the over. That’s feasible with a schedule that includes Arkansas State, Texas State, Old Dominion and Louisiana-Monroe. I’m confident this bet will push at the very least.

MOBILE, AL - NOVEMBER 12: South Alabama Jaguars running back La'Damian Webb (3) runs the ball during a college football game between the Texas State Bobcats and the South Alabama Jaguars on November 12, 2022, at Hancock-Whitney Stadium, in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MOBILE, AL - NOVEMBER 12: South Alabama Jaguars running back La'Damian Webb (3) runs the ball during a college football game between the Texas State Bobcats and the South Alabama Jaguars on November 12, 2022, at Hancock-Whitney Stadium, in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Who is your pick to win the Sun Belt title?

Sam: South Alabama. Troy’s schedule sets up better, but I have doubts about the Trojans’ offense and think the defense takes a step back. That opens the door for South Alabama to emerge from the West and ultimately win the conference. USA has a better roster and takes down Marshall, my pick to emerge from the East.

Nick: South Alabama. I think the Jaguars have enough to get past Troy this season and win the West. With Coastal Carolina possibly taking a step back following Jamey Chadwell’s departure, USA should be the favorite over whoever it faces in the title game. Another 10-win season will make Kane Wommack a hot commodity on the coaching market.

Sun Belt title odds

  • Troy: +300

  • South Alabama: +325

  • Coastal Carolina: +500

  • Marshall: +700

  • Louisiana: +800

  • Appalachian State: +850

  • Georgia Southern: +2000

  • Georgia State: +3500

  • Southern Miss: +4000

  • Arkansas State: +5000

  • Texas State: +6600

  • Old Dominion: +8000

  • UL Monroe : +10000