NCAA Football 2017 Season
Sun Belt Conference Preview
Appalachian State, Arkansas State and Troy were the league’s top three teams last year. They are expected to lead the pack once again this year. Just behind that trio is South Alabama and Idaho, while Louisiana and Georgia Southern headline the next tier of teams looking to get bowl eligible in 2017. The Sun Belt also welcomes Coastal Carolina to its league this fall, as the Chanticleers continue a two-year transition period to the FBS level. The new season of fantasy college football kicks off Saturday August 26 at FanPicks.
Appalachian St. Mountaineers
It wasn’t that long ago that the question surrounding Appalachian State was about how quickly the Mountaineers would adjust to life in the Sun Belt. But now, heading into their fourth season on the FBS level, the question is when the Sun Belt will catch up to them.
With wins in 20 of their last 22 league games, a conference title last season and back-to-back bowl wins, the Mountaineers have established themselves as one of the Sun Belt’s alpha dogs. With so much firepower returning, don’t expect that status to change anytime soon.
It was a banner year for Troy, marking both its first 10-win season as an FBS program and its first-ever appearance in the AP Top 25. Given that Troy hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2010, it also confirmed coach Neal Brown as an up-and-comer in just his second year on the job.
On the other hand, letting the Sun Belt title slip from their grasp after a 5–0 start in conference play felt like a missed opportunity, one that may not come around again for a while once this senior class — and quite possibly its head coach — moves on next year. All the pieces are in place for the Trojans to finish what they started, including a forgiving SBC schedule that omits the league’s other preseason frontrunner, Appalachian State. If it all comes together, 2017 could be as good as Troy football gets.
Arkansas St. Red Wolves
Head coach Blake Anderson has kept ASU at or near the top of the Sun Belt while dealing with transition issues stemming from coaching turnover before his arrival. After stumbling to an 0–4 start to the 2016 season, the Red Wolves won eight of their last nine while earning at least a share of the Sun Belt title for the fifth time in six seasons. Another slow start seems likely against a schedule that begins with Nebraska and Miami (Fla.), but ASU is capable of contending in the Sun Belt again and making a seventh straight bowl trip if the offensive line solidifies and adequate replacements are found at safety.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
Louisiana ended its sixth season under coach Mark Hudspeth where it realistically hopes to end every season, with a December trip to the New Orleans Bowl. Still, in most respects the 2016 team more closely resembled the outfit that went 4–8 in 2015 than the ones that finished 9–4 in each of Hudspeth’s first four years, and it left no discernible identity or momentum to carry over into 2017. The defense should be solid again, but barring a revelatory turn from junior Jordan Davis or sophomore Dion Ray at quarterback, the outlook is for more of the same.
South Alabama Jaguars
Coach Joey Jones has an odd track record in recent years. While some successful Sun Belt schools take their lumps in non-conference play and pile up wins in league games, USA has done the opposite. The Jaguars have a 6–3 non-conference record over the past two seasons, including upsets of Mississippi State (2016) and San Diego State (2015 and ’16). But their back-to-back losing marks in Sun Belt play have hampered progress.
USA can squeeze into its third bowl game in four years, but health is a big factor. Injuries on the offensive and defensive lines scrambled the depth chart last season, and some players are still recovering. The offense has standouts in quarterback Dallas Davis and running back Xavier Johnson, but both will be wasted if the line does not develop. It points to a season similar to last year, when the Jaguars were potent on a given day but inconsistent over the long haul.
It’s the last hurrah for Idaho as an FBS program, and you can bet the Vandals will have a chip on their shoulder. Idaho won nine games last season — matching its best total in football’s highest division — and has one last chance to win its first conference title as an FBS member since 1998. It’s been quite a turnaround for a program that won nine games combined from 2011-15.
With a favorable schedule — only one game against a Power-5 conference opponent (Missouri) and six home games, including two of the top teams in the conference heading to Kibbie Stadium, home of the Vandals — Paul Petrino’s team feel they can go out in style. They’ll need to stay healthy and have both the offensive and defensive fronts grow up quickly. If that happens, Idaho may have the last laugh and a chance to remain perfect in bowl games (they’re 3–0 all time).
Georgia Southern Eagles
It’s never a good sign when an athletic director has to release a statement in support of his coach after Year 1, but that’s exactly what Tom Kleinlein did after Tyson Summers’ disappointing 5–7 debut. Give Summers credit for making some adjustments, including an overhaul of his offensive staff and an admission that running the option is the best way to win in Statesboro. Still, last season should have been a honeymoon with 22 seniors who had been part of a winning program. Instead, Georgia Southern struggled mightily both on the field and in public relations. Now Georgia Southern will have to replace 15 starters, including its best skill players and much of its defense. It could be a bumpy ride again. But if the younger players Summers recruited start to contribute, his philosophy may start to take hold and portend better results in 2018.
Coach Matt Viator inherited a 2–11 ULM team and made it somewhat respectable in Year 1 with a 4–8 record and one of the least penalized teams in the country. But it was also his first losing record in 11 seasons as a head coach after previously guiding McNeese State to a spot among the elite in FCS. ULM’s road to a better record is clear. It must cut down on turnovers and win the line of scrimmage.
Only six teams had a worse turnover margin than ULM last season at minus-11, and those miscues were a big factor in the Warhawks’ 1–6 road record. Viator is trying to build a deep power-rushing attack like the ones he had at McNeese State, but he has bigger problems on defense trying to stop the run. Developing a physical style will require time and recruiting, and keeping Smith healthy should accelerate the offense’s growth.
ULM’s schedule includes only five home games, no bye week until November and non-conference road trips to Florida State, Auburn and Memphis. Even if the Warhawks are improved in Viator’s second season, the record may not show it.
Georgia St. Panthers
Shawn Elliott is the third head coach since Georgia State started its program in 2010, but he’s in the best position to enjoy some success. Not only are the Panthers moving into their own stadium, a renovation of the Atlanta Braves’ former home, but other facilities have also been upgraded to Sun Belt level. Plus, Elliott has experience recruiting in the area, having spent the last seven years at South Carolina, and he knows the importance of connecting the program to local high schools.
Though the talent level should improve quickly, his first team should be good enough defensively to crack the top half of the conference if he can find an upgrade over Conner Manning at quarterback. If not, every week will be a struggle to put points on the board.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Coastal Carolina can compete for a Sun Belt Conference championship this season but won’t be eligible for a bowl game until 2018, per NCAA transition rules. It would be unrealistic to expect the Chants to contend for a league title in their first FBS season, particularly with an undersized defense, but they have the coaching staff to succeed in the Sun Belt.
Head coach Joe Moglia, who returned to sidelines after more than two decades in the corporate world, has compiled a 51–15 record at CCU and won the 2015 Eddie Robinson FCS National Coach of the Year Award. In addition, defensive coach Mickey Matthews is three-time National Coach of the Year, and offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell was being considered for other FBS jobs before being hired by CCU in January. This program is clearly under outstanding leadership.
New Mexico St. Aggies
This will be New Mexico State’s final season in the Sun Belt Conference. The Aggies will be an Independent in 2018 and beyond.
They face a difficult schedule with rivalry games against New Mexico and UTEP along with dates with all six of the Sun Belt’s 2016 bowl teams.
New Mexico State has proven that it’s capable of moving the football against most teams on the schedule (the Aggies scored 42 points at Kentucky last year without Rose). Quarterback Tyler Rogers and the offense will need to improve in the red zone in 2017, where they committed seven turnovers and scored a touchdown on a Sun Belt-low 50 percent of their trips.
But the real problem is defense. Unless defensive coach Frank Spaziani can get this unit to take a significant step forward, it’s difficult to see the Aggies making much of a move in their final season in the league.
Texas St. Bobcats
After a tumultuous 2–10 season, the worst by the Bobcats since going 0–8 in 1938, things should only get better in head coach Everett Withers’ second season. A winning record would be a major stretch in 2017, but with improvements to both lines and a new quarterback with experience in the SEC in Damian Williams, they should be a little bit more competitive in the Sun Belt Conference.