We have reached the Sun Belt Conference. While you could make the argument that the Sun Belt is the weakest conference in Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision Football, it does not mean we can simply ignore the conference all together. That would be an injustice to a conference that is home to Georgia Southern University and their Option Offense, Appalachian State University and their Miracle at the Big House, and the brand new member to FBS in Coastal Carolina University.
It was a split championship in the Sun Belt in 2016, as both Appalachian State and Arkansas State University finished the year with identical 7-1 conference records. The Sun Belt is the only conference left in the FBS that does not host a Conference Championship game, instead determining their champion solely on how each team fares against a schedule of eight Sun Belt teams. This can be problematic, since there are 12 teams in the Sun Belt, meaning that each school will not get the chance to play three of their Sun Belt rivals. Therefore, we will have the possibility of another split championship in 2017. Changes will come soon enough, as 2018 will see the Sun Belt become the final conference to adopt the championship game method of determining the conference champion when they split into an East and West Division.
As a reminder, Coastal Carolina is the newest member of the Sun Belt Conference and the FBS. Since they are in the process of transitioning from Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision to Football Bowl Subdivision, they are ineligible to play in a bowl game in 2017 per NCAA rules.
Without further ado, here is my preview of the Sun Belt Conference.
Appalachian State University Mountaineers (App St) – When your top Quarterback and Running Back return from a team that won ten games the previous season, you have to expect said team to be in contention for a conference championship. Quarterback Taylor Lamb, as well as Running Back Jalin Moore, return to lead a dangerous offense, and a good chunk of 2016’s number one Sun Belt defense comes back as well. It will be a tough start for the Mountaineers, as they must travel to Southeastern Conference foe the University of Georgia for their opening game. Fortunately for them, they will not have to play Troy University or Arkansas State this year, who are potentially their two biggest threats to the crown. Appalachian State will continue to be at or near the top of the Sun Belt in 2017, with the capability to win every game after their opener against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Arkansas State University Red Wolves (Ark St) – The Red Wolves were Sun Belt co-Champs in 2016, and they have a good argument to say they will make a repeat run in 2017. Arkansas State returns their top three offensive stars, including Quarterback Justice Hansen, who threw only eight interceptions over the course of 13 games a year ago. Perhaps the most important returning player is Defensive Lineman Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, considered by many to be the best defensive player in the Sun Belt. As stated above, we will not get to see Appalachian State take on the Red Wolves, but that does not mean that there are no challenges on this schedule. As was the case last season, it is a tough non-conference schedule, with the first two games for Arkansas State coming against powerhouses the University of Nebraska and the University of Miami. Nonetheless, once conference play begins, I expect Arkansas State to again be a top contender for a conference championship.
Troy University Trojans (Troy) – There is a lot of firepower coming back from Troy’s 2016 10-win team. The Trojans boasted the number one offense in the Sun Belt a season ago, led by Quarterback Brandon Silvers, Running Back Jordan Chunn, and Receiver Emanuel Thompson, all of whom are coming back for 2017. Coach Neal Brown certainly has things going in the right direction for Troy, despite missing a share of the conference championship by only one win last season. Brown and his crew will have a tough task when they travel to Arkansas State for perhaps the biggest game in 2017 for the Sun Belt Conference. If they can take down the Red Wolves, I see no reason why Troy would not contend for the conference championship. With that being said, even if they fall to Arkansas State, they still have the talent to contend for the Sun Belt Championship in 2017.
University of South Alabama Jaguars (USA) – It is not often that a non-power conference school goes 4-0 outside of conference play, but that is precisely what the South Alabama Jaguars did in 2016. In spite of a great start, they under-performed during Sun Belt play, winning just two conference games, and limping into their bowl game. Even in light of their under-performance in the 2016 season, there is optimism for the Jaguars in 2017. While Quarterback Dallas Davis had a sub-par season in 2016, throwing just 11 touchdowns, there is a chance that he could be the breakout star of South Alabama this season. In addition, while the defense under-performed last year, a good chunk of it returns for 2017 a year older, wiser, and stronger. It will not be easy climbing the mountain for South Alabama, but if some dominoes fall their way, there is a chance for the Jaguars to steal the show and take the crown in 2017.
Following my general rule, I see no teams in the Sun Belt Conference that can be considered disappointments in 2017.
The 2017 season will be the final time for there to be a shared conference championship in the Sun Belt, and I believe that the outcome from 2016 will repeat itself in 2017. Top contenders Arkansas State and Appalachian State are once again the teams to beat in the Sun Belt, although, as was the case last year, I believe that the Mountaineers are slightly more talented than the Red Wolves. Troy, however, will not go down without a fight, staying in contention until the end. With no conference championship game, it is difficult to tell who the true conference champion will be in the event of a tie.
Come back Sunday at midnight for the unveiling of our Sun Belt Champion, or Champions, only on tedtalksports.com!