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.

Appalachian State

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?

Arkansas State

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 Carolina

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.

Georgia Southern

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.”

Louisiana

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.

ULM

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

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.

Texas State

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.

Troy

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.

Georgia State

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.

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Complete ACC preview for the 2018 season.

Clemson is once again the pick to win the ACC title for the 2018 college football season, but the conference has continued to improve its depth in recent years. Miami took a step forward under coach Mark Richt last season by winning its first Coastal Division title and are the pick to win the division once again in 2018. Virginia Tech isn’t far behind, with Georgia Tech and Pitt next in line as contenders. Clemson should be picked No. 1 or No. 2 nationally by most this preseason and holds a significant edge over the rest of the Atlantic. New coach Willie Taggart should have Florida State in the mix for a New Year’s Six bowl and is the top threat to the Tigers in the Atlantic. Behind projected first-team All-ACC quarterback Ryan Finley, NC State ranks just outside the top 25 and headlines the next tier of teams in the division. It’s a close call behind the Wolfpack, as Boston College, Wake Forest and Louisville each finished 4-4 in the league last fall and not much separates this trio once again in 2018.

Boston College

This should be one of coach Steve Addazio’s best teams, even though it may not show up in the record, as the Eagles draw both Miami and Virginia Tech out of the ACC Coastal Division and travel to an improved Purdue in the non-conference slate. Still, RB AJ Dillon should have a big year, and the defense has enough returning firepower to keep games close. If either Anthony Brown or EJ Perry provides a real threat in the passing game, the Eagles can win more than seven games under Addazio for the first time in his six years at the Heights.

Clemson

Upsets happen, as Clemson knows after losing to Syracuse last year and Pitt in 2016. But this team is just so much more talented than almost everyone it will play. A fourth consecutive playoff appearance seems like the baseline for this team. Clemson-Bama Part 4 sounds fun.

Florida State

After Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M, FSU’s administration wanted a head coach who could take the football program in a completely new direction. Willie Taggart checked every box. The biggest change, of course, is the swapping of Fisher’s plodding pro-style offense for the up-tempo, spread attack Taggart employed at Oregon and USF. FSU’s defense also will take a more aggressive stance under former Michigan State co-coordinator Harlon Barnett.  Judging by the excitement during spring drills and offseason workouts, FSU’s players are fully on board. That alone should help the Seminoles improve upon their dismal 7–6 campaign from a year ago. How much they improve will depend largely on how quickly they can execute their new schemes at a high level.

Louisville

The Cardinals have more questions in 2018 than they’ve had during any season of Bobby Petrino’s second tour of duty at the school. Louisville must solve significant issues on defense and replace a former Heisman-winning quarterback. And they must do so against a schedule that begins with Alabama in Orlando and includes a road trip to Clemson. Another season in the middle of the ACC Atlantic pack looms.

NC State

NC State got a preview of life without DE Bradley Chubb in the Sun Bowl. The offense did the heavy lifting behind QB Ryan Finley and the receivers and put up 52 points in a win over Arizona State. With so many personnel changes on defense, the same formula will have to work in 2018 for the Wolfpack to avoid a step back after their first top-25 finish under Dave Doeren and only third in the past 20 years.

Syracuse

Syracuse enters Year 3 of the Dino Babers era with reason to believe that a four-year bowl drought could end this fall. The Orange bring back experienced lines, have quality quarterback depth and feature an experienced secondary. The schedule is slightly less of a gauntlet, too.

There are questions, though, on both sides of the ball. How will SU replace its linebackers, including three-time captain Zaire Franklin? Can the receiving corps pick up the production that graduated with Steve Ishmael and Erv Philips?

This projects to be a season in which Babers’ reputation begins to take shape. A postseason appearance would invite talk of a contract extension. But another disappointing finish would hurt much more than the last two seasons.

Wake Forest

The building blocks are there for a third straight bowl appearance. That starts on both lines, where Wake finally boasts talent and experience. Depth is always a concern, and a couple key injuries could eliminate a small margin for error. Coach Dave Clawson has rebuilt the facilities and the culture, and this is now a program that expects to win.

Duke

There’s reason to believe Duke will once again be stout on defense. It could be up to the offense — which averaged only 19.8 points in ACC games — to determine whether the Blue Devils will be a borderline bowl team or emerge as a contender in the Coastal Division. The schedule certainly gets tougher, with non-conference road games at Baylor and Northwestern and a crossover game at Clemson.

Coach David Cutcliffe likes what he sees from his group. “We know this team can run,” he says. “[This] was the most physical Duke football that has been out here in quite some time. This is something we’ve got to build on; I’m anxious to see.”

Georgia Tech

Coach Paul Johnson’s teams traditionally outperform expectations, but last year’s 5-6 record was disappointing because a play here or there in games they led late against Tennessee, Miami or Virginia cost them a bowl berth. With nearly the entire offense returning and a defensive philosophy that should better fit the personnel, it’s easy to envision those games going their way in 2018. There’s never a huge margin for error at Tech, but with even small improvements in TaQuon Marshall’s passing, offensive line play and the kicking game, Tech should return to the postseason and factor into the ACC Coastal race.

Miami

Last year was a rude awakening for the Hurricanes, who elbowed their way into the College Football Playoff discussion in November only to get thrashed by Clemson in the ACC title game. No one in Coral Gables will forget that feeling, and confidence is high on campus that Miami is building the type of team that can compete with the top dogs in any conference. They’re not playing at a championship level consistently, but they’re showing flashes, and Mark Richt’s last two recruiting classes have been excellent. The former Miami quarterback has restored the shine to his alma mater.

North Carolina

The Tar Heels have plenty of room for improvement after limping to a 3-9 record in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether they have enough talent to make much progress. Top priorities on offense are patching together a passable offensive line and getting consistent play at quarterback. On defense, UNC must avoid major breakdowns after allowing five runs of more than 50 yards and five TD passes longer than 65 yards a year ago. With a non-conference schedule that includes two road games and a matchup against UCF, a bowl game would be a good accomplishment.

Pittsburgh

In the past two seasons, Pittsburgh has pulled off major upsets against Miami, Clemson and Penn State. But at what point do the Panthers advance past the occasional stunning win and start to develop more consistency across the board? Coach Pat Narduzzi’s program took a step back in 2017. It finished 5-7 (3-5 in the ACC) after posting 8-5 records in each of his first two seasons. The mission in 2018 is to prove the program is trending upward, as was the case in 2015 and ’16.

Virginia

In Year 2 at Virginia, coach Bronco Mendenhall took the team from two wins to six and helped the Cavaliers reach their first bowl game since 2011. He may be hard pressed to continue that upward trajectory this season, at least in terms of wins and losses. The team lost key seniors in key spots, robbing the lineup not only of production but also of leadership.

The offensive and defensive lines are being largely rebuilt, and the entire offense figures to have a different feel as Virginia moves to a dual-threat quarterback and a scheme more reminiscent of what Mendenhall and his staff employed at BYU. There’s enough depth on defense to be optimistic, and if Bryce Perkins shines at quarterback, the offense could be interesting.

Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech fans couldn’t have asked for much more from coach Justin Fuente in his first two years in Blacksburg, where he’s gone 19–8, won a division title and seamlessly handled the transition from legend Frank Beamer. It’s possible that 2018 might be his greatest challenge so far, however, with three-quarters of the roster being sophomores or younger. Fuente and his staff have recruited well, but those classes are just now starting to hit a turning point in their development.

The schedule’s manageable, with Clemson rotating off, Miami at home and the Coastal Division not overwhelming, but the Hokies will need to do a lot of growing up at key positions if they’re going to make a run at the division title again.

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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.

Troy Trojans

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.

Idaho Vandals

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.

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

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.

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