Complete preview of the Sun Belt for 2018.
Arkansas State, Appalachian State and Troy have ranked as the top teams from the Sun Belt in recent years, so it should be no surprise this trio leads the way for the league in 2018. The Red Wolves are the top team and projected champion in the 2018 Sun Belt predictions, with the Trojans and Mountaineers locked into a tight battle atop the East Division. ULM, Louisiana, South Alabama and Georgia State round out the next tier, with Coastal Carolina and Texas State expected to improve after winning a combined five games in 2017. New Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford hopes to build off a promising finish last season.
Scott Satterfield’s program sticks to its proven formula of pounding the run to control the game and playing aggressively on defense. The faces will be different, but there’s more than enough talent in the backfield and on the offensive line to keep it rolling. The only question, of course: When will a major program make Satterfield an offer he can’t refuse?
If the Red Wolves plug a few holes on defense and clean up some of the miscues, their chances of reaching the Sun Belt title game are strong. “They’ve got a lot of guys back, which makes them the scariest team in the Sun Belt,” says one Sun Belt assistant. “Their receivers could start in any league. They are that good.”
Coastal is in its third year of transitioning to the FBS and will be eligible for a bowl game for the first time. The Chants went 3-9 and 2-6 in their first season in the Sun Belt, winning their final two games to snap a program-record nine-game losing streak and take some momentum into the offseason. They look to improve their standing with head coach Joe Moglia back at the helm.
The atmosphere is far better now than it was during Tyson Summers’ failed 18-game stint, as head coach Chad Lunsford understands the pressures and expectations of being at Georgia Southern. “One of the biggest changes I wanted my staff and us to do is make sure football was fun again and still be able to hold them accountable,” he says. “I think we’ve accomplished that.”
The mandate for new coach Billy Napier, a 38-year-old offensive guru with stints at Clemson, Alabama and Arizona State, is to get the Cajuns back in the black and keep them there. That will take time, especially given that he inherited a roster with far fewer than the 85 scholarships players allowed by the NCAA. The incoming recruiting class has just 15 players, including three junior college signees with limited eligibility. Even with a relatively veteran lineup, Napier’s debut has the makings of a classic rebuilding year. If the end result exceeds last year’s 5-7 mark, that will be a promising first step.
Overall, ULM has posted back-to-back 4-8 seasons since coach Matt Viator’s hiring, but there are hints of progress. The Warhawks went 1-14 on the road in two seasons before Viator, but they won two road games last season.
Any chance at a winning record must include victories in non-conference play, where ULM went 0-4 last season. There are tough trips to Ole Miss and Texas A&M on the schedule, but also more manageable matchups against Southern Miss and FCS foe Southeastern Louisiana.
South Alabama has been competitive, but the roster needs re-tooling, and the Jaguars won’t win consistently without major strides on offense. It may be difficult to earn bowl eligibility, but the schedule does line up for a late-season surge, with four of the final six games at home.
With just 12 seniors on the roster, the Bobcats are fielding a very young team once again. The difference: Their inexperienced underclassmen are now seasoned sophomores and juniors. While this probably won’t translate into a winning season, Texas State should start to show progress in coach Everett Withers’ third year.
The schedule opens with two non-conference heavies in the first month, Boise State and Nebraska, and ends with a trip to fellow SBC East favorite Appalachian State. In between, though, the Trojans will likely be favored in every game, putting a third consecutive 10-win season very much within reach.
Coach Shawn Elliott still needs another couple years of recruiting to get the roster up to par. Though a tougher schedule and a younger team may function as speed bumps in 2018, Elliott is well on his way to building one of the more solid programs in the Sun Belt.