2018 Sun Belt Football Preview: The Most Interesting Season Ever
There are so many storylines to the upcoming Sun Belt football season, I should have broken this preview into volumes. But I didn’t, and you’re welcome.
Since Sun Belt football was founded in 2001, the conference has seen six seasons of co-champions. The title was split three ways in 2005. For the last two years, the Sun Belt has claimed four champions.
And that’s kinda dumb.
At this moment, Troy and Appalachian State are both sauntering into the season calling themselves champs. That’s not fair to the 2017 Mountaineers or the Trojans. Like the Highlander, there can be only one, damnit! One conference, one champion! Why should the Sun Belt comport itself like some kind of second rate conference like the Big XII?
The embarrassment and the shame ends in 2018, now that Sun Belt has finally adopted a championship game.
Yes! HA HA! At last, and end to this co-crap! And as if to make up for 17 years of failure, Commissioner Karl Benson dropped this bad boy on us:
See? The Sun BELT has a BELT for the championship game MVP. Too on the nose? Who cares? It’s bad ass, and it’s much cooler than whatever the lame pile of plastic the SEC is pawning off.
The Sun Belt will have two divisions now
Rather name the divisions the “Karl” and the “Benson,” the Sun Belt went with the more sadly obvious “East” and “West” which I guess is pragmatic in its descriptiveness. Anyway, here’s how the East an the West shape up.
|The Karl (East)||The Benson (West)|
|Appalachian State||Arkansas State|
|Georgia State||South Alabama|
Wow, the Sun Belt co-champs are stuck in the same division! Awkward. We’ll get over it, though, because divisions are fun because it’s something else to win. Except for you, Texas State. You don’t get to win anything.
But how will these divisions shake out in 2018? Twist my arm, I’ll make a guess:
|The Karl (East)||The Benson (West)|
|Georgia State||South Alabama|
|Coastal Carolina||Texas State|
Troy versus Arkansas State would be two Sun Belt Original Gangsters slugging it out for supremacy in December. That would be cool.
Some programs are getting a facelift
Last year, Georgia State opened the season in new digs, reformatting old Turner Field in Atlanta into Panther Stadium. And it’s nice. Not to be completely outdone, a couple Sun Belt programs are unveiling fresh facilities of their own.
Last season, Troy announced the addition of club-level seats, new concessions, new locker and weight rooms, and a bitch’n 35×90′ video board.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State is completing a North Endzone Project of its own, adding the usual goodies (loge seating, weight room, locker room) plus…water features!
The addition is only expected to by partially complete by opening day when the Red Wolves host Southwest Missouri State. No word as to whether or not Arkansas State AD plans to christen the water feature with a cannonball.
Meanwhile, South Alabama announced plans to quit itself of dingy, unsatisfactory graded Ladd-Peebles Stadium with a new, $72M on campus venue.
The plan calls for $10M in public funding, and naturally there are fuddy-duddies on the Mobile city council wringing their hands.
The QB position is wide open in the Sun Belt
In May, the blokes at Athlon announced their preseason All-Sun Belt Teams, which included the usual number of debatably slights. The selections for one particular position proved quite revealing however. Arkansas State’s Justice Hansen and ULM’s Caleb Evans were named to the First and Second teams (respectively), leaving Athlon to reach deep for a Third and Fourth team selection.
Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas and Troy’s Kaleb Barker received those honors, though the signal callers have exactly 17 completed college passes combined. Yet, for mysterious reasons, Athlon believed in Thomas and Barker more than lightly-seasoned Sun Belt quarterbacks like Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts or South Alabama’s Cole Garvin.
Of course, Barker and Thomas might be lights-out from Week 1. However, Athlon’s deep dive into the Sun Belt QB pool tells us that we’re not quite living a golden age of Sun Belt signal callers. Both Hansen and Evans are primed for tremendous seasons, but the position mostly remains a big mystery come opening week.
New coaches on the block
Did you know that Scott Frost is now coaching Nebraska? Or that Jimbo Fisher moved to Texas A&M? Of course you do, because thanks ESPN. The Sun Belt also welcomes new faces in 2018. And they’re a cool group of dudes.
Steve Campbell arrives to South Alabama after a successful stint at the University of Central where he went 29-6 and led the Bears to a pair of FCS playoff appearances. He replaces former SBC Coach of the Year Joey Jones.
Billy Napier takes over the reins from the muscular Mark Hudspeth at Louisiana. Napier spent a season as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator. At the age of 39, look for him to bring some energy to a Cajuns’ team in bad need of a fresh outlook.
After a season’s siesta, Joe Moglia returns to helm the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina. With his health restored, Joe looks to apply his keen business intellect to raising the Chants stock.
Georgia Southern fans will at last sea a full measure of Chad Lunsford, who picks up the pieces left by Tyson Summers’ unceremonious mid-season firing. Lunsford promises a more traditional return to the mystifying triple-option offense that saw the Eagles to many championships in the past.
Who has a shot at usurping the Sun Belt Big 3?
In recent seasons, the troika of Arkansas State, Appalachian State, and Troy have dominated the conference, with the rest of the Sun Belt playing pesky spoiler. In 2018, Arkansas State is favored to win the Sun Belt, with Troy and Appalachian State expected to challenge heavily. However, the space behind the three seems very murky.
With the exception, perhaps, of the ULM Warhawks.
Guided by Matt “Darth” Viator, the Warhawks have taken their heroically tiny operating budget and transformed the football program into a points-producing factory. The 2017 offense remains largely intact, with Evans tossing darts, RJ Turner hauling in pills, and Derrick Gore pounding the pigskin.
The problem with the Warhawks was defense, which ranked next to last in 2017. Viator’s defense didn’t pressure the quarterback and allowed 530 yards per game. If Darth can develop a pass rush, and if his secondary can mature, look for ULM to lurk in the Sun Belt standings.
The Sun Belt got snubbed by the P5 this season
The Sun Belt enjoyed a nice run of Power Five programs visiting SBC stadiums, but that all comes to an end in 2018. All P5 vs G5 games are being played on privileged ground. I’d dig deeper to check if this represents a larger scheduling trend across the Group of Five board, but this article is already getting too long.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.