Rebuilding is a theme that runs through most of the teams in the Sun Belt this year. Whether it’s a program working from the ground up (Georgia State), a team reeling after losing a ton of talent (ULM) or former powers wanting to restore their position in the standings (Troy), a number of teams are under construction. Here’s how we think those projects are progressing.
1. Georgia Southern
The Eagles successfully transferred from FCS powerhouse to FBS team on the rise by going undefeated in SBC play in their first year in the league. Head Coach Willie Fritz retains a strong core from last year’s conference champs. 13 starters return including the team’s top four rushers, two quarterbacks, and seven of the top ten tacklers. On top of all of that experience, Georgia Southern gets the benefit of the softest schedule in the conference. The Eagles avoid ULL and Arkansas State. The only question here is the offensive line, since only one starter returns. But there’s only one underclassman in the 2-deep, so experience isn’t an issue. The quicker that line gels, the faster they get back to dominating.
2. Appalachian State
There were two Mountaineer teams in 2014. The one that lost five of their first six and only managed to beat Campbell. The other team tore through the SBC, winning six straight and beating Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette in consecutive road games. There’s a very good chance that momentum continues since they return 20 starters and are the most veteran team in the FBS. Their success will hinge on the development of QB Taylor Lamb, who threw for 2,300 yards, 17 TDs against 9 picks, and ran for another 500+ yards. He’s got a bright future as well. The schedule is in their favor as well, with Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, and ULL all coming to Brewer Stadium where App State is 60-14 over the last decade. The October 22 showdown with GSU is a potential conference title game.
3. Arkansas State
The Red Wolves have been the best team in the SBC over the last 10 years and they enter unknown territory this season. They’ll have a second year head coach in Blake Anderson, the first coach to stay for more than a year since 2010. His offense will once again be dominant, with two 1,000 yard rushers returning (RB Michael Gordon and QB Fredi Knighten). The schedule isn’t bad, they get ULL at home, but have to travel to App State and give Georgia Southern a miss. Plus, they get a chance to avenge their thrashing in the GoDaddy Bowl in a trip up to Toledo. The thing that could hold this squad back is a porous rush defense.
There are a bunch of questions surrounding this crop of Ragin’ Cajuns. There are only 8 returning starters, but there’s plenty of young talent. The defensive line is the biggest question, but there are plenty of upperclassmen to compete for starting time. Terrance Broadway will leave a huge hole at quarterback, but Brooks Haack is primed to step up despite only having thrown 23 passes last year. They also have a rough-go of it in the schedule department, having to hit the road against Louisiana Tech, Arkansas State, South Alabama and Appalachian State. Things could go badly for a mainstay in the top four of the SBC, or it could be another reloading year. I’ll call it somewhere in the middle with bowl eligibility.
The Warhawks will try to bounce back after a rough four-win season. However, their situation isn’t as dire as last year’s record may seem. ULM suffered five close losses, including three on the final play. They will rely heavily on the top defense in the conference, while the offense tries to catch up. They lose their starting QB and RB, but there are a number of juniors and seniors who can step up. They do get their biggest games at home, hosting GSU, App State, and Arkansas State. The defense makes me think getting back to bowl eligibility is a good possibility.
6. Texas State
Can the Bobcats actually get to a bowl this season after being shutout at 7-5 last season? Well, that all depends on how fast the defense can step up. They have a solid offense with a lot of experience returning, but they’ll have to replace the SBC Defensive Player of the Year and three other All-SBC performers. Not to mention they have one of the most brutal schedules in the conference. They meet three of the top four teams on the road (GSU, ULL & Ark. St.), and start the season off with trips to Florida State and Houston. That’s enough to me to call for them to take a step back this year.
7. New Mexico State
Former Kent State head coach Doug Martin should have his best squad and be able to equal his win total over his first two seasons in Las Cruces. They return 18 starters, including 1,100 yard rusher Larry Rose and quickly improving quarterback Tyler Rogers. Plus, they get to set up behind a veteran O-line. The schedule is manageable, despite making two trips to SEC country (Florida, Mississippi). This team is probably a year from bowl contention, but 4-5 wins are not out of the question.
The Vandals return 12 starters and will improve on last season’s 1-10 mark. Sophomore quarterback Matt Linehan is another QB on the rise and has a productive receiving corps to throw to. Plus, he spent time in the offseason working with Tony Romo. They do have a rough schedule, but pick up a couple of winnable conference games on the road. Bowl contention is a stretch, but they could easily double head coach Paul Petrino’s win total.
9. South Alabama
The Jaguars get a boost of talent from 8 UAB transfers, shoring up a unit that would otherwise have only returned 5 starters. It will be a young team that will be rushed to gel, with early season trips to Nebraska and San Diego State. 6 wins will be a lofty goal while they try to break in a new QB, RB and 3 new offensive linesmen.
New head coach Neil Brown will have 13 returning starters and a manageable schedule to start his rebuilding effort. The Trojans will be strong on D with one of the best secondaries in the conference, and have the best special teams unit in the SBC. The major issues will be on the on the offensive line, where solid starters will need to be found to surround center Dalton Bennett.
11. Georgia State
Will 2015 finally be the year the Eagles get a win in conference? In their 2 years in the Sun Belt, they are 0-15 and their only win as an FBS program came over an FCS school. That should finally change this year. For the first time, they return significant talent and are coming off a season where they lost 3 SBC games on the final play. Not to mention they played the half of their lives at Washington, actually leading 14-0. Trent Miles is a coach with a reputation for building programs and with a little easier schedule, the progress will finally start translating into wins.
Georgia Southern, UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State, Appalachian State
On The Bubble: UL-Monroe