Grading My Preseason Predictions: Sun Belt

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Part of me feels bad for the Sun Belt. They are fighting a perpetual uphill battle, recruiting and playing in the shadow of SEC giants and struggling to end most fiscal years in the black. They don’t have an individualistic appeal like other G5 conferences do; the MAC has weeknight MACtion, the AAC has UCF making waves in the playoff, the Mountain West has Boise State and Utah State on the late night slate, and C-USA, despite carrying UTEP and Rice, finds pockets in busy Saturday afternoons to make their mark.

I would venture to guess that the average fan doesn’t know much about the Sun Belt as many of their member schools have recently transitioned from the FCS level. Some programs still have the look of FCS programs, and others are on the path to G5 stardom and the birth of streaming has made them much more accessible but I will admit that I didn’t do enough homework on the Sun Belt conference this season and didn’t ingest enough of their content. Even so, my predictions weren’t too bad all things considered.

App State won the conference yet again in what felt like a foregone conclusion with few serious competitors for the crown. Louisville hired away Scott Satterfield after the incredible resurrection job he did bringing App State out of the FCS level and going 47-16 in 5 seasons in Boone, leaving former DC Eliah Drinkwitz in charge. He knows the system and the players but Year 1 is never easy in the G5.

Arkansas State started the year in difficult fashion, opening 4-4 with one-score losses against Georgia Southern and Louisiana, but finished on a 4-game winning streak until the bowl game. Looking to 2019, Blake Anderson’s wife is battling cancer, so the football season doesn’t feel as important, but they have a much more favorable non-con schedule, featuring up-and-coming SMU, UNLV, Southern Illinois…and Georgia.

Joe Moglia performed admirably as Coastal Carolina’s head coach in 2018, bringing another FCS team to relevance, but unfortunately some medical issues forced him into retirement, leaving OC Jamey Chadwell in charge for 2019. That said, Coastal Carolina appeared over-matched in many of their games in 2018, losing 5 of their 7 games by 24 points or more (and a 6th by 16 points).

I am very proud of my Georgia Southern predictions, only missing one game. Chad Lunsford worked a miracle in 2018, improving from 2-10 to 10-3, capping an incredible run with a dramatic win over Eastern Michigan in the Camelia Bowl that made Georgia Southern one of the best stories in college football. 2019 has a tough non-con schedule (trips to LSU and Minnesota), but should be one of the favorites in the Sun Belt. Triple Option til I die!

Photo: Phillip Jordan

For as good as Georgia Southern was, Georgia State was the opposite. The Panthers have had only one winning season since they joined FBS in 2013, but last year was one of the worst they’ve had at this level. Their only two wins came against FCS Kennesaw State (who was probably good enough to beat the Panthers) and a drubbing of UL-Monroe, plummeting them to 125th in S&P+ – Shawn Elliott has to be on the hot seat for 2019.

I owe Louisiana a big apology based on my predictions – I had them going 3-9 but severely underestimated Billy Napier’s Year 1 ability. After Mark Hudspeth’s run of New Orleans Bowls, Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns advanced to the Sun Belt title game and were down by 4 in the 4th quarter but couldn’t stop the Mountaineers. 7-7 in Year 1 is impressive and the future is bright in Lafayette.

Similarly, I owe Louisiana-Monroe an apology albeit not as big of one. They didn’t play as well as their 6-6 record necessarily indicates, escaping from bad games against Texas State and Southern Miss with victories and losing four straight games by 127 points including a 46-14 loss to Georgia State. Their 2019 schedule is brutal, opening with Grambling State, Florida State, Iowa State, and Memphis before conference play begins.

Yet another FCS transition, South Alabama broke in Steve Campbell who underwent a 3-9 Year 0. Finishing 2018 117th in S&P+, the Jaguars only managed to lose one game by single digits; everything else was a blowout. Like ULM, 2019 will be an uphill battle, featuring games against Nebraska, Memphis, and UAB. Five wins would be excellent.

Of all the teams in the Sun Belt, none had a worse year than Texas State. The 3-9 campaign and 114th S&P+ finish cost Everett Withers his job in San Marcos, despite it being one of the toughest jobs in college football. Rising to the challenge in 2019 is former WVU offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who will need a few years to get his system in place (if it happens at all). An A&M, Wyoming, and SMU start is not a friendly beginning to his tenure.

Neal Brown and Troy continued to impress in the shadow of Alabama and Auburn. Despite getting shellacked Week 1 against Boise State, the Trojans recovered nicely only to lose to Liberty (wut) and App State in the final week of the regular season and defeated a thrilling Buffalo squad in the Dollar General Bowl. Neal Brown has left for Morgantown; new head man Chip Lindsey has deep ties to the South and comes to Troy after two years as Auburn’s offensive coordinator.

Photo: Troy University

The Sun Belt is an extremely young conference; only 3 of the 10 member schools were playing FBS football before 2000. Recruiting in the south can be incredibly difficult, but it also has its perks: the cutthroat nature of the major programs can make for a number of hungry players who feel slighted by the larger programs. The conference has not proven itself (yet) to be a proving ground for young coaches, but Satterfield and Brown moving on is a huge feather in the conference’s cap. 2019 should be another difficult year for many schools but there might be a new champion with so many new head coaches in the mix.

Header photo: Andrew Dye, The Winstom-Salem Journal