Appalachian State and Louisiana
It’s almost a default recommendation for Appalachian State. After all, the Mountaineers have been at least co-champs of the Sun Belt every season since 2016 and have won the last two crowns outright. The neat trick App State will try to pull this season is winning for a third straight year with a third different coach after Scott Satterfield moved to Louisville and Eli Drinkwitz left for Missouri the last two years. Enter Shawn Clark, marinated in the Mountie way from his days as a lineman in the 1990s and offensive line coach for 17 years at a variety of stops, including App State. As an architect of one of the best infantries in the nation the last few years, this would appear a seamless transition, though Clark has never been a head coach. Much of the offense that helped App State threaten to become the Group of 5 representative in the New Year’s Six returns, led by QB Zac Thomas. The top challenger from the West should again be Louisiana, which insists on dropping Lafayette from its label. Third-year coach Billy Napier has won 18 games the last two seasons and, considering his apprenticeship on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff, is likely the next Sun Belt mentor to move into a Power 5 job. Napier’s top-10 offense from 2019 returns most of its skill components, including QB Levi Lewis and top RB Elijah Mitchell. The Ragin’ Cajuns also ranked 18th nationally in scoring defense, returning most of their key stop-unit playmakers from the 11-win team that gave App State a scare in the conference title game and handily beat Miami (Ohio) in the Lending Tree Bowl.
Flying well under the radar near Myrtle Beach, S.C., are the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina. They got involved in all sorts of interesting games last season, including a white-knuckle ride down the stretch when five of their last six were decided by three points or fewer. They lost most of those, and the support base might require a new dose of tranquilizers if a defense that allowed more than 30 points per game can’t improve at least a little. But Coastal does not look like an easy out under second-year coach Jamey Chadwell, who was running the spread option for a couple of years under predecessor Joe Moglia before his promotion. He returns some intriguing weapons, including QBs Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter, who split snaps a year ago, and one of the Sun Belt’s most exciting RBs in slashing senior CJ Marable, fresh off 1,085 rushing yards a year ago. The Chants also scored their first win over a Power 5 foe by beating Kansas last September, and they’ll try to do it again in the opener against the vengeful Jayhawks at Lawrence.
We’ve seen it countless times. A well-regarded coordinator gets promoted to a head-coaching job and proves a poor fit, unable to delegate properly and oversee an entire operation after having to worry only about one platoon. So it might be in San Marcos, where Texas State rolled the dice on offensive tactician Jake Spavital last season. Weaned on the spread, most recently under Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, Spavital’s transition proved a bit awkward. There was no hint of the high-tech offensive background in attack-end numbers that were among the worst in the country in Spavital’s disappointing 3-9 debut. That’s not what the Bobcats signed up for, and now Spavital is dealing with nearly a complete rebuild on both sides of the line. Spavital also takes over play-calling duties after dumping last year’s offensive coordinator, respected jet sweep guru Bob Stitt. Texas State neither ran the ball (ranking 127th) nor stopped the run (120th) very well, and the near-complete reset of the operation after a first-year failure suggests that Spavital has a lot of learning to do on the job.
Big games on the board
Arkansas State at Kansas State, Sept. 12
The Sun Belt approved up to four non-league games in the reconfigured 2020 slate. While the Big Ten's decision not to play took Michigan off Arkansas State’s schedule, credit the Red Wolves for not seeking an easy replacement, instead adding dangerous K-State from the Big 12. A competitive showing against the Wildcats might suggest Blake Anderson’s team, off a win over Butch Davis and Florida International in the Camellia Bowl in December, could cause some trouble when it goes on the road against App State and Louisiana later in the season.
Appalachian State at Marshall, Sept. 19
In a limited Sun Belt non-conference schedule, this promises to be an entertaining battle and one of the few potential banana peels on App State’s slate. The Mounties won their big non-Belt game last year at North Carolina and will find this is a similar challenge, with Doc Holliday coming off another bowl appearance and the Thundering Herd returning most of the offense, led by slashing RB Brenden Knox. App State was scheduled to face Wake Forest and Wisconsin on the road before being forced to juggle the slate and adding this trip to Huntington, W.Va.
Louisiana at Appalachian State, Oct. 7
Last year these two were the best in the Belt and met twice, including App State’s 45-38 shootout victory in the conference title game. The regular-season game at Lafayette was a defensive struggle won by the Mounties 17-7, and the Ragin’ Cajuns haven’t forgotten that App dealt them their only two losses. Most of the major on-field components return for both sides.
Georgia Southern at Army, Nov. 21
Devotees of run-oriented football will consider this matchup as nirvana as the two lowest-ranked passing teams in the land battle in a hastily arranged contest at West Point. This matchup has extra meaning for Army coach Jeff Monken, who moved from Georgia Southern to Michie Stadium after a successful run as the Eagles’ mentor.
Georgia Southern at Georgia State, Nov. 28
Though a nascent rivalry with a mere six-game history, Sun Belt followers believe this could evolve into one of the region’s featured attractions. Both teams are coming off bowl visits, and State will have revenge on its mind after absorbing a 38-10 beatdown at Statesboro a year ago.
EAST (in predicted order of finish)
We will begin to find out if much of the success of the Sun Belt’s flagship entry in recent years was due to the foundation built, and momentum generated, during the Scott Satterfield era, which ended after 2018. Satterfield confirmed his value by authoring a quick turnaround at Louisville, and Eli Drinkwitz seamlessly took the baton in Boone and kept App humming in 2019. Now Drinkwitz is off to Missouri, and longtime offensive line coach Shawn Clark has been promoted to his first head-coaching job. Most of an offense that ranked among the nation’s best in scoring (39 ppg) and rushing (231 ypg) returns intact. That’s led by senior QB Zac Thomas (2,718 yards passing and 28 TD passes a year ago) and four-fifths of the league’s best forward wall, adept at opening holes with a zone-blocking scheme taught by Clark. Expect little or no drop-off on a defense that features future draftee DE Demetrius Taylor. Now, is Clark up to the job?
The Nov. 21 date at Army might set records for the fastest game of the modern era, with both teams loathe to pass. That makes for some interesting optics, but the Eagles might want to add a bit more balance to their offense if looking to overtake App State in the East. Southern dealt the Mountaineers their only loss of 2019, but the defense, suspect against the pass, fell apart in stinging late-season setbacks at Troy and Arkansas State before a loss to Liberty in the Cure Bowl landed the final record at 7-6. Injuries caused much shuffling along the offensive line, and more stability up front could help fourth-year, run-first QB Shai Werts, who completed only 67 passes last season. There’s no way coach Chad Lunsford will abandon the run emphasis, but adding some balance to an offense that ranked dead last through the air in 2019, and how quickly a young secondary coalesces, will be keys to challenging in the East.
The good news? The Panthers scored perhaps the landmark win of the 2019 Sun Belt season, shocking Tennessee at Knoxville in the opener. The bad news? State lost altitude as the campaign progressed and was dealt ugly losses in four of its last five games, including a lopsided setback against Wyoming in the Arizona Bowl. The program seems moving in the right direction under fourth-year coach Shawn Elliott, but we wonder if this autumn could prove a pause, as the departures of do-everything QB Dan Ellington and 1,400-yard rusher Tra Barnett have created some craters in the offense. Elliott’s rugged OL, however, returns almost en masse, and the defense gets nine starters back. Swapping Alabama for East Carolina in the non-league part of the schedule might also prove a benefit. If one of the new QBs — last year’s backup Cornelious Brown or Vandy transfer Jamil Muhammad — does a reasonable imitation of ultimate gamer Ellington, the Panthers might not regress. But Ellington, now on the coaching staff, leaves some big shoes to fill.
After so many close losses last season, Coastal’s spread option ought to cause more fits this season with the return of QBs Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter and 1,000-yard rusher CJ Marable. With its ability to run the ball, Jamey Chadwell’s offense slowed the tempo in several games and gave Coastal a chance, and a bend-but-don’t-break defense gave the Chants a look at every game except against powers App State and Louisiana. A mostly rebuilt secondary is likely the main concern. Coastal covered five of six on the road last year, including an upset of Kansas, and the Chants get the Jayhawks again in the opener Sept. 12.
Perhaps coach Chip Lindsey, a Gus Malzahn disciple, is due a mulligan after his first Trojans squad slipped to 5-7 and out of the bowl picture for the first time since 2016. Lindsey lost top rusher B.J. Smith to a season-ending knee injury in September, and the defense was in rebuild mode, heavy on freshmen and sophomores. No matter, the team too often didn’t compete, outscored a combined 101-16 in blowout losses to Louisiana and App State to end the season. It all was a big comedown from the previous few seasons under Neal Brown, who moved to West Virginia, and Lindsey has the look of a career coordinator perhaps ill-suited for the top spot. The defense was a mess, allowing nearly 35 ppg, but Lindsey has stuck with coordinator Brandon Hall, and they hope some Power 5 transfers can help the stop unit. Lindsey’s pass-heavy offense must break in a new quarterback after the graduation of all-conference QB Kaleb Barker, and the return of a healthy Smith, who rushed for 1,186 yards in 2018, would help. Nonetheless, this has the look of a program in decline.
WEST (in predicted order of finish)
Another collision course with App State looks in the cards after two of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ three losses a year ago came against the Mounties. The nation’s sixth-ranked running game returns many key components, including skittery QB Levi Lewis and the senior RB duo of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Regas, who have combined for 5,203 rushing yards and 63 TDs in their careers. The program, however, is looking to recover from the shocking death of assistant OL coach D.J. Loney in the summer. However, 16 defenders who recorded double-digit tackles return from a platoon that ranked 18th nationally in scoring a year ago, rare air for a Sun Belt rep. Included was a sticky pass defense that allowed just 11 TDs in 2019, ranking fifth nationally. The reconfigured non-conference slate has actually become a bit more of a challenge, adding Big 12 contender Iowa State on Sept. 12 in place of Wyoming. The Cajuns have forged a 16-7-2 spread mark since early in 2018. The question is how long the Cajuns can keep third-year coach Billy Napier, a disciple of Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban and reportedly a finalist for the Mississippi State job that went to Mike Leach.
The Red Wolves have made nine straight bowl appearances, the last six under Blake Anderson after Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin used Arkansas State as one-year stopovers en route to higher-profile jobs. Not so for Anderson, who has endeared himself to the region after enduring the death of his wife a year ago. Anderson’s six teams in Jonesboro have won seven to nine games, and even with the schedule cut down slightly in the fall, those levels seem reachable again. Anderson has two established QBs in Logan Bonner, last year’s starter who missed most of 2019 with a hand injury, and soph Layne Hatcher, who came on in relief and passed for nearly 3,000 yards and 27 TDs. Anderson’s OL returns en masse, with eight players boasting a combined 128 starts, and junior Marcel Murray (820 yards rushing in 2019) leads a deep stable of runners. The concern is a defense that was decimated by injuries a year ago, and the top four tacklers have departed the secondary. But improved depth was a byproduct of all the injuries, and Anderson has supplemented the unit with another collection of ready-to-use jucos. If any team can threaten Louisiana and App State, it’s the Red Wolves.
Close counts only in horseshoes, as ULM found out a year ago when a missed last-second field goal in the season-ending grudge match against Louisiana cost the Warhawks bowl eligibility. Indeed, ULM couldn’t catch a break, losing by one in OT at Florida State when Jacob Meeks shanked a PAT try that would have forced a second overtime. So hard-trying coach Matt Viator, entering his fifth season, continues to seek a breakthrough after three straight 4-4 conference records. But we’re not sure the Warhawks will get over the hump in 2020, especially as they have to replace school-record-breaking QB Caleb Evans (nearly 9,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in his career), the top two receivers and four starting offensive linemen. Viator also lost both coordinators, Matt Kubik on offense and Mike Collins on defense. Viator himself will take over the play-calling duties, though who ends up taking snaps (perhaps soph Colby Suits or juco Jeremy Hunt) for the Sept. 12 opener at Army remains to be seen. Wrecking-ball senior RB Josh Johnson (1,298 yards in 2019) should provide some balance. The defense ranked 127th in scoring and 128th overall. Viator has kept ULM competitive, but with questions at QB and on defense, the Warhawks will be hard-pressed to move up the West table or reach .500.
Hired before 2018 based on his success in the Division II, FCS and juco ranks, Steve Campbell has done nothing to decelerate the decline in South Alabama football since taking over for Joey Jones. Indeed, the Jaguars’ 5-19 mark across the last two seasons is the worst two-year stretch in school history. But some progress is possible after using lots of freshmen and redshirt freshmen the last two years. Late last season, now-sophomore QB Desmond Trotter provided a bit of a spark, and the forward wall returns four of five starters. Meaningful improvement, however, will remain elusive until the defense makes upgrades, and Campbell must replace two productive defensive ends and the top two corners from a year ago. That’s all after the stop unit allowed a too-permissive 31 ppg. But an intangible might work in USA’s favor — a brand-new on-campus Hancock Whitney Stadium, as the Jaguars cede venerable Ladd-Peebles Stadium back to the Senior Bowl. It’s unclear whether fans will be able to see the Jaguars in their new playground, but for a program looking to forge an identity, a new stadium is a nice place to start.
The Bobcats might be having second thoughts about giving the coaching reins to Jake Spavital. He was only 33 when hired off Dana Holgorsen’s staff at West Virginia. A preacher of the spread, Spavital’s debut offense was about as reminiscent of Holgorsen’s West Virginia offense as the Great Plains are of the Rockies. The Bobcats finished 121st in scoring and total offense, not what the locals bargained for when sticking their necks out for this hire. So Spavital did what many coaches do when things don’t work — blame the assistants, with staff changes that included removing offensive coordinator Bob Stitt and assuming play-calling duties himself. A quick fix for the roster was sought from the juco ranks. If there’s hope, it’s that most of last year’s receiving corps is still in the fold, and Memphis transfer Brady McBride could beat out holdover QB Tyler Vitt. But only three offensive starters return. Most of the linebackers and secondary also departed, with some of those juco recruits likely to move into the lineup ASAP. If continuity is what you’re looking for, Texas State won’t have it. Then again, after winning (and covering the spread) just three times in his debut season, Spavital can’t be blamed for trying something different.