College football betting preview: Sun Belt

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

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The VSiN college football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 131 FBS teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews for the Sun Belt:

APPALACHIAN STATE

The Sun Belt looks like one of the stronger Group of Five conferences this season, and the Mountaineers continue to be the class of the league. As crazy as it sounds, last year’s 10-4 showing was probably viewed as a disappointment within the program as Appalachian State lost to Louisiana in the Sun Belt championship game and gave up 59 points to Western Kentucky in the Boca Raton Bowl. That should add some motivation this season.

Offense

The Mountaineers look strong on offense once again as they return seven starters from a unit that racked up 6.3 yards per play and nearly 35 points per game. The turnover issues that quarterback Chase Brice had at Duke carried over to App State with 11 interceptions, but he also threw 27 touchdown passes and more than 3,300 yards. Brice will have to develop a rapport with some new receivers as his top three pass catchers from last season all moved on.

That could make the Mountaineers a little more reliant on the run, which isn’t a bad idea. The two-headed monster of Camerun Peoples and Nate Noel is back, having rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Peoples hogged the touchdowns with 14, even though Noel had more yards, more yards per carry and more attempts as a true freshman.

Four starters are back on the offensive line as well, as this unit allowed just 17 sacks last year. Head coach Shawn Clark spent the majority of his coaching career working with O-linemen and has fashioned some outstanding groups here. App State has allowed more than 18 sacks only once in the last seven seasons, a streak that should continue, even with a new offensive coordinator in Kevin Barbay (Central Michigan).

Defense

Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year D’Marco Jackson is an enormous loss after racking up 120 tackles, including 13 for loss, and six sacks. In terms of recruiting, App State does much better than the other Sun Belt programs, but a talent like Jackson who went in the fifth round to the Saints is tough to replace. The Mountaineers allowed only 3.7 yards per carry and just 22.1 points per game.

Two other starters return at linebacker in the 3-4 scheme, including Nick Hamilton, who led the team with 11 of their 37 sacks. The secondary is where the Mountaineers look the most vulnerable, mostly due to a lack of experience. The defensive backs were able to offset Brice’s interceptionitis by having 15 picks of their own. We’ll see if they can come close to that this season.

Outlook

This is a model program as far as Group of Five schools go. Appalachian State recruits well for the conference but also winds up being an attractive place for Power 5 transfers. The Mountaineers always have excellent running backs and are generally better than opponents in the trenches. This is a beautiful setting for football and the program is well-represented on game days. Another slight advantage is that Boone, N.C., is at the highest elevation of any DI program east of the Mississippi, which can make it an even tougher place to play.

The schedule is a little tricky with trips to Coastal Carolina and Sun Belt newcomer Marshall, as well as nonconference games against North Carolina and Texas A&M, leading to a win total line of 8.5. My projections put the Mountaineers at 9.13 wins and I do have them a clear favorite against UNC in Week 1 and slight favorites in those two road conference games.

PICK: Over 8.5 (-120)

 

ARKANSAS STATE

Arkansas State has been a place for young coaches to graduate from coordinator to head coach and move on to somewhere else, like Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin. Rather than risk a similar outcome after the program amicably parted ways with Blake Anderson, the Red Wolves picked head coaching veteran Butch Jones for his first head coaching job since 2017. The result? A 2-10 season. There’s only one way to go in 2022.

Offense

Florida State transfer James Blackman mostly played backup QB to Layne Hatcher, but this year, it’s his offense. Blackman posted just an 8-4 TD-INT ratio while completing under 60% of his passes. The offense passed for 314 yards per game but also trailed a ton, so throwing was really the only option. Given that the Red Wolves only beat Central Arkansas and Louisiana-Monroe, you can see how empty a lot of those passing yards were.

The offensive line play was terrible last season. Arkansas State ran for only 2.8 yards per carry and gave up 48 sacks. Four new starters are on the line, including Mekhi Butler, who was a first-team All-American at Iowa Western. Parking cones would have done a better job last season, so some new faces could really help, as Jones attacked the JUCO ranks.

The Red Wolves could be in line for a big upgrade at running back as well. Former Ohio State recruit Brian Snead transferred to Austin Peay and rushed for 5.5 and 5.4 yards per carry, respectively, in his two seasons with the Governors. No back had more than 455 yards last season, so the bar is low here as well.

Defense

As bad as the offense was, the defense was worse. The Red Wolves allowed more than 500 yards per game, including an obscene 6.4 yards per carry. Opponents managed 7.2 yards per play against Rob Harley’s defense as it became painfully clear that there was a lack of talent on the roster. Only Duke allowed more yards per game and only UMass and New Mexico State allowed more yards per play.

Some Power 5 transfers have joined the defense and star linebacker Kivon Bennett is back, but this group needs a ton of work after allowing the most plays of 30 or more yards (49). Arkansas State allowed 15 plays of 60 or more yards and 10 plays of 70 or more yards, far and away the worst in the nation in both categories. The Red Wolves play at Ohio State in Week 2.

Arkansas State did show some improvement late in the season, but that was after the schedule really leveled off against bad teams.

Outlook

Last year’s schedule featured Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina from the East Division. This year’s schedule does not have either of those teams, so this beleaguered defense at least gets a break there. Three of the first four games are on the road, including stops in Columbus and Memphis, which won’t be any fun, but the rest of the schedule is manageable, except for the trip to Lafayette to face Louisiana.

With a season win total line of 5, you can see how weak the schedule is. My projection for Arkansas State is still just 4.1 wins, as they’ll be favored at home against Grambling, Louisiana-Monroe and UMass. They could steal a couple of road games in short-dog roles at Southern Miss and Texas State if the transfers inject some life into the program, but 5-7 looks like the ceiling here.

PICK: Under 5 (-120)

 

COASTAL CAROLINA

Back-to-back 11-win seasons put the Chanticleers on the college football map. Staying in the national discussion will be difficult, though. We’ve seen Group of Five teams rise to some sort of prominence, but it ends up being short-lived. Head coach Jamey Chadwell just might be enough of a difference-maker to make to happen, but this season will tell us a lot.

Offense

Star quarterback Grayson McCall is back for his third season at the helm, but the Chanticleers are replacing a lot on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Coastal returns just four starters and no wide receivers. McCall’s top targets – Jaivon Heiligh, Isaiah Likely and Kameron Brown – combined for 161 catches, 2,645 yards and 22 touchdowns. That’s 71% of the receptions, 76.5% of the receiving yards and 69% of the touchdowns.

Coastal’s offense uses a ton of pre-snap motion to confuse the defense and create mismatches. That trio was very adept at the Chadwell offense, and now McCall will have to work with a new group trying to understand a very complex offense. On the plus side, the running game looks very strong again. Leading rusher Shermari Jones was the only 1,000-yard back, but Braydon Bennett averaged 8.6 yards per carry on 74 attempts and Reese White had 7.2 yards per pop on 72 rushes.

Two starters return on the offensive line, but one is Willie Lampkin, who looks to be moving from guard to center. This will be a fascinating season for the Chanticleers to see if it was more about the talent or the scheme. With McCall back, I actually think this offense will be more impressive than people think, though 7.7 yards per play might be a big ask.

Defense

The offense may have to be really good because this defense has experienced heavy losses. The team’s top five tacklers are all gone, and seven of the top eight have moved on. The one returnee of that group is leading sack man Josaiah Stewart, who had 12.5 sacks as a true freshman. The front seven will be young and will rely on some depth from transfers.

The secondary is also an area of concern, but D’Jordan Strong, the lone returning starter, was one of the conference’s top defensive backs. This is a defense that allowed just 5.3 yards per play and held opponents under 200 passing yards. They’ve also held the opposition under 150 rushing yards the last two seasons.

A program like this isn’t exactly loaded with top-tier talent, but the outstanding coaching staff has maximized the skill set of each player. Fourth-year defensive coordinator Chad Staggs took a defense that allowed 7.3 yards per play in 2018 and shaved that down by 2 full yards over a three-year span.

Outlook

This season could be an interesting case study in returning starters/production. Was it the players who made Coastal Carolina so successful or the scheme? Studies in both college football and the NFL have shown how much of a positive impact pre-snap motion has on success rates, and the Chants use it a lot on both sides of the ball. By moving their linebackers and defensive backs, Coastal has been able to generate a lot of explosive plays on defense. Opposing offensive linemen don’t know where rushers are coming from and quarterbacks have a hard time with their pre-snap reads.

Coastal opens with a really intriguing game against Army and plays two short-week intradivision conference games against Georgia State and Appalachian State. The schedule also includes a random road trip to Virginia on Nov. 19. Even with the sweeping personnel changes, I believe in this program and the scheme, as my win total projection is 8.8 with a line of 8 with Under juice.

PICK: Over 8 (+ 120)

 

GEORGIA SOUTHERN

No team in college football will look more different than the Eagles. Hiring former USC head coach Clay Helton means the triple-option is gone in Statesboro. In fact, Helton hired former Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis, so this will clearly be a pass-heavy offense. With a collection of players recruited for a very different system, this could be a long year for the Eagles.

Offense

The new scheme meant that Georgia Southern had to hit the transfer portal to find quarterbacks in Kyle Vantrease from Buffalo and Kyle Toole from Troy. Toole has only two career pass attempts, so Vantrease, who was a three-star QB in the class of 2017, will be the starter. He posted an 8-6 TD-INT ratio in 10 games last season for the Bulls and has completed over 60% of his passes the last two seasons.

Burning questions are all over the place at wide receiver for the Eagles. They recruited guys who could block and catch the occasional pass with an offense that ran the ball more than 66% of the time last season. This program has passed for more than 150 yards per game just once in eight seasons as an FBS school. Size is a major issue at WR and the offensive line has to learn a new scheme.

This is a team that went 3-9 last season and trailed a ton, so the Eagles actually threw more than normal, allowed 28 sacks and managed just 147 passing yards per game.

Defense

In the past, Georgia Southern’s defense has been protected from getting too exposed because of the reliance on the run and some time-of-possession advantages. Last season, it all fell apart, though, as the Eagles allowed 6.4 yards per play and 289 passing yards per game. With an offense likely to have a lot of three-and-outs, this defense is going to be under constant duress.

New defensive coordinator Will Harris has never called plays before, but his specialty lies in coaching defensive backs, which he did at Washington and San Jose State. This is a very young, moldable secondary, but one without a lot of depth. The Eagles forced only five interceptions last season, and another season with a negative turnover margin looms.

The offensive overhaul is going to take a toll on this defense, and growing pains may be an understatement.

Outlook

Trips to Nebraska and UAB in September will be tricky, but home games against Morgan State and Ball State may be confidence boosters before going into a brutal Sun Belt schedule. Not only is Georgia Southern in the better division, but one of its draws from the West Division is Louisiana.

The market line for Georgia Southern is 4.5, but my projections have only 3.06 wins. This is one of my biggest discrepancies, and five wins would be an unbelievable coaching job from Helton. I have the Eagles favored in only two games (Morgan State, Ball State).

PICK: Under 4.5 (-135)

 

GEORGIA STATE

Head coach Shawn Elliott has done an extremely impressive job at Georgia State. The Panthers are riding a three-year bowl streak and have won the last two by 49 combined points. Coastal Carolina was missing star quarterback Grayson McCall, but Georgia State went on the road and beat a Top 25 team for the first time. With higher standards come higher expectations, which is what Georgia State faces this season.

Offense

The Panthers stuck with QB Cornelius Brown for the first two games of the season against Army and North Carolina and managed just 448 yards of offense and 30 first downs. That’s when Furman transfer Darren Grainger took over and wound up posting a 19-4 TD-INT ratio. Georgia State’s offense goes through the stable of running backs, but Grainger’s productivity gave the group another dimension.

Grainger was also the third-leading rusher behind Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams, who averaged 5.0 and 6.7 yards per carry, respectively. As a team, the Panthers rushed for 227 yards per game and 5 yards per carry. Only 10 teams ran the ball more often than Georgia State, and three of them run the triple-option.

The run will be featured prominently again, as Georgia State returns eight starters, including four offensive linemen. With a dual-threat QB, the Panthers allowed only 23 sacks and were 15 in sack differential. Grainger had only 228 pass attempts against 133 rushes. Interestingly, Georgia State’s new offensive coordinator is the former wide receivers coach, Trent McKnight. Could we see more passing this season?

Defense

Seven starters return from the best defense Elliott has had in Atlanta. The Panthers allowed just 5.4 yards per play and just 3.5 yards per carry. Life in the Sun Belt can be tough to grade because there are some very strong teams and some awful teams, but it is worth noting that the Panthers lost by only 10 at Auburn, by four at Louisiana and had that win over Coastal Carolina.

One of the rare things for a Group of Five program is to keep a coaching staff together. Defensive coordinator Nate Fuqua has done a masterful job rebuilding this defense after some heavy losses in 2017, but he’s chosen to stay, despite having a top-five defense at Furman back in 2016 and some solid seasons here.

The Panthers didn’t lose many productive players because they rotate in a lot of defenders. Nine players had at least 40 tackles and 19 players had at least 20 tackles, so they really prioritize getting everybody reps.

Outlook

Georgia State faces a tough schedule. The season opens with a trip to take on Elliott’s former employer, South Carolina. The Panthers also host North Carolina and play at Army, Appalachian State and conference newcomers James Madison and Marshall. The East Division is really top-heavy and Georgia State will have to fare well in those head-to-head meetings.

Because of the schedule, we’re seeing heavy Under juice on the win total line of 7.5. My projections say 7.03 wins, even though I have Georgia State rated right around Coastal and Marshall. This is a really solid team that just has a tough schedule.

PICK: Under 7.5 (-150)

 

JAMES MADISON

The time finally came for James Madison to make the leap to FBS. The Dukes have 18 playoff appearances and two FCS championships, not to mention 10 conference titles. This has been a top-five FCS program in five of the last six seasons, and it finished No. 9 in 2018, the only season since 2015 in which the Dukes failed to win at least a share of the conference title. They’ve lost in the FCS semifinals the last two seasons under head coach Curt Cignetti and lost in the championship game in 2019.

How does that translate to FBS? We’re about to find out.

Offense

Every stat comes with a few grains of salt for a program that was so dominant in the FCS ranks but is stepping up to FBS. The Sun Belt makes a lot of sense for the Dukes, but being placed in the stacked East Division will represent a nice first-year test.

Cole Johnson threw for 3,779 yards and posted a spectacular 41-4 TD-INT ratio, but he is gone, leaving the quarterback job to Colorado State transfer Todd Centeio and backup Billy Atkins. Atkins was a redshirt freshman last season who had 14 pass attempts, so he isn’t very experienced, but he probably has a lot more upside than Centeio, who had a 16-11 TD-INT ratio for the Rams.

The QB who wins the starting job won’t have leading receiver Antwane Wells, who transferred to South Carolina after catching 83 passes for 1,250 yards, but will have Kris Thornton, who also caught 83 passes for 1,097 yards. Terrance Greene had more than 2,000 receiving yards in four seasons at Monmouth. Leading rusher Latrele Palmer had 5 yards per carry, but Johnson was the second-leading rusher.

Defense

Johnson isn’t the only huge loss for the program. Defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman is now the linebackers coach at Rutgers. The offense was potent for JMU, but this is a group that has consistently won with defense. The Dukes have not allowed more than 16.5 points per game in any of the last five seasons and have not allowed more than 4.7 yards per play in that span.

There are only four returning starters on defense, as the top two tacklers are gone and top defensive back Greg Ross also left. The secondary will have to be rebuilt and the front seven, which has allowed just 2.6 yards per carry each of the last three seasons, now faces better offensive lines with some new starters.

Dominance in the CAA is one thing. Dominance at the FBS level will be another, especially on defense. We really have no way of knowing how the Dukes stack up until they get on the field, but the transition to FBS coming with heavy personnel losses makes it even tougher to guess.

Outlook

James Madison is ineligible to win the Sun Belt in this transitional year but draws two of the worst teams from the West Division in Arkansas State and Texas State. The Dukes also play Norfolk State and have a nonconference date with Louisville. James Madison is playing only 11 games this season but a full eight-game Sun Belt schedule.

My projection over 11 games is for 4.63 wins, so the market line of 6.5 is well below my numbers. Perhaps I’m too low with the transition to FBS, but this team lost a ton from last season. Going 7-4 seems like a really, really big ask.

PICK: Under 6.5 (-150)

 

LOUISIANA

The Ragin’ Cajuns finished as the No. 16 team in the nation after a 13-1 season that included a Sun Belt championship and a win in the New Orleans Bowl. With 34 wins over three seasons, head coach Billy Napier fielded a lot of calls about job openings and wound up taking the gig at Florida. That leaves former Cajuns QB and co-offensive coordinator Michael Desormeaux in charge of a team with lofty expectations and one of the softest schedules in the country.

Offense

Desormeaux’s knowledge of the QB position could prove invaluable this season. Levi Lewis leaves as the school’s No. 2 passer of all time, just 13 yards behind Jake Delhomme. Lewis stayed extremely healthy throughout his tenure, so there is minimal experience behind him. Chandler Fields has played in parts of 13 games but with only 122 career passing yards. Fresno State transfer Ben Wooldridge and New Orleans-born sophomore Lance Legendre, who was a four-star recruit in 2019 and transferred in before last season, give this group a lot of potential but not many reps.

Louisiana has always relied heavily on the running game and will be able to do so again with Chris Smith back after 855 yards and a 5.6 average. The top three wide receivers are back as well, though the Ragin’ Cajuns really spread the ball around and a lot of guys play. This offense shouldn’t take that big of a step back, especially with a schedule that ranks as arguably the weakest in FBS.

The QB questions will be answered as the season goes along, but those on the offensive line may be bigger, as only one starter returns. Fortunately, the new starters are familiar with Desormeaux’s offense.

Defense

The defense had its best season ever, allowing just 18.5 points per game. That unit featured 10 returning starters, and now there are only five along with a new defensive coordinator. LaMar Morgan was the cornerbacks coach in 2019-20, so he’s a familiar name for the upperclassmen at least.

Louisiana was 15 in turnover margin last season and 10 in 2020, so there could be some negative regression in that department, especially with a new quarterback, but this is an aggressive, ball-hawking defense that tied for 19th with 23 takeaways, including 10 interceptions. The Ragin’ Cajuns recovered 13 of 19 opponents’ fumbles, which is where the turnover regression comes into play.

The top three tacklers are all gone, as well as top pass rusher Chauncey Manac, who had 10.5  of the team’s 39 sacks. However, three of the returning starters are in the secondary, and Louisiana usually has big leads, forcing the opposition to throw.

Outlook

This schedule is Charmin-soft. While the Ragin’ Cajuns do play Florida State on Nov. 19, the other nonconference games are against FCS Southeastern Louisiana, Eastern Michigan and Rice. The Sun Belt’s West Division is clearly the weaker of the two, and Louisiana draws a rebuilding Georgia Southern and a midweek road game at Marshall, so no Coastal Carolina, no Appalachian State and no Georgia State.

Louisiana has a win total line of 8.5 and a little bit of Over juice. My projection is for 9.02 wins, as I think the QB position will be in good hands with Desormeaux and a lot of talent. Napier was a great head coach, but this program just has a lot more talent than any other team in the division, a soft schedule and will be clearly favored in 10 games.

PICK: Over 8.5 (-120)

 

LOUISIANA-MONROE

Louisiana-Monroe pulled off two of the biggest upsets in college football last season. The Warhawks beat Troy as a 23.5-point dog and also knocked off Liberty as a 33-point pup. Fifteen-year veteran Terry Bowden is back for another go with a team that far surpassed expectations in going 4-8 with close losses to LSU and Louisiana late in the season. The talent isn’t much better, but the feeling of belief has to carry over from last year’s overachieving bunch.

Offense

The Warhawks return eight starters on offense, including quarterback Chandler Rogers, who had the best numbers of the four who took snaps last season. He posted a 9-3 TD-INT ratio and completed just under 63% of his passes. He was also the team’s third-leading rusher behind Andrew Henry and Malik Jackson, who are among those back for this season.

The offense was actually worse from a yards-per-play standpoint than the 2021 team that went 0-10, but the Warhawks took better care of the football, which allowed the defense to take a major step forward. Explosive plays are few and far between for this group as it averaged just 4.6 yards per play, but smarter decisions with Rogers behind center were a big help.

Matt Kubik is the new offensive coordinator after a couple of years away. He was the OC from 2016-19 when ULM eclipsed 30 points per game twice. Miracles aren’t coming for this offense, but baby steps are never a bad thing.

Defense

Vic Koenning is back as a defensive coordinator. He resigned in 2019 at West Virginia after allegations of player mistreatment, but those were never confirmed. Koenning has had a lot of stops as a defensive coordinator, including Clemson, Illinois and Troy. He should be able to build off of last season’s improvements for this unit, where the Warhawks allowed 8.5 fewer points per game and 0.5 fewer yards per play.

The defense still struggled mightily against the pass, allowing 290 yards per game, but Koenning’s specialty has been working with defensive backs, so this seems like a good fit. He also has something of a blank slate with only four returning starters and a whole lot of transfers. Four of last season’s five top tacklers are among those back for another season at least.

Outlook

Life as a small school can be tough. The Warhawks rank 120th in enrollment among FBS programs, which is how they end up playing Texas and Alabama in the same season. Drawing Coastal Carolina and Georgia State from the East Division also makes for a tough assignment in terms of cross-division play.

The win total line was set at 2.5 for the Warhawks with a challenging slate. My numbers are a little higher, though I don’t power-rate FCS opponents, and ULM won’t be an overwhelming favorite against Nicholls State, so 2.5 is probably a fair projection. I’m not sure the Warhawks can get to three victories this season.

PICK: Under 2.5 (+ 105)

 

MARSHALL

For the first time since 2004, the Thundering Herd are not in Conference USA, as this will be the program’s first season in the Sun Belt. This looks like a step up given how strong the East Division is, and it will be an interesting year for the Herd under second-year head coach Charles Huff. Marshall played at Appalachian State last season and lost 31-30. The rematch just might be for a division title this year.

Offense

The play of quarterback Grant Wells wasn’t all that special, but there are no guarantees about his replacements. He threw for more than 5,600 yards in two seasons but posted just a 27-22 TD-INT ratio. Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi looks to get the first crack with a bunch of freshmen and redshirt freshmen on the depth chart behind him in new offensive coordinator Clint Trickett’s offense.

Marshall had a lot of big plays, averaging 6.3 yards per play, but mustered only 33 points per game, with four games of at least 44 points. This was a feast-or-famine offense, and the leaner times came against the better teams. Rasheen Ali is an excellent sophomore running back coming off a season with 23 rushing touchdowns and more than 1,400 yards, so we could see the Herd rely more on “thunder” and less on “lightning.”

But we’ll have to see because Trickett was the passing game coordinator and was a QB coach at Florida Atlantic in 2020. Marshall has some good talent at wide receiver, including super sophomore Corey Gammage, who is 6-foot-4 and caught 78 passes last season. Ali was actually second in receptions.

Defense

Given that Marshall was -7 in turnover margin last season, the fact that the defense held opponents below 24 points per game was rather impressive. The rush defense was a little suspect with 189 yards allowed per game, but the pass defense was excellent with a 54.7% completion percentage against. Six starters are back, including the team’s top two tacklers and the majority of last season’s 40 sacks.

Second-year defensive coordinator Lance Guidry is well-versed in coaching defensive backs, and that looks to be the unit with the most question marks this season. If the rush defense fails to improve, Marshall’s defensive numbers may take a hit. The Thundering Herd lost by only one to Appalachian State but gave up 566 yards in that game.

Louisiana also racked up nearly 500 yards in the New Orleans Bowl to finish out the season. Both are on the schedule for Marshall, though there are some teams that are more like Conference USA opponents as well.

Outlook

Marshall has a tough schedule in Year 1 in the conference because the East Division is very solid and Louisiana is one of the draws from the West. The Herd also have a daunting road game in South Bend against Notre Dame sandwiched between Norfolk State and Bowling Green. Plus, Marshall will get a first look at Jamey Chadwell’s motion-heavy Coastal Carolina offense with the Chanticleers on extra rest.

Marshall was a solid team in C-USA and will be a solid Sun Belt squad as well. I have Marshall projected for 7.66 wins against a line of 7 with some Over juice, but Colombi and the QBs are a big question mark. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see 8-4 with Coastal Carolina and Louisiana losing a lot of talent from last season, but 6-6 wouldn’t be a stunner either.

PICK: Over 7 (-135)

 

OLD DOMINION

The situation at Old Dominion wasn’t an exact parallel of what happened at UAB, where football was actually taken away for two seasons, but the Monarchs and first-time head coach Ricky Rahne seemed to benefit from not playing in 2020. Rahne took over a 1-11 team and led that group to a very respectable 6-7 mark and a bowl game appearance in 2021. ODU needed to run the table after a 1-6 start and did exactly that for the program’s second bowl berth. Is another surprising season on the horizon?

Offense

The 2019 Monarchs managed just 16.3 points per game and 4.1 yards per play, so any sort of offensive competency was going to be an upgrade, but Old Dominion vastly exceeded expectations. Redshirt freshman Hayden Wolff started the final seven games and posted a 10-7 TD-INT ratio with a 62.8% completion rate. Old Dominion gained nearly 400 yards per game in that stretch and went 5-1, finishing the season with 27.6 PPG and 5.3 yards per play.

Ten starters are back, including the 6-5 Wolff, who has a 1,000-yard receiver at his disposal in Ali Jennings and a highly productive tight end in Zack Kuntz, who caught 73 passes. Kuntz, who followed Rahne from Penn State, is 6-8 and was the No. 4 TE recruit in the class of 2018, but he hardly ever saw the field with three catches for 26 yards as a Nittany Lion.

New offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude has a surprising amount of talent to work with, including four returning starters on the line. Rahne was a quarterback at Cornell and was Penn State’s OC for two seasons. This group could take another step forward this season with more experience and certainty at QB.

Defense

While the Monarchs return basically their entire offense, there are some losses on defense that could play a role. Linebacker Jordan Young left as the program’s all-time leading tackler, even without the 2020 season. Defensive back Roger Cray led the team with 12 pass breakups, and this was a shoddy pass defense that allowed 250 yards per game and a completion rate of 62.4%. Old Dominion had only seven interceptions against 26 passing touchdowns.

The Monarchs just didn’t get much pressure, even against a really weak schedule. The offense got better as the season went along, but the defense gave up more than 400 yards in four of the last five games. The move to the Sun Belt may not be a short-term positive either, as the Monarchs reside in the East Division with some potent offenses.

Defensive coordinator Blake Seiler now has to scheme and plan for a brand-new slate of opponents, with the exception of Marshall, which outgained the Monarchs by nearly 100 yards in last year’s game.

Outlook

To fully evaluate Old Dominion means figuring out if it was a case of a really young team getting better or a bad year in Conference USA with some games that came at the right time. Florida International had quit on the season when Old Dominion won 47-24. Middle Tennessee went through four starting QBs because of injury. Charlotte was so bad at season’s end that the Monarchs were -9.5 and favored for just the second time against an FBS team during the season.

Credit to Virginia Tech and Virginia for playing an in-state little brother to give Old Dominion some paycheck games. It’s always cool to see that, though those are tough games for the Monarchs to win. I have ODU favored in only three games, but they’re also a double-digit dog only three times. My projection is for 4.81 wins with a line of 4.5, but that implies some conference upsets, and it’s a tough Sun Belt schedule.

PICK: Under 4.5 (-120)

 

SOUTH ALABAMA

The bar is pretty low at South Alabama, but last season’s 5-7 showing still felt like a major disappointment. The Jaguars have a strong coaching staff with former Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack as the head coach (youngest in FBS at 35) and a very accomplished offensive coordinator in Major Applewhite. Even with two experienced quarterbacks and one of the best Group of Five receivers in the nation, the Jaguars fell short of a bowl berth. With 16 returning starters, they’ll give it another go.

Offense

South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley was underwhelming in his one season in Mobile as he posted a 17-8 TD-INT ratio and fell short of 2,500 yards on 303 attempts. The Jaguars have another transfer in town with Carter Bradley from Toledo, but Desmond Trotter is still there with a 24-9 TD-INT ratio in his three years with the program. The position looks to be in good hands.

However, star wide receiver Jalen Tolbert is not there. He was drafted in the third round by Dallas as the program’s all-time leading receiver and ranks third all time in Sun Belt history. His loss is immeasurable coming off of 85 catches and 1,474 yards, which accounted for almost 48% of the team’s passing yards. Senior Jalen Wayne (630, 11.9) and a bevy of underclassmen will try to fill the void.

The running game has been an area of concern for USA over the last two seasons, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry in 2020 and 3.0 in 2021. La’Damian Webb rushed for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns at Jones College last season after being recruited to Florida State in 2020. He’ll run behind an offensive line that cut its sacks allowed from 40 in 2020 to 29 in 2021 and returns four starters.

Defense

This is the area that really improved last season. Wommack is a defensive-minded guy, and defensive coordinator Corey Batoon had three seasons of experience calling plays before taking this job. The Jaguars improved by only 0.9 points per game but allowed 81 fewer yards and shaved off an entire yard per play from the previous season.

The Jaguars went from 13 sacks to 32 and from seven interceptions to 15. In fact, South Alabama’s defense had more interceptions than touchdown passes allowed (14). Eight starters are back,l and the coaches plucked two replacement starters in the secondary from Ole Miss.

The losses are pretty nominal for the defense in Year 2 under Wommack and Batoon and more improvement seems likely.

Outlook

The Jaguars play at Central Michigan and UCLA in nonconference action and then open Sun Belt play with Louisiana. They avoid the best teams in the East, though, and draw Old Dominion at home and a rebuilding Georgia Southern program on the road. This is a pretty kind schedule, all things considered.

If this program takes a big leap in the second year of the current regime, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it can contend for the division title with a schedule like this. The likely road loss at Louisiana makes it tough, but I think this program goes bowling. My projection is for 6.34 wins with a win total of 5.5. This is one of my favorite win total bets in the Sun Belt.

PICK: Over 5.5 (-110)

 

SOUTHERN MISS

The Golden Eagles won at least six games every season from 2015-19. They’ve won six games combined over the last two seasons. Only four of those wins have come against FBS competition. The move from Conference USA to the weaker division of the Sun Belt seems to be a great move for a fledgling program, but second-year head coach Will Hall has a ton of building left to do.

Offense

The Southern Miss offense was downright offensive last season. The Golden Eagles managed just 17.7 points per game and 4.2 yards per play. They allowed 44 sacks and rushed for just 3.1 yards per carry. There are nine starters back for Year 2, but the numbers were so bad last season that it doesn’t seem to be a positive.

Five quarterbacks threw at least 11 passes last season and 10 players took a snap behind center. The position was ravaged by injury, and the battle among Ty Keyes, Trey Lowe and Jake Lange could linger through the season. This is also a spread-option offense, which means the QB needs to be a dual threat, making the chances of injury higher.

The backs and receivers are fine, though the offensive line needs to be substantially better to give those guys a chance to succeed. Four starters are back from one of the worst units in the country, so we’ll see if the second season goes better. Frank Gore Jr. is the primary running back coming off of 4.5 yards per carry, but plenty of others get a lot of touches and the depth is solid at that position.

Defense

All things considered, the defense really hung in there. The offense provided zero help, and the Golden Eagles were -8 in turnover margin. Given that this was also a bottom-30 team on special teams, the fact that Austin Armstrong’s defense allowed only 27.9 points per game and 360 yards per game was rather impressive.

That being said, Southern Miss was tied with Air Force for the fourth-fewest plays against. The offense could’ve been timed by a sundial, which kept the defense on the sideline a fair amount. The Golden Eagles actually allowed 5.8 yards per play and opponents completed better than 60% of their passes. Only Navy, Army and Western Michigan faced fewer plays, and all three of them are ball-control offenses as well.

If the offense improves, this defense has a good chance to get better, too. There are seven starters back, including all of the top tacklers. The move to the Sun Belt West won’t hurt either.

Outlook

While the West Division is very weak, Southern Miss draws Coastal Carolina and Georgia State from the East. It’ll also play Liberty, Miami and face Hall’s former employer, Tulane, on the road in Week 4. Year 2 improvement is coming for this team, especially with better health and more consistency at QB, but it may not translate into a lot of wins. One of Southern Miss’s division home games is against Louisiana on a short week.

The win total line is 4.5 with heavy juice on the Over, and my projections agree with 4.97 wins as the number. Southern Miss will be favored in four games, so they’ll have to find at least one upset. We’ll find out where they stand in that opener against a Liberty team that lost a lot.

PICK: Over 4.5 (-150)

 

TEXAS STATE

The Bobcats joined FBS in 2012 as a member of the WAC. In their first three seasons as an FBS program, they won 17 games. Over their next seven seasons in FBS, they’ve won just 19 games. Expectations are low as head coach Jake Spavital enters his fourth year in San Marcos, but the seat will start getting hot very quickly if he can’t at least help the team to five wins for the first time since 2014.

Offense

Spavital was supposed to inject some life into the offense, which has happened to a degree, but the Bobcats managed only 343 yards per game last season. Of course, that was better than any season from 2016-19, but not up to the level that the administration expected to see from a guy who was the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, Cal and West Virginia before his first head coaching gig.

QB Layne Hatcher transferred in from Arkansas State, where he passed for more than 7,400 yards and 55 touchdowns in three seasons. He should be an instant upgrade over Brady McBride and Tyler Vitt, who combined for a 15-12 TD-INT ratio last season. The Bobcats do have their top two receivers back and added some depth through the transfer portal. Texas State has not had a positive turnover differential since 2014.

Calvin Hill rushed for 5.6 yards per carry behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Baby steps for this offense wouldn’t be enough to have a strong season, but competent QB play and another year of growth from the offensive line would help.

Defense

Texas State forced only three interceptions last season, as opponents completed over 65% of their passes for the second straight season. There has been no semblance of a pass rush under defensive coordinator Zac Spavital as the Bobcats have managed just 43 sacks over the last three seasons. For reference, eight FBS teams had 43 sacks last season alone.

The Bobcats did go from 6.3 yards per play allowed in 2020 to 5.8 in 2021, along with a big drop in yards per carry allowed with nine starters back. This season, Texas State returns only five starters but attacked the transfer portal, and many of the recruits from the previous regime are aging out of the program.

Improvement on the turnover front would go a long way. Texas State lost four games by single digits, including a nine-point loss to Baylor in Week 1, but also lost by eight as a 10.5-point favorite to Incarnate Word.

Outlook

The schedule is pretty soft, all things considered. The season opens with a road trip to Reno to take on a rebuilding Nevada program. Baylor is also on the schedule, but home games against FIU and Houston Baptist are winnable. The Bobcats do draw Appalachian State from the East but get the Mountaineers and West favorite Louisiana at home.

The win total line is 4.5 with some Over juice, but my projection calls for 4.45 wins, so I’m on the low end for a team that had four wins by 18 total points. I have Texas State favored in only three games.

PICK: Under 4.5 (+ 115)

 

TROY

The Trojans were a powerhouse from 2016-18 with 31 wins and three consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins. Having won only 15 games over the last three seasons, the program moved on from head coach Chip Lindsey and made another Kentucky hire with Jon Sumrall. The last one worked out with Neal Brown, so we’ll see if this one has the same impact for a program that badly needs a spark.

Offense

Brown was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky, and Sumrall is the defensive coordinator, so that much is different, but Troy really needs to figure things out offensively. This is a group that managed just 22.8 points per game and 5.2 yards per play. Injuries haven’t helped, but quarterback Gunnar Watson needs to be better and Troy needs to get back to running the football more effectively.

The Trojans averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry in those three double-digit winning seasons. They had 4.3 in Lindsey’s first season but just 3.4 and 3.3 the last two seasons. Leading rusher Kimani Vidal is back after running for 4.6 yards per carry, and redshirt freshman Jamontez Woods showed flashes with 5 yards per carry on 47 tries.

Ultimately, the QB play needs to be better to help the running game. This is a team with nine returning starters from a bad offense, but Watson does get favorite target Tez Johnson and also UAB transfer RaJae’ Johnson-Sanders, who was with new offensive coordinator Joe Craddock last year in Birmingham. The Trojans return four starters on the offensive line but are coming off of a season with 32 sacks allowed, the most in at least 15 seasons.

Defense

Sumrall inherits a very experienced defense that returns nine starters and is loaded with upperclassmen. Only one of last season’s top nine tacklers left the program. Sumrall is also back with the program that gave him his start at the FBS level during the Brown years, as he was the linebackers coach and special teams coordinator, which means he has recruiting ties in the area.

The Trojans stacked up well at the line of scrimmage last season with 39 sacks and only 3.5 yards allowed per carry. It will be up to defensive coordinator Shiel Wood, who was most recently at Army, to maintain the strong level of play from the defense as the offense works out some kinks. Troy allowed fewer than 200 passing yards per game last season, and there are some extremely bad offenses in the Sun Belt West Division.

Troy was 63rd in scoring defense despite finishing 24th in total defense. This was the 16th-ranked defense on third down and tied for 14th in takeaways. Special teams were a huge problem in the field-position battle, which was part of the reason Troy allowed 26.1 points per game.

Outlook

Given that Sumrall has some experience in coaching special teams, that area should improve. If the offense also improves, Troy could be in for a really strong season, despite road games at Ole Miss, Appalachian State, Western Kentucky and Louisiana. The Trojans drew a very tough schedule for being in the far weaker division.

The win total line is 6.5, and my numbers call for 6.4 wins. With the tougher part of the schedule early and a random home game against Army right after playing Louisiana, I think the Trojans will have a hard time getting to seven wins, even if they look better on the field and in the box score.

PICK: Under 6.5 (-110)

 

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