The Sun Belt is home to a collection of talented Group of 5 programs. The league has seen some programs really showcase lately and put the league on the map. Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns all have made cases to be viewed with the elite. This is proven by their time in the Top 25 rankings over the past few years. They have set the bar for the other institutions to meet.
The league has some intriguing rivalries or developing regional pairings. The rivalry between App State and Georgia Southern dates back to their FCS days. That rivalry is being augmented by the developing Georgia State and Georgia Southern battle for state supremacy. As heated as that is trying to become, the high octane pairing of Coastal Carolina and App State will be the prime showcase. A couple other rivalries are Louisiana vs UL Monroe, Troy vs South Alabama and the Battle of Virginia between ODU and James Madison. The league is also home to 2 historic mid major football powers in the form of Marshall and Southern Miss.
The league is home to a couple very explosive quarterbacks in App State QB Chase Brice and Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall. It is no surprise that these 2 programs are primed to make a larger push on the national scale. There are a few programs building a foundation in hopes of challenging for the league. Then there are some programs trying to resurrect past glories and push for bowl eligibility.
The Sun Belt is also involved in the ever evolving conference realignment landscape. 4 new schools are joining the league to increase the conference footprint to 14 institutions.
JOINING THE CONFERENCE THIS YEAR:
- Marshall Thundering Herd
- Southern Miss Golden Eagles
- Old Dominion (ODU) Monarchs
- James Madison Dukes (coming from FCS)
2022 SUN BELT INSTITUTIONS:
- App State Mountaineers
- Arkansas State Red Wolves
- Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
- Georgia Southern Eagles
- Georgia State Panthers
- Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
- UL- Monroe Warhawks
- South Alabama Jaguars
- Troy Trojans
- Texas State Bobcats
- Marshall Thundering Herd
- Southern Miss Golden Eagles
- Old Dominion Monarchs
- James Madison Dukes
PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
- App State QB Chase Brice: Chase had a great 2021, throwing for 3,337 yards and 27 TD’s. The majority of his weapons are returning and it’s his 3rd year at the helm.
- Honorable Mention: Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall. He has thrown for 53 Touchdowns over the past 2 years and only 6 Interceptions.
- Honorable Mention: Georgia State Running Backs Tucker Gregg (953 rushing yards & 9 TD’s) and Jamyest Williams (859 rushing yards & 9 TD’s)…..could this duo of Senior running backs carry the Panthers to a division/ conference title??
4 TEAMS WE ARE WATCHING IN 2022:
LOUISIANA RAGIN’ CAJUNS:
- The Ragin’ Cajuns burst onto the National scene in 2020 when they traveled to Ames, Iowa and upset the Cyclones.
- They are the defending Sun Belt Champions and have won their division 4 straight years.
- They lost their 2021 opener at Texas and have won 14 straight since then.
- Their offense averaged 412.5 yards per game in 2021, which was 3rd in the Sun Belt.
- The offense has to replace their catalyst in QB Levi Lewis…..is Sophomore Chandler Fields ready.
- The offense is built around the ground game. They averaged 193.9 per game last season and that was good enough for 3rd in the league.
- RB Chris Smith shouldered the bulk of that with his 855 yards and 8 TDS…..Can he build off of that in his Sophomore campaign.
- How will they replace OG O’Cyrus Torrence, who followed HC Billy Napier to Florida. He has been in the conversation as a 2022 Preseason All-American and presents a large hole to fill. Torrence was 1 of 3 who followed their coach to Gainesville.
- The defense was elite for the Ragin’ Cajuns. They gave up a league low 18 points per game in 2021.
- They sacked the opposing QB 35 times, which was 2nd best in the Sun Belt.
- In addition to applying pressure and keeping teams off the scoreboard, they gave up 345 yards a game, which was 4th lowest.
- The defense will look toward LB Lorenzo McCaskill to continue to lead the unit.
- The first goal is to win their division. They will need to be sharp early on when they play UL Monroe, South Alabama, Marshall and Arkansas State in succession. If they handle their business they can prepare for the Sun Belt Title Game.
- Can the program maintain and elevate their play in the post Billy Napier era?
- Terry Bowden era moves into Year 2. He was hired in December 2020 to rebuild the program after a winless 2020 campaign.
- OC and former West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona HC Rich Rodriguez only stayed 1 year and just left to take over at Jacksonville State.
- The Warhawks saw some improvement in 2021, finishing 4-8.
- The 2022 schedule is not kind to a rebuilding program, but valuable lessons will be learned.
- They play at Texas and at Alabama in the first 3 weeks, so the basic math is….can they win 6 of the remaining 10 to reach a bowl game.
- In addition to the 2 aforementioned Blue Bloods, they also face rival Louisiana and conference power Coastal Carolina in the first 6 weeks. In all reality, the best case scenario in the stretch is 2-4, if they are 3-3 or better then something special is brewing.
- Overall, there are 4-5 winnable games out there. The journey for 6 plus and a bowl bid falls on the players and coaches to grow and improve.
- The question everyone is asking…..Can they improve
- The Warhawks had 6 players throw a pass in 2021, 4 were QB’s
- Chandler Rogers was the best QB. He threw for 1,311 yards, 9 TD’s and 3 INT’s. He was also the 3rd leading rusher with 367 yards and a score.
- They do return a lot of skill position players who were significant contributors last year. This collection is highlighted by their top 2 running backs Andrew Henry and Malik Jackson.
- The offense was very young in 2021, scoring 28 Touchdowns (15 passing, 13 rushing) and averaging 20.9 PPG.
- They finished dead last in offensive yards per game with 328.7. Oddly enough, they were 7th in passing yards per game and rushing yards per game respectively.
- The defense also had some growing pains last year. They allowed 453 yards per game, which was 2nd worst in the Sun Belt. The 290 allowed in the air was a league worst. They will also need to improve on their 33.5 Points per game allowed last year.
- This team has a plethora of questions, but the main one is…..have the players bought into Coach Bowden and do they believe they can win
GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES:
- Former USC Head Coach Clay Helton is the new HC.
- This program has a proud tradition built on toughness, hard work and running the football. The tradition was created by former Head Coach Erk Russell.
- This program thrived in FCS (formerly D- IAA) reaching the playoffs and winning 6 National Championships. Since moving to the FBS with Appalachian State, they have struggled to consistently uphold their winning ways.
- Is Clay Helton finally the coach to restore this programs standard of winning, ferocious defense and a powerful run oriented offense.
- The Eagles had the worst offense in the league, scoring 20.3 points a game. They were 3rd worst in yards per game with 340, highlighted by a league low passing attack of 140 per game. The silver lining is that they ran for 193 a game, which was 4th best.
- The defense gave up 31.4 points per game, which must improve in 2022 and beyond.
- In addition to the 31.4 points, they allowed 443 yards per game.
- The Eagles signed a class of 27 players, including 4 transfers and 4 star RB (per ESPN300) Terrance Gibbs. The class included 2 3 star QB’s and transfer QB Kyle Vantrease from Buffalo.
- The QB position is going to be a major battle in camp, especially with the shift to a more Pro Style approach. They also have 2 returning QB’s in Connor Cigelsku and Cam Ransom.
- This is the beginning of a complete roster rebuild in Statesboro. Every job is on the line and i don’t think the coaches will know their true 2 deep until week 5 or 6.
- Can the Eagles put together 6 plus Wins and get to a bowl
- Will the defense make major strides and get off the field
APP STATE MOUNTAINEERS:
- LETHAL OFFENSE and Dominate Program!
- The Mountaineers have at least 7 conference wins every year since 2015 except 2020. They won the league in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. They also played Louisiana in the 2021 Title Game.
- RB Nate Noel ran for 1,128 and 4 scores last year. He is paired with Camerun Peoples, who ran for 926 and 14 Touchdowns. Both of them finished in the top 4 for rushing yards in the Sun Belt
- Will need to replace WR’s Corey Sutton and Thomas Hennigan, who combined for 1,727 yards
- Open vs UNC then travel to College Station…first 2 games are on ESPNU and ESPN2 respectively.
- Biggest conference regular season matchup is on November 3rd when they travel to Coastal Carolina. This slugfest will be aired on ESPN.
- They owned the 16th best defense in the Nation based on points allowed per game at 19.3
- The offense scored 34.8 per game in 2021. This was propelled by a ground game that averaged 192 yards and an air attack that averaged 249 yards.
- This program has been on a major roll since moving from FCS and they aren’t done yet.
- BEST Case…10-2 and in the Title game…..WORST Case….9-3 and a bowl.
SUN BELT GAMES TO KEEP ON YOUR RADAR:
- Troy at App State (Week 3)
- Coastal Carolina at Georgia State (Week 4)
- James Madison at App State (Week 4 – Dukes 1st Sun Belt game)
- Louisiana at UL-Monroe (Week 4 – Battle on the Bayou. Cajuns lead series 31-25)
- Georgia Southern at Coastal Carolina (Week 5)
- Texas State at James Madison (Week 5)
- Georgia Southern at Georgia State (Week 6)
- Louisiana at Marshall (Week 7 on ESPN2)
- Arkansas State at Southern Miss (Week 7)
- Georgia State at App State (Week 8 on ESPN2)
- Troy at South Alabama (Week 8 on ESPNU)
- Louisiana at Southern Miss (Week 9 on ESPNU)
- App State at Coastal Carolina (Week 10 on ESPN)
- Georgia Southern at Louisiana (Week 11 on ESPNU)
- Old Dominion at App State (Week 12)
- App State at Georgia Southern (Week 13)
- Louisiana at Texas State (Week 13)
BEST STADIUM IN THE CONFERENCE: Kidd Brewer Stadium on the campus of App State.
PRESEASON CONFERENCE CHAMPION PICK: APPALACHIAN STATE MOUNTAINEERS.
-App State has a loaded squad and if they get by Coastal Carolina, they have a great chance to win the league. Coastal Carolina and Georgia State are going to make it very tough for them. The West has been owned by Louisiana, but the door might be open in the Post Billy Napier / Levi Lewis era. Will a team in the West take advantage and take that next step?
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