Sun Belt College Football Season Preview & Predictions

Date | AuthorAdam Burke

Last Updated: 2019-07-28

The Sun Belt Conference has 10 teams split up into two divisions of five. That was the realignment plan that went in place prior to the 2018 season that gave us our first Sun Belt Championship Game. One division, the East, was much stronger than the other division, the West, and things look to be the same this season, as the top three teams in my power ratings reside in the East Division.

You’ve all heard the expression, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. Will that be true of the Sun Belt this season? Appalachian State and Troy have new head coaches. Louisiana bested Arkansas State to win the West Division and gave the Mountaineers a competitive game in the inaugural SBC Championship Game. Georgia Southern won 10 games and nearly crashed the party in the East.

For the Red Wolves, it was their second straight season without a piece of the conference title. It’s the first time since 2009-10 that the Red Wolves have gone back-to-back years without at least a share. Is there a changing of the guard in that division?

There are still several punching bags in the conference for the top teams to take turns beating up, but there is a chance that the top comes down and the bottom comes up and chaos gets created in Sun Belt.

Of course, there is also the chance that things stay status quo and new head coaches mean nothing at App State and Troy and that the winner of that head-to-head matchup is the de facto winner of the conference, as both schools would be a double-digit favorite with home field advantage in the title game according to my ratings.

There is a lot to consider in the Fun Belt, so let’s have fun breaking it down.

 

Sun Belt Season Win Total Best Bet

Troy Over 7 (-150, 5Dimes) – You can find heavily juiced 7s at several places and a 7.5 at -120 at Bookmaker, but this is my favorite season win total bet of the Sun Belt. Admittedly, I may be higher on Troy that some other people. The loss of Neal Brown has cast a dark cloud over this team, but I’m not one for doom and gloom. Kaleb Barker was better than Sawyer Smith last season and was in line for a tremendous year before he tore his ACL six games into the season.

The Trojans do have to replace some talent at wide receiver, but BJ Smith is back after rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and the Trojans return four starters on an offensive line that should improve after last season’s uncharacteristic sack increase. Chip Lindsey has a ton of major conference experience as an offensive coordinator, so I’m not the least bit worried about that side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Brandon Hall was the linebackers coach last year at Troy, so very little should change schematically.

There is also a correlation here. Troy gets App State and Arkansas State at home. The road games for the Trojans are almost all winnable, with the biggest number of the season on the road at Missouri. Otherwise, Troy visits Akron, Georgia State, Coastal Carolina, Texas State, and Louisiana. Troy is favored in 10 games for me and about a field goal dog at home against App State in what will likely decide the Sun Belt’s East Division and the home team in the conference title game. With that weak schedule, my projected spreads give Troy 8.78 wins for the season. This is one of the biggest differences between the markets and my projections.

The correlation is that I think the top teams in the conference are weaker and that Troy may be just as strong as last season. Troy also gets its toughest conference games at home against Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, and App State, which gives them a big boost, especially because they are 15-3 SU at home the last three seasons. Neal Brown may be gone, but the talent is not.

 

Appalachian State Over 9 (-130, BetOnline) – A bonus best bet for you here, as Appalachian State once again looks like the class of the conference. Using my power ratings and projected spreads, I have the Mountaineers down for 10.21 wins, another one of the biggest gaps between my numbers and the market.

Replacing a coach like Scott Satterfield shouldn’t be easy for a Group of Five school, but Appalachian State has a rich tradition and one of college football’s best backdrops in Boone, NC. This university also has a strong fan base. That all helps in recruiting. And even if it doesn’t as Eliah Drinkwitz goes along, he still has the leftover talent from Satterfield’s recruiting work.

Drinkwitz will call his own plays for quarterback Zac Thomas and 1,200-yard rusher Darrynton Evans. Ten offensive starters are back for a team that averaged 6.5 yards per play each of the last two seasons and scored over 37 points per game last year. Drinkwitz is a strong offensive mind and he should produce great results with a very experienced offense.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof has been around the block many times over. This defense may regress a bit, simply because allowing 4.4 yards per play is ridiculously good, but the drop off shouldn’t be that big, if at all.

The schedule also plays very favorable for App State. The Moutnaineers won’t leave the Carolinas until October 9 against Louisiana down in Lafayette. My numbers have the Mountaineers favored at North Carolina off a bye in Week 3. The only clear underdog role for App State is at South Carolina and even that is by less than a touchdown. There are eight occasions in which my numbers project App State to be favored by at least 10 points and nine of those are by at least two touchdowns. Arkansas State is not on the schedule and the Georgia Southern game is at home.

The schedule is very kind for App State in Drinkwitz’s first year and big things should be expected.

 

The Rest

Arkansas State Under 7.5 (+140, BetOnline) – This one is close to being another best bet with the plus money price tag on the under. My projected spreads are actually pretty close to this win total, as my power ratings spit out 7.3 wins for the Red Wolves. That being said, I am extremely skeptical in Year 6 for Blake Anderson.

The Red Wolves have to find a quarterback. Justice Hansen exhausted his eligibility as the program’s second-leading passer. Arkansas State’s quarterback room has 53 careeer pass attempts. True freshman Marcel Murray was solid last season, but he was in a timeshare with Warren Wand and Hansen also had 133 carries for an additional 411 yards on the ground. Murray could rush for 1,000 yards, but the Red Wolves look a lot less balanced on offense and have to plug in some replacements on the offensive line.

This is a team that outscored the opposition. Arkansas State scored over 30 points per game and has always been an offense-first program, save for the 2016 season. Now, the Red Wolves don’t have that offensive safety net. This is a defense that has regressed on a yards per play basis each of the last two seasons, going from 5.0 in 2016 to 5.3 in 2017 to 5.6 in 2018. Perhaps new defensive coordinator David Duggan can right the ship, but Anderson also has a new offensive coordinator in Keith Heckendorf.

All areas of this team appear to be in a state of transition. Meanwhile, Louisiana won the division last season and is improving. Texas State is better. Louisiana Monroe is better. This isn’t a walk in the park at all. The Red Wolves avoid App State, but go to Troy and have a long trip to UNLV in a game that is anything but a given.

The Red Wolves are still favored in nine games for me, so it’s not like I have completely thrown them away, but they are favored by four or fewer points five times, so those are toss-up games and I’m not sure those fall ASU’s way.

 

Georgia Southern Over 6.5 (-127, Bookmaker) – After winning 10 games last season, this number seems really light for the Georgia Southern Eagles. It was clear that Tyson Summers was the wrong fit. Once Chad Lunsford took over in 2017, Georgia Southern looked the part, even if the results weren’t fully there. That changed in 2018 with a 10-3 season.

We’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t expect some level of regression. The Eagles did not throw a single interception last season on 117 pass attempts. They were +22 in turnover margin. The question that we have to answer is how far does this team actually fall in the W/L column.

Evaluating option defenses is hard. The numbers usually look pretty good, as the Eagles only allowed 21.5 points and just 357 yards, but their 5.5 yards per play allowed were only a little better than the national average. Fourteen returning starters are back, but the sportsbooks have a consensus win total of 6.5 with some modest over juice, so they’re projecting about a seven-win team.

How does that happen with a team that won 10 games? Turnover margin aside, the schedule is much more difficult. Non-conference play features LSU, Minnesota, and Maine as opposed to South Carolina State, UMass, and Clemson. Road games in conference are at South Alabama, Appalachian State, Troy, and Arkansas State.

That being said, my numbers still have Georgia Southern down for 7.06 wins. This isn’t a strong play by any means, but the Eagles have an experienced quarterback and an offensive style that lends itself to winning the turnover battle more often than not. The problem is that Georgia Southern will be a dog five times at a minimum, which leaves no margin for error.

 

Louisiana Over 6.5 (+108, Bookmaker) – Bookmaker has the only number at time of writing out of the three books that are being surveyed for this exercise. This is far from a strong play, as my numbers project Louisiana to have 6.63 wins, so the juice creates the lean. Otherwise, it seems that the Ragin’ Cajuns are rated pretty accurately.

Billy Napier’s first season was a smashing success. The Ragin’ Cajuns got 14 games of practice with his new offensive and defensive schemes and also got to enjoy the extra 15 bowl practices before the Cure Bowl. Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell are one of the best 1-2 tandems at the running back position in college football, as they combined for over 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns.

What needs to happen this season is a step up defensively. The Ragin’ Cajuns went from 40 points per game to 34.2 and shaved .3 yards per play off on that side of the ball. More improvement needs to happen, which is one of the reasons why skepticism reigns supreme about this team.

The schedule is good enough to get Louisiana back to a bowl. They catch App State and Troy at home, which makes those games just a little bit easier. The non-conference does feature Mississippi State, but also Liberty, Texas Southern, and Ohio. Curiously, my numbers only have Louisiana favored in six games, but there are upset opportunities here.

Just not enough for me to make an actual bet. Just enough to have a small lean.

 

Louisiana Monroe Under 5 (+110, BetOnline) – Matt Viator’s team is getting there. The Warhawks shaved nearly 10 points and a full yard per play off of their defensive ledger from 2017 to 2018. Unfortunately, the offense regressed, too. Caleb Evans doesn’t take great care of the football and the Warhawks finished -12 in turnover margin.

With that being said, ULM did average 6.2 yards per play, so there is a path for this team to be better and get to a bowl game. There is also a path in which Evans loses the job to one of Viator’s younger recruits and the team is thrown into the spin cycle.

The schedule could be detrimental for the Warhawks. They’ll be a big favorite over Grambling, but Grambling did play in last year’s Celebration Bowl. Florida State, Iowa State, and Memphis are the other non-conference games and ULM has very little hope in those.

 

Coastal Carolina Under 4.5 (-140, Bookmaker) – My numbers actually put Coastal Carolina at exactly 4.5 wins, so this line looks pretty fair. The heavy juice on the under is a byproduct of the schedule. The Chanticleers are only favored in four of their 12 regular season games based on my numbers and are a pretty big dog in most of the other games.

Not much will change with Jamey Chadwell taking the team over from Joe Moglia. The Chanticleers have infused the program with FBS-level talent for the last four recruiting classes since making the transition from FCS. Chadwell was the fill-in two years ago when health problems took Moglia off the sidelines, so he does have experience.

I don’t have a lot to say here. There are fifteen returning starters, and that doesn’t include Fred Payton, who was probably the best of the three quarterbacks to take snaps. Coastal worked a lot of players into deep rotations last season, as the leading tackler only had 68 tackles, so a lot of guys play here on an annual basis.

This is a no play. The under would be the preferred side because Coastal will need to win those four games as a favorite to come close to five wins.

 

Texas State Under 4.5 (-110, 5D/BOL) – Texas State is getting there. Jake Spavital should be a good hire and Bob Stitt will be an exciting offensive coordinator once he gets right pieces in place. There are a lot of quarterback options here, with JUCO transfer Gresch Jensen the one with the highest ceiling, but things should go a little better in San Marcos this season.

That being said, five wins is a massive leap. After all, Texas State has 10 wins over the last four seasons and Spavital is the third head coach in the last five years, so there has been a lot of turnover and transition.

The schedule is favorable. Texas State should be favored in at least three games and could be favored in as many as five. The Bobcats have been favored one time in each of the last three seasons, so this is a big deal. My numbers still have them down for 4.28 wins, so I don’t see 5-7 or even the chance to flirt with .500, but four wins would be the most since 2014 and a step in the right direction. With flat juice both ways, this is just a lean.

 

Georgia State Under 3.5 (+130, 5Dimes) – The Georgia State Panthers went from a very lucky 7-6 to a well-deserved 2-10 record. Shawn Elliott’s defense allowed 13 more points per game in 2018 and it obscured the modest gains by the offense. Another long season appears to be in the cards.

It is surprising, at least per my numbers, to see heavy over juice on Georgia State. The Week 2 game against Furman and the November 23 game against South Alabama are the only favorite roles in my numbers for the Panthers. The other two most winnable games for the Panthers are on the road, as they go to Texas State and to Coastal Carolina.

The Panthers allowed 7.7 yards per play last season. Defensive coordinator Nate Fuqua kept his job. Brad Glenn is the new offensive coordinator. It’s tough to see how things change a lot in Atlanta with this team. Injuries didn’t help last season, but they never help any team.

 

South Alabama Under 2.5 (+116, Bookmaker) – The variance of the Sun Belt Conference must be the reason why these bottom-feeders have juice to the over. South Alabama is only favored once in my power ratings and that is against Jackson State. They are at least a six-point dog in every other game. Coastal Carolina is not on the schedule and Georgia State and Texas State are on the road.

South Alabama did win three games last year, with home wins over Texas State, Alabama State, and Coastal Carolina, so maybe that’s the reason for the optimism, but Cephus Johnson is the only QB with FBS experience and he threw 19 passes last season with seven completions. The defense is weaker with the loss of top cover corner Darian Mills and leading tackler Nigel Lawrence.

Teams that don’t have good quarterback play have an uphill climb when it comes to pulling upsets. The Jaguars don’t have good quarterback play. My numbers say 2.29 wins and 2-10 feels about right, though that still requires an upset.

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