Sun Belt Conference 2023 college football preview

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

August 5, 2023 11:32 AM
 

Sun Belt Conference 2023 preview

Conference realignment is all the rage in college football, but the Sun Belt did it before it was cool. James Madison, Marshall, Southern Miss, and Old Dominion joined the conference in 2022 to give the league 14 teams and make the East Division one of the most compelling in the Group of Five.

Troy and South Alabama took advantage of the weaker West Division and went 7-1 in conference play, as the Trojans ultimately won 12 games and South Alabama won 10. It was a fiercer battle in the East, where Coastal Carolina emerged victorious via tiebreaker over James Madison, but late-season injuries cast a dark shadow over the Chanticleers to end the year.

Things look a little different this season, as last year’s East Division heavyweights both experienced substantial losses, which opens the door for conference stalwart Appalachian State. The West may line up the same way, but it could be a more competitive division overall.

Full disclosure: The “Fun Belt” is one of my favorite conferences. The mid-week games are a real treat, and there are some legitimately good teams in this league every single season. With contrasting styles across the conference, the games are usually exciting, and there are some strong athletes on the field.

This season, South Alabama (+290) and Troy (+310) top the conference odds, due in large part to the easier path to the conference title game. It may simply come down to the head-to-head meeting on November 2 at Troy. Coastal Carolina (+450), Appalachian State (+700), and Marshall (+800) are the top contenders from the other division.

 

Appalachian State Mountaineers

The 2022 season for Appalachian State was a major outlier. The Mountaineers failed to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2013 and did not participate in a bowl game because two of their six wins came against FCS foes. It was such a strange season for App State, as they lost 63-61 in the opener to North Carolina and then beat Texas A&M and Troy, but also lost to lowly Texas State and went 1-4 in conference games decided by seven or fewer points. There are some positive indicators, but also some major questions.

Offense

For the first time in seemingly forever, the Mountaineers have a stable of quarterbacks without experience. Redshirt freshman Ryan Burger may get the first crack, but he had six pass attempts to his name last season. JUCO transfer Joey Aguilar has experience but below D-I. App State will have to throw to keep opposing defenses honest, while RB Nate Noel leads a group of backs that will get a ton of work.

Noel led the team with 604 yards and 6.9 yards per carry, but four backs had at least 76 carries. It projects to be something of a timeshare again, but the more experienced Noel should get more totes than anybody else. The top four receivers are all back. The quarterback that wins the job is likely to run a bit more, as Frank Ponce returns after serving as the OC in 2021. The Mountaineers have to replace both starting tackles, so QB runs may also be out of necessity to evade pass rushers.

Defense

The Mountaineers also have a new defensive coordinator who is also a familiar face. Scott Sloan was the defensive backs coach in Boone from 2011-16 and then served as Georgia Southern’s defensive coordinator from 2018-21, so he has lots of experience calling plays and plenty of Sun Belt exposure. There are only four returning starters on this defense. The top two tacklers, Nick Ross and Andrew Parker, are among them, but top corner Steven Jones leaves with 15 pass breakups.

What makes App State’s mediocre season even more surprising is that they were +9 in turnover margin, even though the defenders only had seven interceptions. The Mountaineers were strong against the run with 3.6 yards per carry allowed and only allowed 26.8 points per game, though that was the most since 2014. The Mountaineers also took a big tumble on special teams last season.

Outlook

This is a hard team to project for 2023. They were +8.1 points per game, +1.3 yards per play, and had that +9 TO margin, but finished 6-6. They outgained opponents by over 100 yards in three of their six conference losses and outgained North Carolina by 82 yards in that Week 1 defeat. A lot of indicators are pointing up in that regard, but the further head coach Shawn Clark gets from Scott Satterfield and the one year of Eli Drinkwitz, the more you wonder if the talent pipeline is the same. I ultimately like App State and have them for 8.08 wins, while the season win total line is 6.5. I have them favored in all but two games, as they avoid both Troy and South Alabama.

Pick: Over 6.5

 

Marshall Thundering Herd

The quietest nine-win season in college football came out of Huntington, West Virginia. The Marshall Thundering Herd went 9-4 with one of the most suffocating defenses in the nation. Unfortunately, Marshall also had one of the most boring offenses in the country. Herd games averaged 40.5 combined points. Their eight conference games featured 35 combined points per game, with Marshall averaging 19 and opponents coming away with 16. The bowl game against UConn in Myrtle Beach had a whopping 619 yards of combined offense. But, sometimes boring wins, and boring won a lot for Marshall in 2022.

Offense

Marshall’s keep-away strategy was effective last season, as the Herd finished 25th in average time of possession and ran for over 200 yards per game. They averaged just 4.5 yards per carry, but they leaned on the opposition by having early-down success with the run and the occasional play-action toss or swing pass. Marshall was actually just 84th in the nation in third-down conversion rate, despite being 25th in number of plays run.

Marshall was also just 113th in the nation in TD% in the red zone at 51.02% with 25 touchdowns in 49 tries. Second-year offensive coordinator Clint Trickett will try to get more out of incumbent starter Cam Fancher, who ran for 466 yards and only threw for 1,558 after taking over for Henry Colombi. Fancher had a 10/6 TD/INT ratio. Perhaps the pressure will shift off of him a bit with the return of Rasheen Ali, who missed the first 10 games with a knee injury. Khalan Laborn ran for 1,513 yards and 15 touchdowns in his stead, but he is now in the NFL as a UDFA with the 49ers.

Defense

Marshall’s defense tied for fifth in the nation in takeaways with 29. Only five teams forced more interceptions than the 18 that the Herd came away with, and they also scooped 11 fumbles. It wasn’t just the rash of turnovers that helped. Opponents only mustered 93 rush yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry. Overall, opponents only managed 4.6 yards per play. The losses are heavy on defense, though, as a new defensive coordinator takes over in Jason Semore. Lance Guidry took the same position at Miami (FL).

Top tackler Eli Neal returns, along with top sack man Owen Porter, but only three of the top 10 tacklers are back. Marshall will run a 4-2-5 under Semore, and there are players to replace at each level of the defense, including four in the secondary. After allowing 34 points to Bowling Green, Marshall didn’t allow more than 24 points the rest of the way, so this group came together very quickly, and maybe the same thing can happen this season. Marshall led the nation by more than 3% in third-down defense last season.

Outlook

Defensive regression looks likely with all the moving parts and some potentially unsustainable stats, but the offense also moved the ball effectively, protected it well, and failed to capitalize on scoring chances. That means Marshall could be in line for more points, especially with a more experienced QB and less uncertainty at the position. Marshall’s schedule is tough, though. While Coastal Carolina and James Madison are rebuilding, the Herd face South Alabama on the road, along with NC State in nonconference action. Marshall plays six road games, and five of those teams made bowl games last season. Despite the tough schedule, my projection is for 7.78 wins with a win total of 7.

Pick: Over 7

 

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

The good times on the teal turf in Conway, South Carolina, have made for some great storylines over the last few seasons. The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are 31-7 over the last three seasons and have star quarterback Grayson McCall back for probably one more season. However, head coach Jamey Chadwell is now at Liberty, and many believe that new head coach Tim Beck is a big step down. With an experienced team and a fairly favorable schedule, Coastal Carolina is one of the more polarizing teams going into the season.

Offense

Was it Chadwell’s offense that made McCall a star, or is he just that good? If McCall stays healthy, he’ll be the all-time leading passer in Coastal Carolina history. He’s already second and under 2,000 yards behind Alex Ross. He’ll have his top four wide receivers back, including leading rusher CJ Beasley, who had 717 yards with a 5.1 average. Reese White should also be healthier this season after having 5.5 yards per carry on 42 fewer attempts than Beasley.

What could be missing for the Chants is what made Chadwell’s offense so special. All of the pre-snap motion that created mismatches and outnumbered situations are gone with Beck and Travis Trickett, who was the offensive coordinator and QB coach at USF last season. The Bulls were 108th in passing yards per game, but they did run the ball really well to be 39th in yards per play. Beck has been an OC at NC State, Texas, Ohio State, and Nebraska, so some big schools. Given that Coastal’s offense dropped by 11.8 points per game and 1.7 yards per play from 2021’s outrageous numbers, maybe the drop-off won’t be that big.

Defense

The offense wasn’t nearly as potent, and that had a major, negative effect on the defense. The Coastal Carolina defense crashed and burned last season, allowing 10.2 more points per game and 1.2 more yards per play. The pass defense gave up 94 more yards per game on average. With only three returning starters, Coastal Carolina got outscored on the season, yet they still managed to go 9-4.

Things really fell apart late in the year, though, as the Chants allowed 145 points in losses to James Madison, Troy, and East Carolina. Six of the top seven tacklers are back this time around, and the depth appears to be a bit better, but that was such a stark increase in points and yardage that you can’t help but be skeptical of new defensive coordinator Craig Navier’s unit.

Outlook

While Coastal is stuck in the much harder division of the Sun Belt, they will avoid both Troy and South Alabama from the West Division, which is also true for App State. The Chanticleers will not play a home game from September 21 to October 28 because of the bye week and three road games, so that’s an interesting schedule quirk. They also have road games at UCLA and Army. My projection is for 7.24 wins with a win total of 8, as I worry that McCall isn’t as good of a fit for this offense, and the defense may not improve that much, if at all.

Pick: Under 8

 

James Madison Dukes

The first season as an FBS member was a good one for James Madison. Even though the Dukes were ineligible for a bowl game and wound up only playing 11 games, they went 8-3 and cracked the Top 25, only to lose to Georgia Southern to kick off a three-game skid. Curt Cignetti and everybody else around the football program had to be thrilled. Now, with big losses on offense, reality as a Division I-A team may set in.

Offense

The Dukes were able to bring former Colorado State QB Todd Centeio along for the bump to FBS, and he had a fine season, throwing for nearly 2,700 yards and running for nearly 400 more with 32 total touchdowns. With Centeio leaving, the Dukes have very little experience at the position. Cignetti recruit Alonza Barnett had one pass attempt while redshirting last season. Billy Atkins had 43 pass attempts and only completed 44.2% of his tosses. Arizona transfer Jordan McCloud and Wake Forest transfer Brett Griffis are also on the roster.

Not only does JMU have nobody proven at the QB position, a 1,000-yard receiver left in Kris Thornton. Nobody else had more than 401 yards or 24 catches, and that guy, Reggie Brown, is the only returnee of the top five in yards. Leading rusher Percy Agyei-Obese left after rushing for 5.7 yards per carry on a team that mustered just 4.3 yards per attempt. The offensive line is full of upperclassmen with experience, but a new QB and new skill guys drop the Dukes several notches.

Defense

Defensively, you’ve got to hand it to the Dukes. They graduated to FBS and only had minimal regression across the board. They held opponents to 20.9 points per game, with just 4.7 yards per play and just 2.5 yards per carry. JMU did avoid both South Alabama and Troy from the other division and caught Coastal Carolina at a very opportune time with Grayson McCall injured. Weak schedule or not, it was still a very impressive performance from the Dukes, but the schedule is tougher this season.

The top three tacklers and four of the top five are back, as James Madison also racked up 38 sacks in the first FBS season after having 41 in three additional games in 2021. Top sack artist Isaac Ukwu did hit the transfer portal, but defensive coordinator Bryant Haines has a lot of the same guys to work with this season, including plenty of upperclassmen. JMU was fourth in third-down defense last season, a mark I doubt they’ll replicate.

Outlook

As mentioned, along with the gauntlet that is the East Division, James Madison gets the top two teams in the West, with Troy on the road and South Alabama at home. The nonconference slate also features a road game against Utah State in what is the third straight away contest for the Dukes, so that profiles as a really tough spot, especially sandwiched between Troy and South Alabama. The win total of 8 is quite optimistic for JMU, as I have them down for 7.29 wins, and they have three games in my power ratings where they are -1.5 or smaller.

Pick: Under 8

 

Georgia Southern Eagles

I’ve been right a lot in my sports betting career, but I’ve been wrong a lot as well. I was wrong about Georgia Southern last season. It seemed like a much more difficult task to go from being a spread-option team to an air-it-out team, but Clay Helton’s bunch did it with relative ease. The 6-7 record wasn’t overly impressive, but way better than their season win total of 4 or 4.5, as the Eagles racked up 6.2 yards per play and finished fourth in passing yards per game. Now in Year 2, this could be a legit contender in the East Division.

Offense

Kyle Vantrease was a one-year wonder in Statesboro, as he threw for 4,253 yards with 27 touchdowns. He threw 16 picks, and Georgia Southern was -5 in turnover margin, but Davis Brin transfers in from Tulsa as an extremely experienced QB. Khaleb Hood and Derwin Burgess combined for 125 catches and 1,642 yards as the Eagles’ top two receivers, and both are back this season. Leading rusher Jalen White also returns after 10 touchdown totes and 914 yards.

The Eagles racked up 6.2 yards per play and only gave up seven sacks. Most of the offensive line returns intact this season, so Brin, who was banged up on a weekly basis last season for the Golden Hurricane, should be in line for a huge year. Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis has a better grasp on his personnel, and so does Helton, who has much better depth all around this season.

Defense

This is the area of the team that needs help. Perhaps it will come in the form of Brandon Bailey, who is the youngest defensive coordinator in the country at the ripe old age of 28. He went from a grad assistant in 2016 to calling plays at Arkansas-Monticello in 2018 before continuing as a grad student at Texas A&M. He was Buffalo’s DC last season and must have impressed Helton in the Camellia Bowl after the Bulls beat his Eagles.

Only four starters are back on this defense, but that might be a good thing. The Eagles gave up 6.5 yards per play and were absolutely exposed by being on the field more often. Georgia Southern gave up over 3,000 rushing yards on the season on 542 carries and more than 3,300 yards through the air on 433 pass attempts. Going from long, methodical drives as an option team to defending behind an up-tempo aerial assault took its toll on a depth-shy D. Georgia Southern was 15th in red zone TD% against, but they were tied for the third-most red zone attempts allowed.

Outlook

Bailey has a big task, but the defense’s improvement could dramatically raise the ceiling for this team. The offense should be quite potent yet again, and neither Troy nor South Alabama appears on the schedule. There aren’t many “lost cause” games on the schedule. Helton not only improved the offense but also the special teams as well. Any modest upgrade from the defense makes this team a contender. The season win total is 6, and my projection is for 6.19 wins, but I think this is a worthwhile East Division long shot at +750.

Pick: Over 6

 

Georgia State Panthers

Sustaining success can be very tough at the Group of Five level. The Georgia State Panthers found that out the hard way last season. After winning eight games for the first time in program history as an FBS member in 2021, the Panthers just about flipped their 8-5 record and finished 4-8 in 2022. The losing season snapped a three-year run of making a bowl game, and now we have to wonder if Shawn Elliott’s program can get back to its winning ways.

Offense

Quarterback Darren Grainger returns after leading the team with 734 rushing yards, and he was the only guy to attempt a pass. He threw for 2,443 yards with an 18/7 TD/INT ratio and did virtually everything for the Panthers’ offense. All-time leading rusher Tucker Gregg had a down year with 4.1 yards per carry, though he did have 12 touchdowns in his final season. Georgia State’s offense actually saw modest gains from 2021 to 2022, and a lot of starters are back, along with a second-year offensive coordinator in Trent McKnight.

McKnight is actually in his seventh season with the program after coaching up the wide receivers for five years prior. He’ll have to coach them up this season because Jamari Thrash leaves after having three times the receiving yards of any other player with 1,122. His 61 catches were also more than double any other player. With some losses at the skill positions and increased reliance on Grainger, the Panthers’ offense has minimal margin for error.

Defense

The defense took a step back last season, allowing over 30 points for the fourth time in five seasons. The Panthers had 11 fewer sacks than the season prior but did have 13 interceptions. Antavious Lane and Jacorey Crawford, the top two defensive backs for the Panthers, are gone  along with Quavian White, who led the team with four picks. Elliott and new defensive coordinator Chad Staggs scoured the FCS ranks for transfers, who now have big shoes to fill.

The life of a G5 program is like that of a turnstile. Players come in and players go out via the transfer portal, and that’s going to be what determines the ceiling for this defense. If history is any indication, the ceiling is low. However, Georgia State only allowed 40 red zone attempts last season, which ranked tied for 23rd, but opponents scored 30 TD, which tied for 85th.

Outlook

The Panthers draw Troy, but do avoid South Alabama from the West, so that helps from a league play standpoint. The nonconference schedule isn’t all that daunting, as Rhode Island, UConn, and Charlotte are winnable games. LSU is not. But the Panthers have been a fairly inconsistent, high-variance team. They started 0-4 last season, won four of five, and then lost three straight, but the early losses included a close loss to North Carolina and a loss to Charlotte as almost a three-touchdown favorite. Georgia State’s win total is 5.5, and I have them for 5.76 wins, but I’d still lean Under, as they are only favored in four games for me.

Pick: Under 5.5

 

Old Dominion Monarchs

The move from Conference USA to the Sun Belt did not work out for Old Dominion last season. The Monarchs went from making a bowl game to finishing with a 3-9 record. They went 2-6 in league play, though that did include a huge win over Coastal Carolina on the teal turf. It was a shame because the season started with a monumental win for the program over Virginia Tech, but those magical moments were few and far between. As Ricky Rahne starts his fourth season with the program and third with football games, the Monarchs are in a rebuilding year.

Offense

ODU did not play in 2020 because of COVID, so going 6-7 in 2021 was a minor miracle, especially after a 1-6 start. Reality set in with a step up in class moving to the Sun Belt East Division. Things don’t look too promising this season either. Quarterback Hayden Wolff transferred out, as did backup Brendon Clark, so nobody on the ODU roster has a pass attempt with the program. Even likely starter Grant Wilson transferred in from Fordham with only 13 attempts to his name.

Rahne, who played QB at Cornell, has a lot of unanswered questions at the position. To make matters worse, leading rusher Blake Watson transferred out after amassing 916 yards on 159 carries. Top wide receiver Ali Jennings also bolted. Returning production is very hard to find for Rahne and first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Decker, who is the reason why Wilson transferred in from Fordham, as he was there as the OC last season. Fordham did have one of the nation’s most potent offenses, but this is a huge leap in competition.

Defense

All things considered, the defense really battled. The offense mustered just 19.5 points per game, which gave the defense no margin for error. They tried, allowing 26.6 points per game and 5.7 yards per play. ODU was dead last in the nation by almost a full minute in time of possession on offense, so the defense was on the field a ton.

Super sophomore Jason Henderson had 186 tackles for the Monarchs last season. He’s one of two guys with more than 40 tackles to return this season. The Monarchs also lost 11 pass breakups from Tobias Harris and also lost Tre Hawkins, who was a sixth-round pick for the Giants. The defense did yeoman’s work last season to keep the Monarchs in games, but with three returning starters and low hopes on offense, it could be a long year.

Outlook

Virginia Tech will be out for revenge in Blacksburg in Week 1, as the Monarchs also play Louisiana, Wake Forest, and an FCS opponent in the nonconference. They miss Troy and South Alabama in crossover play with the West Division, but I’m not sure that matters. This is a rebuilding year for Rahne in hopes of putting something together in 2024 or 2025. I have the Monarchs as a touchdown or more underdog in all 11 games against FBS competition. I project them for 3.21 wins, with the Texas A&M-Commerce game in “gimme” territory, but Under 3.5 is the play with this team.

Pick: Under 3.5

 

South Alabama Jaguars

What a season it was for Kane Wommack’s crew in Mobile. South Alabama had never had a winning season as an FBS member, but the Jaguars rewrote the record books and rattled off 10 wins. The Jags are still searching for their first bowl win in program history, so that will be among Wommack’s chief goals this season, and he has the team to do it. With a ton of returning production and a weak division, more records may be broken.

Offense

Both sides of the ball improved for South Alabama last season, even with the loss of 2021 QB Jake Bentley. Carter Bradley beat out Desmond Trotter for the job and threw for 3,343 yards with a 28/12 TD/INT ratio. He could cut down on the picks this season with his top two pass catchers and six of the top seven back in the fold. He also gets Memphis transfer Javon Ivory to line up with top returnees Devin Voisin and Caullin Lacy.

The top three rushers are all back as well, including 1,000-yard man La’Damian Webb, who was a Sun Belt first-teamer with 13 rushing scores. The depth here is strong, as evidenced by all the returning production at the skill positions and also the presence of Trotter, who is actually the program’s third all-time leading passer. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite is also in his third year with a lot of the same players. This group improved by 0.6 yards per play from ‘21 to ‘22, and I’d expect improvement again.

Defense

Wommack was a top-flight defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach, and he seems to have a good one in Corey Batoon. The Jaguars shaved more than five points per game off their total last season and 0.3 yards per play. The defense really stiffened up against the run and only allowed 3.3 yards per carry, which ranked 15th in the nation. The top six tacklers are back this season, and once again, many of these players have been around since the Wommack regime began.

Usually, it is a huge blow when a program like South Alabama loses an NFL-caliber player, but the loss of Darrell Luter may not be that big of a deal because Yam Banks is back after six interceptions and 11 pass breakups. South Alabama did give up some yardage through the air and actually had fewer sacks in 2022, but improvement is not out of the question.

Outlook

While South Alabama went 10-3, the Jaguars weren’t exactly dominant. Of their seven conference wins, five were by seven or fewer points. Red zone defense played a huge role, as the Jags were tied for fourth in TD% against inside the 20, surrendering only 18 TD in 42 attempts. Even if there are some mild regressions in the key situational stats, the schedule is pretty weak, though the head-to-head meeting with Troy is on the road. The win total line is 8, and my projection is for 8.83 wins, with South Alabama favored in 10 of 12 games, including -1 at Troy.

Pick: Over 8

 

Troy Trojans

If only the formula was as simple as hiring former Kentucky Wildcats assistants. Then a lot of teams could do what the Troy Trojans have done. Troy has four double-digit winning seasons in the last seven years. Three came with Neal Brown, former Kentucky offensive coordinator, and the most recent came last season with Kentucky co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall. The Trojans went 12-2 with one of the nation’s most suffocating defenses and will look to defend their first outright Sun Belt Conference championship since 2009.

Offense

The offense made some modest gains, but nothing like what the defense did. Maybe Year 2 will give the offense a chance to make a big leap, as OC Joe Craddock has his quarterback and leading rusher back in the fray. Gunnar Watson is just over 1,100 yards away from being the third all-time leading passer, as he comes off of what could’ve been a better season. He had a 61.5% completion rate with 2,818 yards but a really pedestrian 14/12 TD/INT ratio.

Kimani Vidal is on track to be the all-time program leader in rushing yards. After gaining 701 yards in 2021, he racked up 1,132 and added 10 touchdowns in his sophomore season. Depth is a bit of a concern here with DK Billingsley gone, but Vidal is a bruiser at 5-8 and 215 pounds. He could be magnified in importance, though, as Troy lost 92 catches and nearly 2016 yards from Tez and RaJae’ Johnson. That said, Jabre Barber does return, and he was leading the team before getting hurt. Troy added 2.8 points and 0.4 yards per play from the previous year, so we’ll see if they can grow from that. 

Defense

Despite 15 INT from Watson and Jarret Doege, the Trojans still finished +6 in turnover margin, as they tied for seventh with 26 takeaways. They were +7 in fumbles, which could regress for this season, but six starters are back on defense in hopes of keeping up the monumental gains of last year. The Troy defense allowed just 17.1 points per game and just 4.7 yards per play. They were eighth nationally in yards per play and points per game, which was a huge step forward.

But this season could result in a step back. The top three tacklers are all gone, including the nation’s Defensive Player of the Year in Carlton Martial, who is the all-time FBS leader in tackles. On the plus side, both starting corners are back in Reddy Steward and O’shai Fletcher, who combined for 20 pass breakups. It was surprising to see Troy’s overall defensive numbers given that they were 82nd in third-down defense and just 43rd in red zone TD% against. Regression seems likely, especially with DC Shiel Wood gone.

Outlook

The offense could be better, and the defense could be worse, but the Trojans should still be a very good team in the weaker half of the Sun Belt. Furthermore, Troy misses App State, Marshall, and Coastal Carolina from the East. The nonconference is tough, though, with Western Kentucky and Kansas State on the ledger. The win total line for Troy is 8, and my projection is for exactly 8.00 wins. I’d lean towards nine wins over seven wins, though.

Pick: Over 8

 

Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

A play here or a play there and things could have been very different for the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns last season. They lost by six points to Troy and three points to South Alabama, who wound up finishing No. 1 and No. 2 in the West Division. When all was said and done, Louisiana had its first losing season since 2017, thanks to a 23-16 loss in the Independence Bowl. It could’ve been a special first year as head coach for Michael Desormeaux, but now the focus falls on his second season.

Offense

Regression was pretty inevitable for the Ragin’ Cajuns. They lost a good bit of production on both sides of the ball after having 20 returning starters in 2021, and this team was +25 in turnover margin in 2020 and 2021 en route to going 23-2. Without Levi Lewis and others, the offense was sure to slide, and that did happen, as the team gained just 5.3 yards per play and managed just 26.2 points per contest. You have to go back to 2016 to find the last time Louisiana had offensive numbers like that.

The weird part is that Louisiana did have a combined 27/10 TD/INT ratio from the quarterbacks, and all three return here. Ben Wooldridge and Chandler Fields were both limited by injuries in the spring, so the position may be in a state of flux. Leading rusher Chris Smith is gone, but Dre’lyn Washington was more explosive at times anyway. The bigger loss is leading receiver Michael Jefferson, who had more than double the catches and receiving yards of anybody else.

Defense

Louisiana’s defensive numbers slid a little as well, though not as much as the offense’s production. The Ragin’ Cajuns still held opponents to just 5.3 yards per play and 22.8 points per game, but the losses are very heavy this time around. After going from 10 returning starters in 2021 to five in 2022, Louisiana only brings back three starters this year. The top four tacklers are all gone, and sixth-ranked tackler Andre Jones was drafted by the Commanders.

The defense will have to be completely rebuilt by LaMar Morgan, who is just a second-year defensive coordinator. On the plus side, Morgan was a defensive back at Louisiana and has mostly coached them in his career, which helps because there are zero returning starters in the secondary. For a team that dropped by 10 sacks year over year and loses the top two sack men, that secondary could be under duress with a depressed pass rush.

Outlook

After hosting Troy and South Alabama last season, Louisiana goes to Alabama twice in four weeks for those games. Minnesota and Buffalo are part of the nonconference schedule. The Desormeaux hire was met with some skepticism, and he took a lot of Billy Napier’s roster and went 6-7. What will he do now with a lot of new faces in new spaces on the field? I can’t say I’m very optimistic, despite my projection for 7.21 wins. That just speaks to how weak the schedule is in terms of Louisiana’s favorite roles. I actually think this team could bottom out, and I like the Under, despite my projection.

Pick: Under 6.5

 

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Southern Miss was Team Chaos last season. The Golden Eagles went 7-6, which represented a four-win improvement in head coach Will Hall’s second season. Six of the 13 games were decided by seven or fewer points, including a four-overtime loss to Liberty to open the season. The swing game to fall on the right side of .500 was the first bowl win since 2016 for the program, with a 38-24 triumph over Rice in the LendingTree Bowl. Is another bowl appearance in store?

Offense

Figuring out the quarterback position would go a long way toward helping Southern Miss grow on offense. Five guys, including star RB Frank Gore, saw time at the position last season. They combined for a 55% completion rate and 20 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions. Southern Miss only ran for 3.9 yards per carry, despite a huge season from Gore, who had 6.1 yards per pop and 1,382 yards with nine touchdowns. He’ll be the best back in the Belt if he stays healthy, but this team needs to find some balance.

Clemson transfer Billy Wiles and JUCO transfer Holman Edwards seem to be duking it out for the starting spot. Top receiver Jason Brownlee is gone, but finding a guy to run the offense should allow the WR position to shake itself out. Whoever wins the job should be well-protected by a veteran offensive line. More decisiveness at the position should cut down on the 34 sacks from last season as well. We saw what Southern Miss could be without a QB. What if they find one?

Defense

A mostly rebuilt secondary is the biggest concern for the Golden Eagles on defense. The front seven is pretty experienced, and Hall found success with the JUCOs he brought in last season. The Golden Eagles shaved off 4.4 points per game and 0.4 yards per play from Year 1 to Year 2, but they have a new defensive coordinator in Dan O’Brien. Not much will change, though, as O’Brien was coaching safeties and was an analyst at Georgia prior to that.

The top three tacklers are gone from last year’s team, but a lot of players got to the quarterback, as the defense was really aggressive with 44 sacks. Dominic Quewon was the best at it with 10 sacks, but his eligibility ran out. The Golden Eagles really pressure hard on third down, which does leave them open to some big gains, but also led to a lot of stops.

Outlook

Most Sun Belt West Division schedules aren’t that tough, but Southern Miss has a tricky one. The nonconference slate includes Florida State, Tulane, and Mississippi State, which are all underdog roles, and there are four road games in the span of a month from October 17 to November 18 before playing Troy at home in the finale. If a QB emerges, the Golden Eagles could be a long shot pick to win the West, but that’s a big if. Nevertheless, their win total line is 5, and I have a projection of 5.95 wins, so I think six and a bowl bid is more likely than 5.

Pick: Over 5

 

Arkansas State Red Wolves

The Arkansas State Red Wolves have fallen on some very hard times. After being used as a springboard by guys like Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, and Bryan Harsin to bigger head coaching jobs, the Red Wolves administration enjoyed six straight winning seasons from Blake Anderson before a 4-7 showing in 2020. They might be pretty excited with four wins this season after a 5-19 performance in two years under Butch Jones. While being used as a one-and-done school limits continuity, it shows you made some good hires. Jones, to this point, is not one.

Offense

The Red Wolves led in the fourth quarter in eight of their 12 games last season, but they had major problems finishing. A lack of depth on both sides of the ball didn’t help, and the depth is even thinner this season. Florida State transfer James Blackman is gone after posting a 14/3 TD/INT ratio with a 64.3% completion rate. Even though Blackman played fairly well, the Red Wolves mustered just 4.9 yards per play. They couldn’t run the ball at all with 2.8 yards per carry, so teams keyed in on the pass and limited explosive plays.

Both guys that threw passes for the Red Wolves last season are gone, as Jones turns to Colorado transfer JT Shrout, who had a negative TD/INT ratio last season. Opponents have racked up 86 sacks against the Red Wolves over the last two seasons, so even though the offensive line has several returning starters, that may not mean much. The top two pass catchers and four of the top five are gone. It looks like a rough year on offense in Jonesboro.

Defense

The defense did improve in Year 2 under a quality defensive mind in Rob Harley, who was the linebackers coach at Pitt. This side of the ball is in better shape from a returning production standpoint, but this group still allowed over 31 points per game last season. The Red Wolves did go from 7.2 yards per play allowed to 5.8 from the first year to the second year but didn’t really improve against the pass. They just didn’t get obliterated by the run.

The Red Wolves had a bottom-five red-zone defense, yet they somehow finished 50th in third-down defense. Leading tackler Jordan Carmouche and top corner Kenneth Harris are both gone, but Jones and Harley did a lot of work to bring in transfers. While Arkansas State had some close calls, they were still outgained by 114 yards per game in Sun Belt play and got outgained by nine of the 11 FBS teams they played.

Outlook

Arkansas State visits UMass this season after winning 35-33 in Jonesboro last year, but the Red Wolves were outgained by 200 yards in that game. Their other wins came against Louisiana-Monroe and Grambling. The ULM win came right after the Warhawks beat rival Louisiana for the first time in five years. The only games I have Arkansas State favored in are against Stony Brook and at UMass, but they are only a 3.5-point-favorite there. Otherwise, they’re a pick ‘em at home against Texas State and a dog in every other game. With a win total of 4.5 and a projection of 3.26, this is one of my favorite win totals in the Sun Belt.

Pick: Under 4.5

 

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Louisiana-Monroe has been the king of the fun upset the last two seasons. In 2021, the Warhawks beat Troy as a 23.5-point underdog, Liberty as a 33-point pup, and South Alabama as a two-touchdown dog. In 2022, two of ULM’s four wins came as an underdog, topping Louisiana in the Battle on the Bayou getting 9.5, and beating Georgia State on the road getting almost two touchdowns. It’s a hard way to make a living, and Terry Bowden’s bunch is only 8-16 over the last two seasons, but they’re getting the most out of their victories.

Offense

Matt Kubik’s second stint as OC in Monroe started a lot like his first. Kubik inherited an offense that managed just 4.5 yards per play in 2015 and took them up to 5.1 in 2016 during his first season. The 2021 Warhawks averaged 4.6 yards per play, and Kubik took them up to 5.2. By the time he left ULM in 2019, the team averaged 6.4 yards per play and got him a job at Southern Miss.

Progress is always a good thing, but progress may be hard to make this season. QB Chandler Rogers is out, and a whole cast of inexperienced signal callers will battle it out to see who emerges victorious. The position could be in a state of flux, which is also true of the running back position, though leading rusher Malik Jackson only had 3.6 yards per carry, and the team had 3.5. The team went to the transfer portal to find help at RB and WR, but none of it will matter if Kubik can’t find a QB.

Defense

The Warhawks' defense has allowed over six yards per play every season since 2015, and it will take a lot of improvement to avoid that fate again. Vic Koenning got a second chance to be a defensive coordinator after West Virginia players accused him of mistreatment in 2019. The defense improved by 0.2 yards per play though they allowed more points than the previous season. This year’s unit will be missing top tackler Zack Woodard, but four of the top tacklers are back otherwise.

Koenning has been a very successful DC, but it does take time for his scheme to take hold. The Warhawks only had six interceptions last season and finished -7 in turnover margin. The defense got worn down by the run in a lot of games and finished in the bottom 20 in third-down conversion rate against. We’ll find out about the run defense very quickly with a season opener against Army.

Outlook

ULM has a flair for the dramatic and could pull a couple more upsets, but I only have the Warhawks favored in two games this season. They should take care of Lamar, and I have them -3 against Arkansas State, so that is hardly a gimme game. With a lot to figure out on offense, the defense will be under a lot of pressure again. My projection is for 3.01 wins, and the market has 3.5 with heavy Under juice. They may pick off a team or two, but they play nine straight weeks against Sun Belt foes and Ole Miss because of an early bye week. There isn’t enough depth for that.

Pick: Under 3.5

 

Texas State Bobcats

You have to be a college football junkie to get excited about a team with a season win total of 4.5, but the Texas State Bobcats are one of the most interesting teams to me this season. Former Tulsa QB GJ Kinne gets his first crack at being an FBS head coach as a rapid riser in the profession after serving as the head coach of Incarnate Word last season. All the Cardinals did was average 51.5 points and 581 yards per game. Get hyped, San Marcos!

Offense

There are some quarterbacks very interested in playing for Kinne. How else could you explain the Bobcats having Malik Hornsby from Arkansas and TJ Finley from Auburn as graduate transfers? Lindsey Scott Jr.. seemed to enjoy playing for Kinne; he threw 60 touchdown passes against eight interceptions and won the Walter Payton Award for the best FCS player. Last year’s Bobcats scored 21.1 points per game and had 4.7 yards per play. It’s safe to say that those numbers will go up.

Junior wide receiver Ashtyn Hawkins has to be thrilled after leading the team with 56 catches for 587 yards last season. Nobody else had more than 29 catches, but the ball will be spread around a ton this year. It wasn’t just an all-out aerial assault at Incarnate Word, as the team also ran for over 215 yards per game. The top five in rushing yards are all back for Texas State. If nothing else, this is going to be a fascinating offense, as Kinne led the Cardinals to the FCS Semifinals. He also brought offensive coordinator Mack Leftwich with him.

Defense

If the offense fails in spectacular, and fast, fashion, then this defense is in for a rude awakening. Only four starters are back from a group that improved by 6.7 points and 0.5 yards per game last season. The losses are heavy with four of the top six tacklers gone, but much like on the offensive side, Kinne went shopping in the transfer portal. He plucked a bunch of Power Five transfers for the defensive line and the secondary.

The UIW offense was quite a bit more successful at stopping the pass than the run, so we’ll see what sort of scheme defensive coordinator Jonathan Patke can cook up. Everybody will be learning it all at once, so all of the new faces from the portal aren’t that big of a deal. We will find out quickly, as Texas State opens with Baylor and UTSA.

Outlook

Texas State will put the “Fun” in Fun Belt this season. Kinne’s got two promising QB prospects, and he knows he’s going to have to outscore the defensive shortcomings for the team to win games. This is a team we may have to adjust quickly as the season goes along if the offense is working and the defense is holding up its end. For now, my projection is for 3.22 wins, so I’m well below the 4.5 in the market that is heavily juiced towards the under, but they are favored in three games (-3 or less) and a pick ‘em in another, so we’ll have to see how the season starts.

Pick: Under 4.5

back to news

Live On Air

Streaming Now: The Lombardi Line

play Watch Live radio Listen Live

PRO TIPS & PICKS

The Lombardi LIne: With several high-profile CFB games this weekend, odds for the Heisman and other futures markets could shift drastically. If you have a strong opinion, bet it now to secure the best number. View more tips.

Frank Betti/Mattress Mack: Texas (-17) at Baylor. View more picks.

Close