The 2016 Sun Belt football preview, featuring the key games, players, pro prospects and coaches on the hot seat.
This is a strange and interesting time in the world of the Sun Belt. The conference is about to kick two of its kids out of the house – Idaho and New Mexico State are going to be gone next year – and yet those two are returning with two of their best respective teams in years.
But even with the unpleasantness of the big business decision to split the revenue among fewer programs, this should be one of the most entertaining years in the conference’s history. There is a fully-stocked cupboard of talent across the board.
There’s not a lot of rebuilding being done among the big boys – the top teams are absolutely loaded, and the stats and production should follow.
Appalachian State is still relatively new to the FBS word, but it’s cranking up the wins and gets star running back Marcus Cox back along with nine defensive starters. The league’s other ASU – Arkansas State – will also be terrific, and is led by a fantastic and experienced defensive front seven.
Georgia Southern’s unstoppable option offense will be as strong as ever even with new head coach Tyson Summers taking over – almost all the parts return to the backfield. Georgia State’s defense should be better, but it was the passing game that got the program to a bowl game, and now it has to replace quarterback Nick Arbuckle.
Louisiana-Lafayette is coming off a massively disappointing 4-8 season, but it has as much returning talent to be right back in the mix for the Sun Belt title, led by a dangerous ground attack. Meanwhile, in-state rival ULM has a new head coach in Matt Viator trying to pick up the pieces after a 2-11 season, and Texas State under new head man Everett Withers should be far, far better than the 3-9 record of last year.
South Alabama is coming off a rebuilding season that was really, really close to finishing with a bowl appearance, and now its defense comes back strong, while Troy’s offense will be far more of a factor for a team that’ll likely be in the mix for a post-season game.
And then there are the lame ducks.
New Mexico State hasn’t had any fun for a long, long time, but it has a statistical superstar weapon in running back Larry Rose III leading a potentially devastating offense. Idaho also has a high-powered attack that should explode in its final year in the Sun Belt world. Neither team has a defense that could stop you and ten friends from putting 35 points up on the board, but they’re going to be the fun X-factors for a conference full of fun X-factors.
It’s also a conference full of unstoppable offenses, a few key coaching changes, and vengeful desperation. The 2016 Sun Belt will be your college football guilty pleasure.
Sun Belt Football Team That Will Surprise
Texas State – The Bobcats should’ve been better over the last few years under Dennis Franchione. He’s gone, and now it’s up to Everett Withers to take the offense and crank up the tempo several levels. It might take a little while to become a true player in the Sun Belt race, but Texas State will be far better than the 3-9 it went last season.
Sun Belt Football Team That Will Disappoint
Georgia Southern – Okay, this sounds silly considering the Eagles should be deep in the hunt for the Sun Belt title, but there isn’t anyone else in the league with the same high expectations with as many concerns. The potential is there to struggle a bit after losing head coach Willie Fritz to Tulane, but the big problem is the schedule with five road games in a six-week stretch.
Game Of The Year
Appalachian State at Georgia Southern, Sept. 27 – The real Sun Belt Game of the Year is Arkansas State vs. Appalachian State – and it’s not happening. The two don’t play each other, but they should be the two best teams in the league. The big one that’s actually being played is when the Mountaineers have to go to Georgia Southern in what should be a fun and wild shootout. Last year it was a dud with ASU coming up with a dominant 31-13 win, returning the favor after GSU won 34-13 the year before.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve A Bigger Spotlight
Five players who have been a bit under the radar on a national level, but should rise up and be among the season’s best players – again.
1. RB Matt Breida, Sr. Georgia Southern
2. RB Elijah McGuire, Sr. Louisiana-Lafayette
3. LB Eric Boggs, Jr. Appalachian State
4. CB Latrell Gibbs, Jr. Appalachian State
5. QB Matt Linehan, Jr. Idaho
5 Sun Belt Coaches On The Hot Seat
Five Sun Belt coaches who’d better win this season. Being on a hot seat doesn’t necessarily mean a coach is about to fired, but the pressure is on to produce up to expectations, and beyond.
1. Doug Martin, New Mexico State
2. Paul Petrino, Idaho
3. Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette
4. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
5. Neal Brown, Troy
5 Non-Conference Games That Sun Belt Opponents Better Take Very, Very Seriously
The Sun Belt is going to be more than just competitive in the paycheck non-conference games. Here are five the Power Fivers have to show up for.
1. Miami at Appalachian State, Sept. 17
2. Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech, Oct. 15
3. Arkansas State at Auburn, Sept. 10
4. Appalachian State at Tennessee, Sept. 3
5. Georgia Southern at Ole Miss, Nov. 5
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. P Austin Rehkow, Idaho
2. DE Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State
3. RB Larry Rose III, New Mexico State
4. RB Marcus Cox, Appalachian State
5. WR Penny Hart, Georgia State
5 Biggest Shoes To Fill
1. Appalachian State DE Caleb Fuller for Ronald Blair
2. Arkansas State QB Chad Voytik or Justice Hansen for Fredi Knighten
3. Georgia State QB Emiere Scaife or Conner Manning for Nick Arbuckle
4. ULM LB Braxton Moore for Hunter Kissinger
5. Troy LB Sam Lebbie for Tyler Roberts