2018 preview: Sun Belt Conference


1.   Troy

Teams that challenge for national championships have one thing in common: high-ranked rush defenses. Last season, Troy was #7 in the nation, ahead of such teams as Clemson, Penn State, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Michigan, LSU, Auburn, and a dozen other et-ceteras. Is coach Neal Brown trying to build a national champion?  In Troy, Alabama?
Some fans hate that two teams from the SEC played for the national championship in 2017.  Well, hold onto your sneers because if coach Brown gets his way, two teams from the same STATE will be playing for it.
And, he may be closer than most people think.  Just last year, the Trojans held opponents to 18.5 ppg. and his teams have won 21 games in the past two seasons.  Not bad for his third year after this program was 3-9 when he took over.
This season, the defense must replace a lot of up-front talent, which includes lineman Jamal Stadom who led the team in sacks and linebacker Sam Lebbie who was a leader in tackles for losses.  Developing replacements will take time yet the season is front-loaded with Boise State and Nebraska.
The secondary looks brilliant with three starters .
Troy has 10 of 11 offensive starters back.  The only one missing is quarterback Brandon Silvers.
It seems appropriate to stop here and explain why the loss of this qb might be the most severe loss of its kind for any team.  In about three-and-a-half years as the starter, Silvers passed for more than 10,000  yards, completed 64% and had a four-year interception rate of 1.9%.  Just this past season, his I/R was 1.58% which is 30% + better than what is normally considered “pretty good”.  While some teams lost signal callers who were important, no team was as hinged to its qb as Troy was to Silvers.  It seems impossible to overstate the importance of his absence.
However, there is talent coming up behind him in Kaleb Barker and Sawyer Smith.  We believe Barker will be the starter because, while Smith redshirted, coach Brown got Barker into every game and Barker responded well.  While acknowledging a small sample size, it is fair to note that Barker completed 61.5% of his passes and had no interceptions.  He also was the team’s fourth leading ball carrier despite being neither a ball-carrier nor a starter.
He is also our bet for starting because he is a tough and durable competitor who, as a high school senior, not only gained 1181 total yards in his final two games but led his team in season tackles with 77.
Two good running backs have graduated but Troy is perhaps better because junior B.J. Smith looked good in the spring and drew praises from coach Brown.  With Jamarius Henderson added to the rb mix, this running attack will outgain last year’s duo which produced 1200 yards.
Troy has big plans for 5’7″ grad-transfer receiver Traveon Samuel who never quite made a go of things at Louisville.  The tough speedster has been outstanding and has pledged to fans that he is going to become “the guy” at Troy.
The Trojans graduated seven of its sixteen players who caught passes last year and are now digging pretty far down the receivers roster to find talent. Coupled with an unproven quarterback, there isn’t much reason to think the passing game will frighten many defenses.
Despite initial deficiencies that this team must fill, it’s easy to project 10 wins and it’s within reason to think there could be nine in a row culminating in a national ranking.

2.   Arkansas State

In the midst of a lawsuit against Miami-Fl for canceling a football game because the Hurricanes feared…well…a hurricane, the ASU football program is looking for a double-digit-win season.  With the return of the majority of its high-yardage offense that ranked 10th in the FBS, there is every reason to think the Red Wolves will reach that goal.
Four of five offensive line starters return with enough support to be nearly two deep.
Also back is quarterback Justice Hansen who completed 63% of his passes for 3967 yards and 37 touchdowns.  Yes, 16 interceptions looks awful but when compared to 487 attempts, it looks less-awful.  Hansen is also the second-leading returning rusher and had more tds on the ground than any of the backs.
In addition to having Hansen back at qb, Arkansas State has the return of a deep group of  receivers led by 6’6″ Canadian Justin McInnis who will surpass 1000 yards and be named all-Sun Belt.  The Red Wolves passing yardage ranked 5th among all teams last year after putting up 344 ypg.
Add to that a dynamite little magic Wand with the first name Warren, and there is little doubt that the rush attack will be better this year also.  Warren Wand stands just 5’5″ but he weighs in at 195 pounds and uses his body like a bowling ball through pins. Expect him to carry the ball much more than 14 times a game and expect him to surpass 1000 yards.
Then, add running back Armond Weh-Weh who is back from injury and you know  why coach Blake Anderson sees the rb group as one of the Sun Belt’s best; to which Armond replied, “Weh. Weh.”
The defense has lost a star at each level and some forecasters think this team won’t be able to bring pressure and that is enough to down-rank it significantly.  However, ASU’s workouts are exposing some budding stars returning at all levels and Savvy projections suggest this defense won’t fall far from its 19th-ranking for getting sacks.
This team won seven a year ago and now falls in an easier division of a new C-USA realignment. With an easier schedule, Savvy likes this team for nine and is leaning toward 10. A tough game against Alabama comes early, but the last five are probably all wins and should deliver a national ranking.

3.   Appalachian State

This will be the first season that App State will play as an FBS team but without quarterback Taylor Lamb.  Some fans say, “No worries.  We still have (coach) Scott Satterfield and he’s the driver of this bus.”  Others seems just as inclined to say, “Well, that’s fine but Taylor Lamb WAS the bus!”   And why not?  Last year, Lamb threw for over 2700 yards and ran the football at a 7.5 ypc. clip while also accounting for 32 total touchdowns.
But, Satterfield has been working for this season without Lamb.  He began in 2015 to recruit Zac Thomas who was an all-Alabama, three-star quarterback with more than ten scholarship offers from FBS and FCS teams.  At first, Satterfield’s work backfired because Thomas signed with a different program.  Not discouraged, Coach S. doubled-down and convinced Thomas to come to ASU to someday replace Lamb.   Quarterbacks coach Frank Ponce said Thomas “…can throw the football anywhere on the football field with some zip to it. He goes through his progressions nicely, understands the scheme we like to run and makes good decisions.”
Ponce continued to say that much of the Mountaineers’ success has come from ball security which indeed was the case with Lamb who held a fabulous 1.8% interception ratio.  That will be a high standard for Thomas whose last season as a starter (high school senior) produced an interception ratio of over 4%.
The Mountaineers finished in the nation’s top-25 in both rushing and passing efficiency and in the  top-30 for total defense, so both sides of the ball were strong.
Two effective running backs return in Jalin Moore (1037 yards) and Marcus Williams who combined for 280 carries.
Despite the graduation of all-Sun Belt receiver Ike Lewis, there are plenty of experienced and talented receivers led by 6’2″ wide-out Thomas Hennigan who had nearly the same numbers as Lewis.  Hennigan is one of four sophomore receivers who caught passes last year.
For those who don’t know…App State’s offensive line finished 2nd in the country for protecting the quarterback.  Impressed?  Well, most of that line is back although two who graduated were NFL prospects.  Matt Williams and Baer Hunter will not be as dominating but each has plenty of game experience and should be adequate.
Three proven sophomores return to the defensive front but defensive end Tee Sims has graduated and his 265 pound presence will certainly be missed.  Sims led the Mountaineers in tackles-for-loss and sacks.  The linebacking unit must be rebuilt after three starters left and the loss of A.J. Howard at safety will be hard to fill.  This defense will decline somewhat in 2018 but should be enough to get into the C-USA title game once again.
Three of the first four games are at home but one is against Miami-Fl, a team ASU could not handle in 2017, and another is against Mountain West champion Fresno State.  Given that this team has an unproven qb and a drop in defense, Savvy is currently set at 8-4.

4.   Georgia State

There are several reasons to think this outfit is becoming a true “program” in college football.
First, it has Shawn Elliott who is one of the best coaches in football.   Second, supporters found a way to buy Turner Stadium which is a great place for the Panthers.   And third, GSU is a perennial bowl team and likely to do it again now.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some questions, however.  In fact, there are many of them.
Let’s begin with quarterback Aaron Winchester.  He has practically no experience at GSU and he’s expected to replace Conner Manning who made himself somewhat of a legend in the Atlanta area.  Winchester has looked good in preseason workouts but there have been too few to know for sure.   Although he has skill as a dual-threat who fits the Panthers’ system, he was not highly-recruited.  Coaches like his outstanding leadership, his high football IQ, and his composure under pressure.
The same potential cannot be suggested for running the football.  The Panthers finished 113th last year and averaged just 3.2 ypc.  Worse yet, the top two running backs have graduated and other than Tra Barnett, this group seems much below average.
We don’t anticipate the offensive line being better, but even if it is, it will only be a little better.
GSU abounds with talented receivers led by Penny Hart who will get some all-American mentions.  Last season, the 5’8″ speedster brought in 1121 yards and scored a touchdown every nine receptions. Of the receivers who caught touchdown passes in 2017, 14 of those tds return.  With receivers like that and his ability to escape pressure, Winchester should do very well in his first year as a starting college quarterback.
Somehow, this team got to a bowl game despite averaging just 20 ppg.  Of course, that was possible because the Panthers were very strong on its defensive front.  Nearly all of that defense returns led by all-Sun Belt defensive end Marterious Allen and all-Sun Belt linebacker Michael Shaw.  Three others have already been listed as candidates for all-Conference.
Until there is evidence that the newly outfitted skill parts on offense are actually tuned enough to produce results, Savvy is projecting another seven win season.

5.   South Alabama

South Alabama is one of the biggest “sleepers” in college football this season. After going 4-8, most experts tab this team for the bottom 20 and expect three wins.
The Savvy Index has quite another projection.
Head coach Steve Campbell has come to SAU after being a head coach for two decades and never having a losing season. Meanwhile, South Alabama hasn’t had a winning season since 2013. What it has lacked is experienced leadership with a vision and that is what coach Campbell brings along with the assurance that this will no longer be Savvy’s choice as the most unpredictable team in America.
SAU fans were looking forward to a quarterback battle.  They got one, just, not quite the way they expected.
Dallas Davis  held the early edge on senior Cole Garvin and was expected to prove it when the Jaguars began 2018 workouts.
Instead, Davis quit—two days before spring practice.
Freshman Cephus Johnson realized the opportunity that Davis’ departure offered and he suddenly rose from the ranks of the redshirts to give Garvin the battle of his life.  Even if Johnson is not the starter in the first game, he will be by mid-season and it seems clear that he is the “face” of this program for years to come.
There are plenty of receivers at SAla with the return of Jamarius Way who is all-Sun Belt quality and six others who produced well last season and again in the spring game. Three effective and experienced tight ends return as well.
Junior Tray Minter is expected to lead the ground game but that isn’t saying much since it couldn’t generate even 100 yards per game—as a team.  Changing schemes and getting a better rush attack are prime objectives for coach Campbell.
Even so, the offensive line is weak and only returns its two starting tackles.
Defense is where this team brings smiles, especially up front.   Again this year, fans can expect the run defense to be very strong.  The importance of a strong run defense to a team’s over all success is seldom overstated and this unit has a key role in Savvy projecting success.
The linebacking group is strong and experienced and the secondary is deep and likely to take a noticeable step forward after being throttled by injuries a year ago.
For the past two seasons, it was common to see these Jaguars knock off a ranked opponent one week, only to have everyone scratching their heads when it lost by multiple possessions to a lesser opponent the next.   Expect that issue to dissipate under Campbell.
Against the opinions of established and learned critiques, Savvy projects South Alabama to be a winner of eight games and a dark-horse challenger for the Sun Belt title.

6.   Georgia Southern

Several months ago, we wrote about how former head coach Tyson Summers had broken commitments to keep GSU’s tricky and entertaining triple option offense.  He started well but with each game, he went further and further away until the admins cut “Ty’s” with their coach.  It seems curious now that more of us didn’t see that coming.  I mean, Summers wasn’t a triple option guy and he doubled-down on that incongruity by hiring an offensive coordinator who not only had no college experience but wasn’t a triple option guy either.
When the guillotine fell and the mess of severed heads was sawdusted over, assistant coach Chad Lunsford was raised to the throne.  Chad did the right thing.  He went back to GSU’s decades of triple-option success and even though his team lost its next three games (all against bowl opponents), the Eagles began to soar, winning two of their last three.
The rushing attack was among the nation’s best and should continue strong with the return of running back Wesley Fields (811 yards).
He’ll have all five of the starting linemen ahead of him.  In fact, ten lineman with experience are back and when added together, they have an eye-popping 102 starts between them.
GSU fans don’t concern themselves much with the absence of a high-flying passing attack because these Eagles grind; they don’t soar. Besides, the passing game got good ‘nuf when it got Werts, as in quarterback Shai Werts who also returns.
The receiving group is in good hands with Malik Henry and Obe Fortune plus the addition of two big newcomers Mark Michaud (6’4′, 220) and D’Ondre Glenn (6’5″, 220).
The defense was vulnerable against the pass but with 10 of 11 starters returning, there is a great deal of expectation that it will be much improved.
This is a tough team to play and a team that will more than double its win total from 2017.  Some observers say this is a bottom-20 team.  Savvy sees it much higher and currently projects five wins.  The Index may project six depending upon the progress of two other Sun Belt teams.

7.   Louisiana-Monroe

Coach Matt Viator is in his third year and it’s time for the Warhawks to post a winning record.   There has been progress as evidenced by last year’s running game which finished in the top half of FBS football and should be better now that much of the starting roster is back.
Remember the name Caleb Evans because he is the one quarterback that most people know nothing about but certainly will by season’s end.  Last year, Evans not only completed more than 61% of his passes, but he amassed over 2800 yards.  Want more?  Well, Evans has one of the best interception ratios in American football (1.7%).  And, while he wasn’t passing the ball, he was running it as he finished the season ranked as the Warhawks’ second-leading rusher with 579 yards and more than twice as many running tds (13) as any other back.   As long as Evans is healthy, the Hawks will rock-and-roll stadium scoreboards all season.
Making his job easier is the return of his two favorite receivers.  Marcus Green and RJ Turner accounted for 94 receptions and averaged a nifty 16 ypc in the process.   In the preseason, fans were also impressed with redshirt freshman receiver Zachari Jackson who caught three touchdown passes of more than 30 yards in the spring game.
This offense scored more than 50 points in four games, surpassed 500 yards in five, and finished in the FBS top-25 in total offense.
Yet, the Hawks only won four games.  Of course, you already know the problem.
ULM couldn’t stop opponents either on the ground or through the air. Viator has spent his first two seasons with a special focus on recruiting bigger and better defensive players and the fruits of those efforts must begin to show now because in 2017, ULM finished next-to-the-last in FBS total defense.  And it must show progress now because the defense has enough returning starters to be better.
The defensive line will replace some parts but Kerry Starks returns after leading the DL in sacks.
Caleb Tucker graduated from the linebacking corps but senior David Griffith returns after making 76 tackles and leading the defense in tackles for loss.
The secondary is where ULM should really begin to shine.   A ton of experienced corners and safeties return after a year of crazy juxtapositions that were brought on by injuries. If this unit stays healthy, look for the ULM defense to climb from 128 to the low 90’s and if that happens, this team is a bowl prospect.
Savvy is currently at 6.5 wins but as the preseason brings more developments, the Index will likely adjust a half-game before the season starts.

8.   Texas State

It seems the popular thing to do these days is to put the Bobcats at the bottom ten of the FBS.   But Savvy has identified metrics that say this program is likely to rise.
Much of that ascension is contingent upon finding a starting quarterback.  Willie Jones III (aka: WJ III) has the potential to be dynamic but not enough to lock down the starter’s spot in the spring.  Some think Tyler Vitt might be the answer after a great high school career but he only had one D-1 offer (Texas State) and he also didn’t do enough in the spring to become the starter.
While that is a significant problem, the offensive line is in good shape.  Keep in mind that coach Everett Withers went with young OLs last season and most of them are back for 2018.  Certainly, they must do better because last year, they only cleared enough room for the 101st rushing “attack” and they finished 118th for protecting the quarterback.
A half dozen running backs and another half-dozen receivers return but no running back averaged as many as 10 carries per game and no receiver averaged as many as four receptions.  With uncertainty at qb and a new offensive coordinator, don’t expect much from the skill units.  
Eighty-eight players participated in spring drills so there are a lot of bodies from which to choose.  But, how many are there that can raise this program to a winning season?  
For all of its uncertainties on offense, the Bobcats will be very strong on defense.  Texas State was in the top-40 in the all important objective of stopping opponents’ run games.  That should be even better this season with perhaps the best linebacking corps in the Conference led by all-Sunbelt LB Bryan Landon who posted 91 tackles.
So much of this team’s prospectus rides on finding a qb to replace Damian Williams.  If WJIII develops, this will be a 7-5 team but with that not known, Savvy is sitting at six wins.    

9.   Louisiana-Lafayette

The Cajuns had one of the best rushing attacks in the Sun Belt behind Trey Ragas (813 yards/5.73 ypc). In spring scrimmages, it was Jordan Wright that new head coach Billy Napier praised.  “I think he’s going to be a guy we can really count on.”  With Ragas and Wright, ULL has a strong one-two punch.
The offensive line returns with only one starter gone so there is hope that it will be better against pressure (107th in sacks yielded).  Coach Napier likes that this year’s OL is bigger, stronger, and deeper.
Two quarterbacks return in seniors Jordan Davis and Andre Nunez but neither has looked good in a preseason scrimmage when both missed on every pass attempt over ten yards.  That seemed odd because the fourth-string qb completed two over twenty.  Neither Jordan nor Nunez put up great numbers last year as they combined for less than 2200 yards while putting up an awful 3.2% interceptiom ratio.   
The defense gave up 40ppg last year so there’s plenty of work to do on the secondary.
Defensive coaching changes and switching to a 3-4 scheme are giving some hope for the defensive side to be better.
The future for this program under Napier will be fun to watch because he has a history of success and a high drive to make it work.
With apologies to Bill Walton, defense is the foundation for winning and with further apologies to Ragin’ Cajun fans, this isn’t the year things will get much better.  Probably in 2019.  In the meantime, Savvy sees four wins.

10.  Coastal Carolina

This team can’t seem to get out of its own way. Two years ago, it came up with an awful FCS/FBS transition strategy and last year, HC Joe Moglia missed most of the season with an unfortunate illness. It also has a problem with critical penalties turning winnable games into frustrating losses.
The Chantis tried five quarterbacks last season and still couldn’t find a leader.   Add in two new recruits and there seems to be plenty of targets on coach Moglia’s quarterback dartboard.  Can you imagine being the seventh string quarterback at Coastal Carolina?  Kilton Anderson appears to be the leader but in six games last year, he completed less than 50% of his passes and he needs to clean up some of his 2.7% interception ratio.
Quarterbacks may not have much time to throw this year since only two offensive line starters return.
If Anderson can get the ball off, there are two outstanding returning receivers in Malcolm Williams and Ky’Jon Tyler.
At 205 lbs., junior running Alex James has the tools and experience to present a decent ground game.  James was a consistent producer in the spring game and erupted for one 23-yard run.  And, there might be additional help from Marcus Outlow and transfer Torrance Marable both of whom also looked good in the spring.
This team has not done well in finishing drives but some of that will change if it can get a handle on those annoying penalties.
The defense no longer has leading tackler and all-Sun Belt linebacker Shane Johnson.  With a schedule that is a bit harder, it is not likely that this unit will fare better than the 34 ppg performance of last year.
The season begins at South Carolia but three of the last four games are at home and two of those might just be winnable.  It’s a stretch for Savvy to suggest this team will get to another three win season, but at this time, that is how the current preseason metrics align.