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Sun Belt Conference 2017 Football Preview and Projections

Appalachian State Football 2017

The Sunbelt football conference is coming off  their most successful season ever in 16 years of NCAA football. Six teams went to bowl games last season and posted a 4-2 record in post season play. A Conference best among all Group of Five conferences. While the Sun Belt conference is known to be a stepping stone for teams, big things are happening in the conference. Divisional play will start in 2018 and for the first time, the Sun Belt will have a conference championship game. As the Sun Belt conference looks to be moving up, expectations are higher than ever.


The Appalachian State Mountaineers are the favorite among Sun Belt teams to finish at the top of the conference this season. They key to their success this will once again be their rushing attack. The Mountaineers averaged 250.9 rushing yards per game last season and will run over defenses again for the 2017 season. Jalin Moore is the best rusher in the Sun Belt and one of the best in college football. In 2016, Moore rushed for 1,402 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Moore is also the best candidate out of the Sun Belt for the Maxwell award. Terrance Shaw is expected to get his fair share of carries this season also. Quarterback, Taylor Lamb, is one of the top dual threat quarterbacks in college football. He has speed, good arm strength, and is accurate. Shaedon Meadors led App State in receiving last season. Meadors had 45 receptions for 716 yards and will be Lamb’s top target again this season. The Mountaineers also field one of the best offensive line and linebacker units in the conference. The defense held opponents to just 17.8 points per game last season. Defensive end Antonious Sims led the Mountaineers with 7 sacks last season. Look for linebackers Eric Boggs and Devan Stringer to make big plays. Corner back Clifton Duck will shut down receivers and make quarterbacks miserable again this season. Appalachian State has the best football program currently among all Sun Belt teams and are expected to win the Sun Belt football championship again this year. The Mountaineers do not play Troy or Arkansas State this season so that’s a huge plus for them this college football season.

Jalin Moore Appalachian State Mountaineers Football

Jalin Moore, Appalachian State Mountaineers

The Troy Trojans are another team expected to do big things in the Sun Belt this season. Head Coach Neal Brown has to be excited with a lot of offensive starters returning in 2017. Especially when you consider this offense averaged a conference leading 33.7 points per game last season. Quarterback Brandon Silvers is back for the Trojans and was the best quarterback in the Sun Belt last season. Silvers completed 63 percent of his passes in 2016 for 3,180 yards and 23 touchdowns. Troy also returns a trio of great receivers in Emanuel Thompson, Deondre Douglas, and Tevaris McCormick. Troy also has a dominant running back of their own in Jordan Chunn. Last season, Chunn rushed for 1,288 yards and had 16 touchdowns for the Trojans. Cornerback Blace Brown and safety Cedarius Rookard will be will lead the defense this season for Troy. Brown picked off 6 passes last season while Rookard had 4 interceptions of his own. Troy could make a strong push for the Sun Belt title.

Jordan Chunn Troy Trojans Football

Jordan Chunn, Troy Trojans

The Arkansas State Red Wolves are a good team, but are facing some concerns on offense. The Red Wolves will have five new starters on the offensive line. Quarterback Justice Hansen will try to improve upon a solid 2016 campaign. Hansen threw for 2,719 yards and 9 touchdowns last season, but he’ll need to improve on his accuracy, after completing only 57 percent of his passes. Tight End Blake Mack returns as the leading receiver for Arkansas State catching 34 passes for 652 yards. With Warren Wand returning in the back-field, the Red Wolves have an offense that can score a lot of points if the o-line can come together. On defense, lineman Ja’Von Rolland-Jones will terrorize quarterbacks again in 2017. Jones sacked opposing qb’s 13 times last season and had 19.5 tackles for a loss. Linebacker Justin Clifton and Cornerback Blaise Taylor will also contribute for the defense. Arkansas State has an outside shot to win the Sun Belt Championship, but will most likely just fall short of that goal.

Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State Red Wolves Football

Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State Red Wolves


The South Alabama Jaguars could be a sleeper pick this season in the Sun Belt. The Jaguars picked up non-conference victories last season against Mississippi State and San Diego State to which aided in a trip to the Arizona Bowl. Running Back Xavier Johnson returns as the best offensive weapon for the Jaguars rushing for 831 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Quarterback Dallas Davis is looking to have a better season than in 2016. While Davis did throw for 2,700 yards, he threw 12 interceptions to only 11 touchdowns. He’s capable of better numbers, but it doesn’t help his case that the receiving corps lacks experience. Defense is where the Jaguars are going to hurt teams though. Linebacker Darrell Songy recorded 100 total tackles on 2016 and Cornerback had 4 interceptions. Realistically, expect the Jaguars to win six games this season, but they have a ton of potential.

Xavier Johnson South Alabama Jaguars Football

Xavier Johnson, South Alabama Jaguars

Mark Hudspeth has work to do with his Louisiana Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. The two main issues on offense are finding the next starting quarterback and replacing running back Elijah McGuire. Darius Hoggins and Jordan Wright will split rushing duties, while Jordan Davis is currently the front-runner at Quarterback. Receivers Ja’Marcus Bradley and Keenan Barnes should make life a little easier for whoever is under center. Defensive End Joe Dillon led the Ragin’ Cajuns in sacks last season and will anchor the defensive line. Taboris Lee will be another lineman to watch. Safeties Travis Crawford and Tracy Walker add much-needed depth to the secondary. A tough conference schedule will be hard on the Ragin Cajuns this season, but six wins isn’t out of reach.

Jordan Davis ULL Ragin' Cajuns Football

Jordan Davis, ULL Ragin’ Cajuns

The Idaho Vandals are neck-and-neck with the Ragin Cajuns in the middle of the Sun Belt rankings this season. The Vandals lost three of their best receivers, three starters on the offensive line and key starters on the defensive line and secondary. They have a lot of positions to fill, but they also return some good players from last season as well. Quarterback Matt Linehan returns for his final college football season and should do well given the circumstances. The senior completed 61 percent of his passes last season for 3,184 yards and 19 touchdowns. Idaho’s two leading rushers, Isaiah Saunders and Aaron Duckworth return as well. Last season, the duo rushed for a combined 1,403 yards and 14 touchdowns. Wide Receivers Alfonso Onunor and Jacob Sannon will lead all receivers this season for the Vandals. While the defense lost a lot of good players after last year. The Vandals sport a solid linebacker trio with Kaden Elliss, Tony Lashley, and Ed Hall returning. Ellis’s recorded 3 sacks along with 4 interceptions last season while Lashley led the Vandals with 65 solo tackles. It’s doubtful that Idaho can duplicate last year’s success, but look for the Vandals to return to a bowl game this season.

Matt Linehan Idaho Vandals Football

Matt Linehan, Idaho Vandals

The Georgia Southern Eagles are looking to rebound in 2017. The 2015 Sunbelt conference champions struggled last year with a new head coach and major offensive scheme changes. The quarterback position raises the most concern for the Eagles this season. Seth Shuman and Shai Werts will battle for the starting job. Running Backs Wesley Fields and L.A. Ramsby will get the majority of the carries. Myles Campbell returns as the leading receiver for Georgia Southern with 31 receptions for 384 yards. New offensive coordinator Bryan Cook should rejuvenate the option attack that put the Eagles on the college football map. Four starters return on a defense that gave up 400 yards per game to opponents in 2016. Safety Joshua Moon will be the biggest contributor on defense, but defensive end, Logan Hunt has the most upside. Georgia Southern will take their lumps again this year, but the Eagles could be tough if the younger players catch on early.

Wesley Fields Georgia Southern Eagles Football

Wesley Fields, Georgia Southern Eagles

 


It’s uncertain whether the Georgia State Panthers will stick with Connor Manning or go with Aaron Winchester at quarterback this season. Manning threw for 2,684 yards last season, but a lower completion percentage and 13 interceptions could open the door for Winchester. The Panthers could have one of the best receiving duos in the Sun Belt conference with Glen Smith and Todd Boyd returning. Smith caught 40 passes for 547 yards last season, while Boyd added 33 catches for 352 yards. Establishing a good running game will help the Panthers and leading rusher Kyler Neal returns for the 2017 season. Neal rushed for 314 yards last season in just 75 carries. On defense, Georgia State lacks getting to the quarterback and nothing will change this year in that department. The line is inexperienced and the team will rely on linebackers Michael Shaw and Trey Payne to help in the trenches. The Secondary will be strong for the Panthers though. They have two shut-down corners in Jerome Smith and Chandon Sullivan. Safety Bryan Williams is solid enough to make this a good secondary overall. The Panthers need to incorporate the running game into their offense more this season to reach the next level. Even if they do, this isn’t a team that can win more than four or five games.

Chandon Sullivan Georgia State Panthers Football

Chandon Sullivan, Georgia State Panthers

Things are looking bright for the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. Head coach Matt Viator is going into his second year with the Warhawks on a positive note. Quarterback Garrett Smith is healthy after being injured in November last year. Garrett is a dual threat that threw for 1,237 yards and rushed for an additional 308 yards before his injury. Running Back Ben Luckett returns as the leading rusher for the Warhawks. He’ll team up with Austin Vaughn in the rushing game this season. While the Warhawks don’t pass as much, they do return two of their best receivers from last season. Both Xavier Brown and R.J. Turner are explosive and can breakaway from defenders in a heartbeat. The defense will be inexperienced, but full of potential. Linebackers David Griffith and Chase Day will be the glue that holds the defense together. The secondary lacked production last season, but the Warhawks hope that experience could turn things around. While a six win season it’s doubtful for the Warhawks, it’s not out of the question. A tough non-conference schedule will make it difficult though. Expect four or five wins for the Warhawks this season.

Garrett Smith ULM Warhawks football

Garrett Smith, ULM Warhawks

The New Mexico State Aggies are optimistic about the upcoming season as they return several stars from last year on the team. The bad news is, there isn’t many stars on a team with a 3-9 record. Still, the Aggies will be better this year with QB Tyler Rodgers and RB Larry Rose III back for the offense. Rodgers needs to work on making better throwing decisions and his accuracy. Last season, he only completed 55 percent of his passes and threw 12 picks. Rose should get the running game going and take some pressure off of Rodgers. In 2016, Rose averaged 5.4 yards per carry and rushed for 865 yards. Gregory Hogan will be the leading receiver this coming season for New Mexico State. Safety Jaden Wright had 5 picks last season and He could be the best defender in the Sun Belt this year. Linebacker Dalton Harrington returns as the team’s leading tackler with 113 total tackles in 2016. Look for New Mexico State to improve from last season, but they’ll stay in the bottom half of the Sun Belt.

Larry Rose III New Mexico State Aggies

Larry Rose III, New Mexico State Aggies

The Texas State Bobcats return a few key starters on offense. Quarterback Tyler Jones will be under center for the fourth straight season. He’s an accurate passer, but he needs to make better decisions under pressure. He completed 64.3 percent of his passes in 2016, but also threw 14 interceptions. A young offensive line doesn’t help. Stedman Mayberry returns to lead the rushing attack, but again will have trouble with the weak offensive line. All three starting wide receivers in Elijah King, Thurman Morbley, and Tyler Watts are back for this season. That will be a huge plus for Jones. Linebackers Bryan London and Gabe Loyd will be the strength of the defense. The Bobcats will finish at the bottom of the Sun Belt again this season, but the youth of this team will show their potential and what they can really do in  a couple of years.

Bryan London Texas State Bobcats Football

Bryan London, Texas State Bobcats


The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are the new kids on the block. This will be Coastal Carolina’s first year in their FBS transition. The Chanticleers have a lot of vacancies to fill after losing many key starters from last year. Syracuse transfer Austin Wilson is the front-runner to start at quarterback. Although Wilson has only played in nine college football games, he is the best option for Coastal Carolina this season. If receiver Chris Jones returns to his 2015 form, defenses better watch out. He’s a burner. At running back, Boston College transfer Marcus Outlow will team up with Osharmar Abrocrombie to handle the rushing duties. On defense, the Chanticleers have very little depth and many new faces. Linebacker Kerron Johnson has Big play capability and will be the leader on the defensive side of the ball. Coastal Carolina is expected to finish in the bottom half of the Sun Belt. While they are eligible to compete for the Sun Belt championship, they are not eligible for post season play. This will be a good season for Joe Moglia to gauge his team against FBS opponents.

Chris Jones Coastal Carolina Chanticleers Football

Chris Jones (Right), Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

2017 Sun Belt Football Coaches Predicted Order of Finish (first place votes)

1. Appalachian St. (7) – 136 pts

2. Troy (2) – 127 pts

3. Arkansas State (1) – 122 pts

4. South Alabama – 98 pts

5. UL Lafayette (1) – 95 pts

6. Idaho – 84 pts

7. Georgia Southern – 82 pts

8. Georgia State – 48 pts

9. ULM – 46 pts

10. New Mexico St. (1) – 41 pts

11. Texas State – 31 pts

12. Coastal Carolina – 26 pts

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