With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We start with 10 things to know about the Sun Belt.
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1. The Sun Belt is in a strange transition year. With the addition of Coastal Carolina, it will have 12 teams with no divisions and no conference championship game. Next year, it will kick out Idaho and New Mexico State, shrink to 10 teams, split into two five-team divisions and play a conference title game. It's moving in the opposite direction of the typical league, which sets up a weird 2017 featuring unfortunate scheduling. With 12 teams playing eight conference games, it's hard to avoid unbalanced matchups. In this case, conference favorite Appalachian State plays neither Arkansas State nor Troy. Appalachian State and Arkansas State were co-champions at 7-1 last year, when they also didn't play each other, and Troy is a conference favorite again after winning 10 games in 2016. Regardless of the schedule, Appalachian State would be the favorite, but the way the schedule sets up makes it just about impossible to predict that the Mountaineers will do any worse than sharing the league crown.
2. Idaho and New Mexico State both have some reasons for positivity in their final year in the league as they seek to go out on a high note, relatively speaking. Predictably, Idaho has more reasons for hope than New Mexico State. Idaho went 9-4 and went bowling last year, for the first time since 2009. Before it drops to the FCS, it has a chance to go bowling again despite attrition that includes losing nine of the top 15 tacklers and five of the top six pass catchers. The biggest reason for Vandals optimism? The return of QB Matt Linehan, a 6-foot-3, 239-pound senior with some pro potential. He passed for 3,184 yards last year and torched Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, leading Idaho to a 61-50 win -- its fifth straight to end the season. New Mexico State, meanwhile, is a year away from independence, and it still has not played in a bowl since the 1960 Sun Bowl. The Aggies haven't won more than four games since going 5-6 in 2004, their last year in their previous four-year stint in the Sun Belt. So why is there any optimism? They're experienced, with almost the entire defense back, and they have a veteran QB in Tyler Rogers and, most importantly, a healthy star running back in Larry Rose III. Rose had 1,657 yards in 2015 but dealt with an injury early last year. New Mexico State won't end its bowl drought, but it can at least be competitive and maybe ruin somebody else season's before exiting the Sun Belt.
3. Coastal Carolina will play its first FBS season without its head coach. Joe Moglia, who famously stepped down from his job as CEO of TD Ameritrade to return to coaching, will miss the 2017 season because of a medical leave of absence -- due to bronchial asthmatic reaction to allergies. Moglia is 51-15 as head coach at Coastal Carolina, which finished in the FCS top 25 each of his five seasons. With Moglia stepping aside, offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell, who coached Charleston Southern the past four years, will be interim coach. As always, it's not easy to predict a transition for an FCS team. The Chanticleers went 10-2 last year, but they played no FBS opponents. They'll make the transition with the help of FBS players: QB Austin Wilson is a transfer from Syracuse, and RB Marcus Outlow is a transfer from Boston College. Moglia has built a strong program, and the Chanticleers won't be pushovers in their first FBS season. But they also don't quite have the experience to expect anything close to the immediate high levels of success that Appalachian State and Georgia Southern had in their transitions.
4. In only its eighth season of football ever, Georgia State enters a new era. The Panthers are moving into a reconfigured Turner Field, and they'll do it with a new coach, former South Carolina offensive line coach (and interim head coach) Shawn Elliott. That comes after a somewhat surprising move in firing Trent Miles, who led the Panthers to a bowl game in 2015 but fell to 3-9 in '16. The big problem was the decline of the passing game without Nick Arbuckle, as the Panthers fell from 26th in passer rating to 94th and 31st in yards per play to 98th. They need a second-year leap from QB Conner Manning, who does at least get prolific receivers Penny Hart (1,099 yards in 2015) back from an injury that cost him nearly all of 2016. They also need more rushing production (leading rusher Kyler Neal had 314 yards) and a more effective pass rush to have any hope of returning to the postseason.
5. Both Texas State and Louisiana-Monroe struggled under first-year head coaches. Both likely need another year to build. ULM was in better shape, finishing 4-8 with three Sun Belt wins, and it will have plenty of experience returning. The biggest problem for coach Mat Viator is the brutal schedule: The Warhawks are set up to struggle by playing Memphis, Florida State, Southern Miss and Auburn in nonconference play, and two of their mere five home games are against conference heavyweights Arkansas State and Appalachian State. Getting to six wins will be nearly impossible. ULM had the Sun Belt's least efficient passing offense, and its defense ranked last in yards per play. It also hasn't had a positive turnover margin since 2012. Expected improvement may be offset by the schedule, where even one nonconference win would be a surprise. The Warhawks' problems paled in comparison to Texas State in Everett Withers' first season. The Bobcats, who went 7-5 in 2014, fell to 2-10 last year, and they finished 127th in yards per play. They had a national-worst average of 82.4 rushing yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry, and they allowed 44 sacks in 12 games. That led to a low point featuring -18 rushing yards in a 47-14 loss to Idaho. Only two starters return to an O-line that desperately needs improvement after Texas State went winless in Sun Belt play and lost seven of those games by at least 20 points. The 2017 season can't be anything but better than last year, but the Bobcats face a tricky nonconference schedule, beyond Houston Baptist, and draw the Sun Belt's top teams, too.
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All-Sun Belt Team
QB: Matt Linehan, Idaho
RB: Jalin Moore, Appalachian State
RB: Larry Rose III, New Mexico State
WR: Penny Hart, Georgia State
WR: Emanuel Thompson, Troy
TE: Blake Mack, Arkansas State
OL: Beau Nunn, Appalachian State
OL: Colby Gossett, Appalachian State
OL: Jordan Rose, Idaho
OL: Frank Sutton, UL Monroe
OL: Victor Johnson, Appalachian State
DE: Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State
DE: Joe Dillon, UL Lafayette
DT: Myquon Stout, Appalachian State
DT: Dee Liner, Arkansas State
LB: Eric Boggs, Appalachian State
LB: Bryan London, Texas State
LB: Kyle Wilson, Arkansas State
CB: Clifton Duck, Appalachian State
CB: Chandon Sullivan, Georgia State
S: Kris Weatherspoon, Troy
S: Jeremy Reaves, South Alabama
K: Stevie Artigue, UL Lafayette
P: Payton Theisler, New Mexico State
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6. Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette quickly lost their status as Sun Belt powers. The Eagles plummeted from 24th to 101st in yards per play after the departure of coach Willie Fritz to Tulane. They passed 12 more times per game (still just 22), and the explosiveness of the running game in Fritz's option attack was lost in Tyson Summers' first year as head coach. After back-to-back 9-3 seasons upon joining the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern fell to 5-7. Summers brought in Bryan Cook from Georgia Tech to run the offense and try to restore the program's signature productive option attack, but the backfield will have to rebuild after losing RB Matt Breida and QBs Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw, so patience will be necessary -- especially since they draw the league's three best teams, too. The Ragin' Cajuns also had a run of nine-win seasons under Mark Hudspeth, going 9-4 every year from 2011-14 before collapsing to 4-8 in 2015. Last year was a step back in the right direction, but they finished 6-7 after losing the New Orleans Bowl. The key is finding life in the passing game and somehow replacing star RB Elijah McGuire. The good news is that UL Lafayette is strong in the trenches and experienced in the secondary, but it also is stuck playing both Arkansas State and Appalachian State on the road, in addition to tough nonconference games at Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Tulsa.
7. South Alabama has played football for only eight years, so the fact that it has swept San Diego State the past two years and won at Mississippi State last year is highly impressive for coach Joey Jones, who's led the Jaguars to bowls in two of the past three seasons. However, South Alabama needs to find consistency and reverse its fortunes in Sun Belt play. Sun Belt teams frequently have the problem of digging themselves a hole in nonconference play against powerful opponents. The Jaguars have done the opposite: They are 6-2 in regular-season nonconference play over the past two years but 5-11 in the Sun Belt. Last year, they upset Mississippi State and surprisingly pounded San Diego State by 18, and yet they went 2-6 in the conference, with five losses by a touchdown or less. The Jaguars actually averaged over six yards per play in each of their final five games, but they went just 2-3 in those games. There is hope for the program's first FBS winning record -- especially if new starting QB Cole Garvin provides a boost after surprisingly winning the job -- although a trio of nonconference games against Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and Louisiana Tech limits the margin for error in conference play, unless upsets can be pulled off again.
8. Arkansas State has finally settled into a semblance of stability. After three straight one-and-done coaches -- Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, Bryan Harsin -- Blake Anderson is entering his fourth season, owning a 24-15 record overall. That includes a 15-1 mark in Sun Belt play over the past two seasons. Under five coaches, Arkansas State has gone seven straight seasons with at least a .500 record in the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves are clear conference contenders again after sharing the title last year, but their hopes hinge on offensive line development. They don't play Appalachian State, and they get Troy at home. So how slow will they start? In 2015, they went 1-3 out of conference and undefeated in the Sun Belt. Last year, they started 0-4 with losses to Toledo, Auburn, Utah State and Central Arkansas before nearly running the table again. This year, they open with Nebraska and Miami, then play Arkansas Pine-Bluff and SMU. Fortunately, QB is settled now with Oklahoma transfer Justice Hansen, who led the conference in passer rating, and the defense is in terrific shape, led by an excellent line featuring Ja'Von Rolland-Jones and Dee Liner. One big problem stands out: The entire starting offensive line is gone, and that will undoubtedly take time to resolve. The Troy game isn't until Dec. 2, but line issues could open the Red Wolves up to a Sun Belt upset loss before then.
9. Troy ruled the Sun Belt the second half of last decade, at least sharing the conference title every year from 2006-10. After a decline at the end of the Larry Blakeney era, Troy has quickly re-emerged as a Sun Belt power. The question is how long the Trojans will be able to keep rising star head coach Neal Brown, who will inevitably get bigger offers if Troy repeats its success. While Brown is an offensive coach -- he was on the staff for four of those Sun Belt titles -- last year's team improved from 4-8 to 10-3 in large part because it was dominant defensively against the run and forced 30 turnovers. The latter creates a question, because a team that experiences such a big turnaround with the help of a favorable turnover margin could regress. But this Troy team is loaded at the skill positions and should be explosive on offense, led by QB Brandon Silvers, RB Jordan Chunn and WRs Emanuel Thompson and Deondre Douglas, and it's also in good shape in the defensive secondary. The Trojans stumbled late in the season (capped by a crushing four-point loss to Georgia Southern) but went 6-2 in the Sun Belt and nearly upset Clemson. Given that they don't play Appalachian State, at least a share of the conference title could come down to the season finale at Arkansas State.
10. Few teams nationally have a better chance to win at least 10 games than Appalachian State. Scott Satterfield has done a phenomenal job leading the Mountaineers' FBS transition. After starting 1-5 in 2014, Appalachian State has gone 27-5 in its past 32 games, including back-to-back 7-1 records in conference play. While the Mountaineers were blown out by Miami last year, their losses to Tennessee and Troy were both close. Now, they have many key players back, led by senior QB Taylor Lamb, Sun Belt offensive player of the year RB Jalin Moore and a stellar defense that features LB Eric Boggs and CB Clifton Duck. This is a balanced, complete team, again, and after opening at Georgia -- a game the Bulldogs can't overlook -- they have the most favorable schedule in the Sun Belt, avoiding both Troy and Arkansas State. Those are the only two Sun Belt teams to beat Appalachian State the past two years, and all seven of its conference wins were by double digits last year. Troy and Arkansas State have arguments, but Appalachian State is the best bet in the Sun Belt.
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1. Appalachian State 10-2 (7-1)
2. Troy 8-4 (6-2)
3. Arkansas State 7-5 (6-2)
4. Louisiana-Lafayette 6-6 (5-3)
5. South Alabama 6-6 (5-3)
6. Idaho 6-6 (4-4)
7. Georgia Southern 5-7 (4-4)
8. New Mexico State 4-8 (3-5)
9. Louisiana-Monroe 3-9 (3-5)
10. Georgia State 4-8 (2-6)
11. Coastal Carolina 4-8 (2-6)
12. Texas State 2-10 (1-7)
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