• Travis Tyler

2020 Sun Belt Preview

The Sun Belt Conference has also challenged some of the country's top programs. They have many great battles with teams in the AAC and house some of the newer FBS programs. The league tends to be competitive throughout, but each team seems to be competing for 2nd place to Appalachian State. Is this the year the Mountaineers get dethroned?


Teams

Appalachian State

The Mountaineers haven't missed a beat since moving up from the FCS level in 2014. The team seems poised to become a power house at FBS level. Last season, they finished 13-1 en route to a 4th straight conference title. They've done all this while losing coaches to bigger programs. That will be one of their biggest tests this year after Eliah Drinkwitz left for Missouri. Shawn Clark replaces him to lead the effort for a repeat.


The offense brings back many key players from a unit that finished 9th in the country in scoring. QB Zac Thomas has enjoyed a great career. He ranks in the top 10 of nearly every passing category in team history, won the 2018 Sun Belt Player of the Year, and is 23-3 as a starter. All 4 of his top receivers were supposed to be back, led by All-Conference Thomas Hennigan. He'll unfortunately be missing star WR Corey Sutton, who has opted out. Another big loss for the team is RB Darrynton Evans, who became the 9th all-time rusher for the program in just 23 games. With Evans in the NFL, they'll turn to Marcus Williams. Williams is one just 3 Sun Belt players with over 500 yards rushing in each of the last 3 seasons. He should have a good year behind a veteran o-line that replaces just one starter.


App State returns 6 starters on defense, including DE Demetrius Taylor and CB Shaun Jolly. Both players were elected All-Conference last season. The weakest part of the defense is their linebackers. They lose Defensive Player of the Year Akeem Davis-Gathier, and don;t have any starters back at the position.


The team returns to play against Marshall on September 19.


Opted out: WR Corey Sutton


Arkansas State

The Red Wolves have been a successful Power 5 program under Blake Anderson. They finished 2019 at 8-5 and had a close game against SMU. They're one team that has already opened its season, playing mostly well against defending AAC champ Memphis. The game fell apart for them in the third quarter, but they still showed that they can be a factor in the Sun Belt title race.


They played both Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher at quarterback in the opener. While Bonner led a couple scoring drives to open the game, they seemed to have a more threatening offense with Hatcher playing. After losing their top 2 receivers from 2019, the receivers played alright against a good defense. Dahu Greeen led the way with 99 yards. That was mildly surprising, since Jonathan Adams is billed as their best receiver. 2 of their 3 touchdowns were on the ground with Jamal Jones getting the most carries.


LB Caleb Bonner and DT Forrest Merrill return from All-Conference seasons. Bonner was joined by Derrick Bean and Jeffmario Brown, who both played well in the opener. Nonetheless, the defense struggled in the opener. That's not surprising considering that they were in the bottom 10 of most defensive metrics last season. They clearly missed pass-rush specialist William Bradley-King, as they did not record a sack. The defense has to be better for this team to go far.


They'll get another shot next week against Kansas State.


Opted out: none reported


Coastal Carolina

This is just the Chanticleers' 4th season at the FBS level. In 2019, they had their second straight 5-7 season and improved their home record by 2 wins. It was the first season under former Charleston Southern coach Jamey Chadwell. The program is making slow progress, and the next step in their transformation will be making a bowl game.


QB Bryce Carpenter started 6 games last year (8 in his career), throwing for 927 yards and 8 touchdowns. Leading rusher C.J. Marable returns. He is one of just 3 Chanticleers' players to ever have a 1000 yard rushing season. They also bring back All-Confernce TE Isaiah Likely and WR Jaivon Heiligh. Those two, along with transfer Kameron Brow and JUCO All-American Fred Jackson, will try to improve the country's 97th ranked passing attack.


The defense returns 5 starters, including All-Conference players DE Tarron Jackson, DL C. J. Brewer, and LB Teddy Gallagher. Jackson set the school's single-season record for sacks a year ago, and Gallagher was the team's leading tackler. Gallagher will see some help in the linebacker corps as Silas Kelly will be returning from injury. The strength of the defense appears to be in the front 7, which features 5 seniors.


Coastal Carolina plays Kansas next weekend.


Opted out: none reported


Georgia Southern

Like quite a few teams in this conference, Georgia Southern hasn't been at the FBS level for long. However, they have been successful, winning the Sun Belt in their first year (2014). Last year was a bit of a down year for them, only going 7-6. Five of those wins came at home. They had a close game against a very good Minnesota team, upset 20th ranked App State, and pulled out some overtime wins. Chad Lunsford orchestrated the biggest turnaround in the nation in 2018. He doesn't quite need to do that, but the Eagles need to get back to the top.


The offense returns no All-Conference players. It's a very run-heavy offense. They finished dead last in passing offense last year with only 3 receivers going over 100 yards on the season. QB Shai Wertz had his best overall season in 2018 and his best rushing season last year. His dual-threat ability is a key component to this offense. Speaking of the running game, they had the 7th best in all of college football last season and return their top 2 rushers, Wesley Kennedy III and J.D. King. The unit should be strong once again behind a veteran offensive line.


The defense returns 3 All-Conference players in DL Raymond Johnson III, LB Rashad Byrd, and DB Kenderick Duncan Jr. They also get leading tackler Reynard Ellis and sack leader Randy Wade Jr back. They'll have to find replacements in the back end for DBs Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson, but return 6 starters to the overall unit. They were better against the run than the pass, so maybe the changes will help improve.


The Eagles open Saturday against Campbell.


Opted out: none reported


Georgia State

Considering this program has only existed since 2010, they're doing a great job. Their 7-6 finish a year ago was just their second ever winning record and tied the single-season mark. Coach Shawn Elliott is now in his fourth season at the helm. This is a big season, since it will be the first senior class that has played entirely under him. For that reason, I expect them to build on a successful 2019.


The offense was a balanced attack with more running success than passing. They finished 31st in total offense and 12th in rushing (98th in passing). They will lose quite a bit from the offense. RB Tra Barnett and QB Dan Ellington are both gone after All-Conference seasons. Lead wide receiver Cornelius McCoy returns and will look for help from capable tight ends Aubrey Payne and Roger Carter. Their biggest obstacle is the development of freshman QB Cornelius Brown IV. Brown was the 5th ranked QB in Alabama by most recruiting services, but will have to adjust to the college game.


With 7 returning starters and several key role players taking on expanded responsibilities, the defense seems poised to lead this team. The defensive line brings back sack leader Hardrick Willis and NT Dontae Wilson. They also return all 3 staring linebackers, including lead tacklers Trajan Stephens-McQueen and Victor Heyward. The unit finished near the bottom in most categories last season, so they need to step up if they want to compete this year.


The Panthers open against Louisiana on September 19.


Opted out: None reported


Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns

The Ragin Cajuns set the program record for wins in 2019, going 11-3 and losing in the Conference Championship Game. They played close games against both Mississippi State and Appalachian State along the way. In just 2 seasons under Billy Napier, they've already been to 2 conference championships. It seems like they have a good formula.


The offense has definitely been a major factor in that recent success. Last year's version used a dynamic running game to break program records for total offense in points. Led by 3 All-Conference running backs (Raymond Calais, Elijah Mitchell, and Trey Ragas), they finished 6th in rushing, 10th in scoring, and 8th in total offense. Mitchell and Ragas return, but Calais has moved on. QB Levi Lewis added in 3050 passing yards with 26 TDs and only 4 interceptions. He'll be missing his tip target, JaMarcus Bradley, but will have 4 of the top 6 receivers returning. Jamal Bell has had the best career out of the returning bunch. Although the offensive line lost 2 players to the pros, they return 3 starters and get 2 other key players back from season-ending injuries.


The defense was good in 2019 as well. The unit was excellent against the pass and finished 18th in scoring (meaning they held their opponents to the 18th least amount of points). They return an experienced LB corps of Kris Moncrief, Ferrod Gardner, Joe Dillon, and Lorenzo McCaskill. DE Chauncey Manac has high potential as a pass rusher and will team up with DL Zi'Yon Hill up front. They do lose starters in the secondary, but each replacement has significant playing experience and has started at some point. It's an experienced group that shouldn't see much drop-off.


They'll get a big test against #23 Iowa State in the season opener on Saturday.


Opted out: None reported


Louisiana Monroe Warhawks

Unlike the Ragin' Cajuns, the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks have struggled recently. Their last winning season was in 2012, when they went 8-5 and beat Arkansas while playing Auburn and Baylor closely. Last year, they went 5-7, and most of their wins came in conference play. They have an extremely young team and will rely on many freshmen.


The offense had a good year in 2019 but loses several notable players for 2020. They'll need to replace 4 All-Conference players, including QB Caleb Evans and lead WR Markis McCray. Evans was a true dual-threat, throwing 21 TD passes and adding 794 yards and 12 TDs on the ground. Redshirt freshman Colby Suits is projected to replace him and has only attempted 19 passes at the college level. They only return 2 wide receivers who played in all 12 games last season and have 3 freshmen starting on the line. It could be a rough year.


The defense was one of the worst in the country, finish 128th out of 130 FBS teams. They ewere especially bad against the run and will be losing lead tackler Cortez Sisco. Their most experience group is the junior-led secondary, featuring Corey Straughter. Straughter was by far the teams best defensive back a year ago with 5 interceptions and 10 pass break ups. The defensive line returns some key contributors, while the linebackers are the weakest group.


That run defense will get tested right away as the Warhawks will open against an Army team that ran for 340 yards in their opener.


Opted out: LB Rashaad Harding


South Alabama Jaguars

2019 was a year to forget for the Jaguars. They went 1-11 and didn't win a single conference game (0-8). They've already matched that with a win over Southern Miss in the 2020 opener. That win marked the first road win for the program since 2017. I don't expect them to contend, but they'll be better after taking their lumps.


It's only Southern Miss, so let's not get carried away, but they did look better on offense in the opener. Desmond Trotter saw most of the action at QB, throwing for 299 yards and 2 TDs while adding another 41 yards on the ground. Chance Lovetich also saw some action, going 2/3 for 64 yards and a touchdown. Junior receiver Jalen Tolbert and Jalen Wayne formed a gave Golden Eagle defenders issues all game, and both eclipsed 100 yards receiving on the night. Senior Kawaan Baker is expected to be the #1 wideout, which could help the offense find its identity, RB Carlos Davis added 85 yards behind a veteran o-line that seemed ready. As bad as they were last year, the opening performance was a step in the right direction.



The defense finished in the middle of the pack last season and looked alright in the opener. Linebackers Riley Cole and Nick Mobley are the clear leaders. They were the team's tip 2 tacklers a year ago and were back at it against Southern Miss. It's a veteran unit with a younger defensive line. Another sign of improvement was that they held Southern Miss under 100 yards rushing, which was their biggest problem last season. If they can get the same play from their secondary this year, they'll be okay.


We'll see if they can get to 2-0 against Tulane.


Opted out: Qb Tylan Morton


Texas State Bobcats

Despite the 3-9 finish in 2019, I believe the Bobcats are in good hands under Jake Spavital. Nothing was more indicative of that than the way they played against SMU. Spavital was known for his explosive offenses as a coordinator and seems to be working toward that in San Marcos. Taking advantage of the transfer portal, the Bobcats looked much improved in all phases of the game, despite missing some key players.


Speaking of transfers, new QB Brady McBride looked like he has the potential to make this team better. He showed flashes of being a great player, but needs to recognize when he shouldn't scramble. Too often, he was running away from a completely clean pocket and making the play much more difficult for himself. This also kept him from stepping into his throws. Fixing this will only help the offense. Running backs Calvin Hill and Brock Sturges looked like a good 1-2 punch, combining for 195 yards on the ground. The passing game was pretty evenly distributed with each receiver mostly making 3-4 catches. I wouldn't read too much into the performance yet, since SMU doesn't have a great defense, but it was a good start for an offense that scored less than 3 touchdowns per game in 2019.


The defense was good against the pass last year and bad against the run. Despite losing some key players to graduation and many others being held out because of COVID contact rules and other injuries, they held the Mustangs down for most of the day, and got 2 interceptions off of Shane Buechele. While SMU still got there stats at the end of the day, the Bobcats looked much improved and played hard. They still have a ways to go, but Texas State is trending in the right direction.


Next up is another intrastate battle with UTSA on Saturday.


Opted out: none reported


Troy Trojans


2019 was a weird year for Troy. They basically beat the teams that were worse than them and lost to the teams that were as good or better than them, despite having one of the nation's best offenses. In 2018, they went 10-3 and beat Nebraska. In year 2 under Chip Lindsey, they'll look to get back to their winning ways.


The offense finished 2019 int the top 20 for total offense, top 25 in scoring, and 9th in passing. QB Kaleb Barker had one of the best seasons ever for a Troy starter, finishing 14th in the country in tocuhdown passes and entering the school record books for yards and completions per game. While he departs, the passing attack brings back its top 3 receivers, led by 2019 Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year Kaylon Geiger and speedster Reggie Todd. The running game returns 2 good backs. D.K. Billinglsey ran for 901 yards and 10 TDs. Also returning is RB B.J. Smith. Although he missed 2019, Smith had the 4th most single-season rushing yards in team history in 2018. Having two stud backs like that will help out the new QB tremendously. Speaking of the new QB, JUCO transfer Parker McNeill is expected to take over. He was a JUCO All-American while accumulating over 5600 passing yards in 2 seasons. If they can get him up to speed, the offense should be a top unit once again.


The defense appears to be the reason behind 2019's losing record. They were especially bad at allowing points (116th) and defending the pass (118th). One of the few bright spots was LB Carlton Martial, who became just the 12th Troy player to amass 100 tackles in a season. He's joined by Freshman All-American S Dell Pettus and monster DT Will Choloh as the top players for the Trojan defense. There's a decent amount of turnover on this unit, let's see if it helps them get back to winning.


Their first chance comes September 19 against a beatable Middle Tennessee team.


Opted out: none reported


Best Games

Louisiana @ Iowa State, 9/12

Any time you get a chance against a ranked opponent, you better bring your A-game. Louisiana will get an early chance to show what it has against a Power 5 school and possibly make a bid for the top Group 5 program. They don't need to win. I don't expect them to, but a good showing goes a long way.


Troy @ BYU 9/26

BYU isn't a premier program right now but is a popular sleeper pick. Many like what they're putting together, and Provo is a tough place to play. I fully expect BYU to win this game, but a close game could put Troy in the Sun Belt Championship conversation.


Louisiana @ App State, 10/7

An entertaining rematch of last yea's title game. Louisiana has a good pass defense, and App State will have to rely more on that aspect of their offense this year without Darrynton Evans. The Ragin' Cajuns have a majority of an explosive offense returning. I expect this to be a high-scoring affair between two Sun Belt contenders.


Arkansas State @ App State, 10/22

Another game between contenders. Arkansas Sate looks like they'll be in the race all season, and we know APp State is probably a favorite to repeat. This game will have a huge impact on the title race, with the winner getting a leg up.


Troy @ Arkansas State, 10/31

By the time this game rolls around, we should know whether Troy is actually in the race. Arkansas State will be favored in this game, but Troy's offense will be an major challenge for the Red Wolves defense. Should be a great battle.


Arkansas State @ Louisiana, 11/5

This game could end up being for the Sun Belt West crown. I expect it to be a back and forth offensive affair to see who will play App State. Louisiana's defense has the ability to shut down an inconsistent Red Wolves passing game. Jonathan Adams and Dahu Green will have to help them keep up with the crafty running game of the Ragin' Cajuns.

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