As college football nears its Sept. 3 kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2015 season, conference by conference. While some conferences may be more entertaining than others, every league has intriguing teams and players to watch. We start with 10 things to know about the Sun Belt.
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1. The newest of the new guys can play. In an FBS transition season for both, neither Georgia Southern nor Appalachian State was eligible to play in the postseason in 2014, because of inexplicable NCAA rules (are there any other kind?). After going 7-4 with a win over Florida in its last FCS season, Georgia Southern went 9-3 overall and undefeated in the Sun Belt upon moving up to FBS, with two of its losses coming by a total of five points to N.C. State and Georgia Tech. The Eagles led the nation in rushing (379.9 yards per game, 7.1 yards per carry, 55 touchdowns), with two 1,000-yard rushers in tailback Matt Breida and quarterback Kevin Ellison, both of whom return as juniors. And after a miserable 1-5 start -- including 52-14 payback from Michigan, seven years later -- Appalachian State won its last six in a row, finishing 6-2 in the Sun Belt and 7-5 overall after a dreadful 4-8 downturn in its final FCS season. Not only were the newcomers competitive in their first FCS season -- not surprising, given that they've been two of the best FCS programs for a while -- but they both improved their records despite moving up a level, which is rare.
2. Appalachian State is one of the nation's most experienced teams. Not surprisingly, the Mountaineers were fairly young, making their FCS transition rough in the first half of last season after their struggles the previous year. But they turned a corner, and now they return 20 starters. That includes junior running back Marcus Cox (1,415 yards, 19 touchdowns), sophomore quarterback Taylor Lamb (2,381 yards, 17 touchdowns, nine interceptions) and 11 of the top 12 tacklers on defense. Everything also seems to break in the Mountaineers' favor: Top Sun Belt contenders Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette all must visit Kidd Brewer Stadium. The only sure loss on their schedule is at Clemson on Sept. 12. We can't overreact to the second-half turnaround-- four of those six wins were against bad Troy, Georgia State, UL Monroe and Idaho teams -- but Appalachian State is a clear player for the conference title and should be a lock to go bowling.
3. The Sun Belt has been in constant flux at the bottom of the FBS realignment food chain, and thus it has welcomed a lot of newcomers. Some are working out better than others. Georgia State, entering its sixth year of football, is still searching for its first win against an FBS opponent. The Panthers have gone 0-15 in Sun Belt games since joining the conference in 2013 after taking the accelerated path to the FBS level. They went winless overall in 2013, then beat only Abilene Christian 38-37 in last year's opener. They do return 17 starters, at least, and they lost to New Mexico State, UL Lafayette and South Alabama by a total of nine points, so not all hope is lost. They badly need to cut down on turnovers and find some more life in the running game, but there are opportunities for a few wins on this schedule with better luck than last year. It's all about taking baby steps forward with this team right now.
4. Fellow FBS newcomers South Alabama and Texas State are faring better. South Alabama began football one year before Georgia State, in 2009, and also joined the Sun Belt one year earlier, in 2012. Things have gone impressively well: After a 2-11 debut, the Jaguars went 6-6 in 2013, then repeated that feat last year, with a Camellia Bowl loss to Bowling Green. They've won three nonconference games the last two years, and they went 5-3 within the league last year. Now comes a major test: Like often happens with new programs, an extremely experienced roster has been decimated, with 30 seniors gone and just five starters returning. This will likely be a rough season, although the Jaguars got a life raft from UAB's implosion, as they signed eight UAB transfers, including starting quarterback Cody Clements. It should keep the Jaguars in the middle of the pack. Unlike South Alabama, Texas State has had a football program forever, slowly moving up to the FBS ranks in 2012 as well. Last year, the Bobcats were the only eligible 7-5 team to get left out of a bowl game. The back seven on defense has rebuilding to do, but the combination of quarterback Tyler Jones and tailback Robert Lowe gives Dennis Franchione's squad a shot at capturing a bowl bid after getting left behind a year ago.
5. Once the king of the Sun Belt, Troy has fallen behind the newcomers. Over 24 seasons, Larry Blakeney coached Troy from Division II to FCS to FBS, winning at least a share of five straight Sun Belt titles from 2006-10. But the Trojans fell off the last four years, and Blakeney stepped aside. The new coach is a familiar face: Neal Brown, who was an assistant for the first four of those title years, including the final two as offensive coordinator. Brown is a logical choice, after stints as the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and Kentucky, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him remake Troy into a conference contender again, relatively soon. Upward mobility is readily available in this league. Still, don't expect it to happen this year There's too much work to do on defense, especially, for this to become a bowl team.
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Top 10 Players
1. Elijah McGuire, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette
2. Matt Breida, RB, Georgia Southern
3. Fredi Knighten, QB, Arkansas State
4. Gerrand Johnson, DT, Louisiana-Monroe
5. David Mims, CB, Texas State
6. Montres Kitchens, S, Troy
7. Doug Middleton, S, Appalachian State
8. Kevin Ellison, QB, Georgia Southern
9. Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, DE, Arkansas State
10. Mykhael Quave, G, Louisiana-Lafayette
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6. Even in a down year, Troy still beat New Mexico State and Idaho. The Aggies and Vandals returned to the Sun Belt after nearly getting left behind by realignment and the collapse of the WAC (they were previously Sun Belt members from 2001-04), and they both won one conference game: Idaho beat New Mexico State, and New Mexico State beat Georgia State. It's a long building process for both the Aggies and Vandals. New Mexico State hasn't gone to a bowl game since 1960, winning four games in Doug Martin's two years thus far. The Aggies return 18 starters and have shown signs of life on offense, but quarterback Tyler Rogers needs a turnaround after throwing 23 interceptions. Idaho went bowling in 2009, but over the last four years, it is a dreadful 5-42. The Vandals are also coming off restrictions because of poor APR performances. Paul Petrino has won two games in his two years as coach, and while the offense has some potential -- especially with receiver Dezmon Epps returning from a one-year hiatus -- the Idaho defense gave up nearly seven yards per play last year, ranking next-to-last nationally.
7. Louisiana Monroe tied for first in the Sun Belt in yards per play allowed last year, but the Warhawks dropped to a disappointing four wins anyway. You may remember a win over Arkansas and losses to Auburn and Baylor by a combined eight points to start 2012 behind quarterback Kolton Browning, but Todd Barry's offenses have lost the plot the last two years, with back-to-back last-place finishes in yards per play in the conference. The run game was dreadful last year, and the offensive line couldn't protect quarterback Pete Thomas either. The O-line remains a huge concern, and Thomas is gone, meaning the questions on offense aren't going away. With a 13-game schedule (including a trip to Hawaii), the Warhawks will again need to rely on their defense in pursuing a winning record. Tackle Gerrand Johnson is a star -- he led the team with 93 tackles -- and eight starters return to a unit that held Georgia Southern to 22 points and Texas A&M to 21. Rapid improvement on offense will be needed, though, if the Warhawks are to get to seven wins, with only five home games, plus trips to Alabama and Georgia.
8. The Warhawks' chief rival, Louisiana-Lafayette, continues to be impressively consistent under Mark Hudspeth. If the Ragin' Cajuns play to their potential, this could be Hudspeth's last season before getting hired elsewhere. Unlike Nebraska, going 9-4 every year with this team is a positive thing. In four years, Hudspeth has finished with four 9-4 records and four New Orleans Bowl victories, turning the Ragin' Cajuns into a remarkably stable team in an unstable league. While quarterback Terrance Broadway is gone, along with five of the team's top six tacklers, this team can compete for the Sun Belt title. Hudspeth gets the benefit of the doubt, and he does have a player to build around in human highlight reel Elijah McGuire, who ran for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns (7.6 yards per carry) and caught 45 passes for 468 yards and two TDs last year.
9. McGuire has competition for most explosive playmaker in the Sun Belt: Working out of Georgia Southern's option offense, Matt Breida averaged 8.7 yards per rush, running 171 times for 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns, with eight runs of 50-plus yards. If that wasn't enough, quarterback Kevin ran 172 times for 1,096 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Eagles clearly have the weapons on offense to do a lot of damage, and they return eight starters to a defense that led the conference in points allowed (23.4 per game). The Sun Belt title could come down to Georgia Southern's offensive line rebuild. This is an explosive ground game that led the nation in rushing, averaging 7.1 yards per attempt. Four starters are gone from the line that helped pave the way, including two first-team All-Sun Belt players, although they're boosted by the addition of transfer guard Roscoe Byrd, a starter for UAB last year. Expect more passing from Willie Fritz's offense this year, but regardless, this will be a prolific offense that will get the bowl bid that was deserved last year. They could put a scare into West Virginia in Week 1.
10. Everybody knows about #MACtion on November weekdays. But there are also #FunBelt Tuesdays in October, with Arkansas State going to South Alabama on Oct. 13 and Louisiana-Lafayette going to Arkansas State on Oct. 20. Those two nationally televised games could decide the Sun Belt race, because Arkansas State looks like the best team in the league. The problem with this year's race? The Red Wolves do not play Georgia Southern (UL Lafayette doesn't either), which means there's a decent chance the conference will end in a tie without a head-to-head result to break it. Appalachian State, of course, plays both at home and could join in or win the league outright, but long-awaited stability could push Arkansas State back to the top. After three straight one-and-done coaches (Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, Bryan Harsin), Arkansas State brings back Blake Anderson, who went 7-6 in his debut, with a fourth straight GoDaddy Bowl bid. The Red Wolves return star quarterback Fredi Knighten (3,277 yards, 24 touchdowns, 779 rushing yards), along with their top two tailbacks, Michael Gordon(6.9 yards per carry) and Johnston White, plus nearly all of their receivers, led by J.D. McKissic, Tres Houston and Dijon Paschal. The defense is unreliable, but this should be a deep, improved offense. The new guys may be taking the conference by storm, but Arkansas State is the best bet to win the Sun Belt, and maybe that will finally mean a bowl trip to somewhere other than Mobile.
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1. Arkansas State 8-4 (7-1)
2. Georgia Southern 8-4 (7-1)
3. Louisiana-Lafayette 8-4 (6-2)
4. Appalachian State 9-3 (6-2)
5. Texas State 6-6 (4-4)
6. Louisiana-Monroe 6-7 (4-4)
7. South Alabama 5-7 (4-4)
8. Troy 3-9 (2-6)
9. Idaho 3-9 (2-6)
10. New Mexico State 2-10 (1-7)
11. Georgia State 1-11 (0-8)