2019 NCAAF Preview: Sun Belt Conference

August 29, 2019
By K. Becks

As conference realignment during the earlier half of the decade shifted teams around (as well as in and out) the FBS, the Sun Belt stood to benefit as much as any of the Power 5 schools in terms of overall competition.

In 2019, the league is well-rounded, with a solid mix of perennial title contenders as well as several programs still in the early years of competing in the top division of college football.

This dynamic has more than once created some of the better stories come postseason time, such as Appalachian State’s last second victory in its first FBS bowl appearance in 2015 to now being a legitimate New Year’s Six bowl bid contender just four seasons later.

With several teams showing promise to compete for the conference title in 2019, it should be yet another exciting season in the FBS version of a diamond in the rough.

College Football Playoff Contenders

None

Barring a perfect season from any other program, the Sun Belt’s chances of a New Year’s Six bowl participant very heavily hinges on the success of Appalachian State in 2019. The Mountaineers are the one team with enough of a national reputation to earn some Top 25 votes if they can manage to head into Columbia, South Carolina on November 9 with a perfect record. Even a competitive loss against South Carolina may not spell the end of that conversation if Eli Drinktwitz’s team takes care of business everywhere else.

That scenario is a big “if”, however, and also requires that the other Group of Five conferences aren’t bringing much to the table in terms of eligible teams to represent the collective in one of the marquee bowl games. It’s no secret that the Sun Belt is generally regarded as the first or second weakest conference in FBS and that is unlikely to change in 2019.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Texas State

It isn’t just the NFL combing all ranks of organized football to find the next boy genius. When Texas State hired Jake Spavital, he was only 33 years old, making him the second youngest head coach in FBS. In his first job at this level, Spavital will be tasked with elevating a program that has only been in the FBS since 2012. While that is going to be a challenge, Spavital inherits a defense that returns all but one starter and was already one of the best against the pass in the Sun Belt.

With the defense seemingly in good hands, Spavital will look to turn sophomore Tyler Vitt into a household name in the conference. Considering the young head coach is known for developing quarterbacks and his offensive coordinator Bob Stitt is highly regarded as an innovative offensive mind, Vitt is in good hands. His development could turn into a breakout season for an experienced team overall that got an injection of energy over the offseason with the hiring of Spavital.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Corey Sutton, Appalachian State junior wide receiver

As a sophomore, Sutton finished second in the conference with 773 yards receiving on 44 receptions to go along with 10 touchdowns, which tied for the conference lead. All of those numbers are solid, but expect the 6’3” deep threat to have an even better campaign under new Mountaineers head coach Eli Drinkwitz. At North Carolina State, Drinkwitz led some of the best passing attacks in the country and will take full advantage of his quarterback, 2018 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Zac Thomas.

Taking advantage of Thomas means taking advantage of Sutton, the top target on the team last season. With Drinkwitz running the offense, Sutton is bound to take the next step as a receiver and will jostle with the Sun Belt’s other premier wideouts at the top of the major statistical categories for the position.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Georgia Southern at LSU (August 31)

The Eagles are an interesting opener for any team because of the triple option offense that they elect to run. But while its novelty can be a difficult thing to prepare for in the middle of the season, it’s an entirely different story when a team has had an entire offseason to devise a game plan.

If LSU is for real as a CFP contender, they will roll over Georgia Southern. But in the unlikely event that they don’t, this one will be worth watching because when a favored team struggles against the triple option, it typically struggles hard.

Appalachian State at South Carolina (November 9)

While most Sun Belt teams will be predicted to struggle against their SEC opponents, this one has the chance to be a real battle. The Mountaineers have been gold standard in the Sun Belt over the past few seasons, and even the transition to new head coach (and former North Carolina State OC) Eli Drinkwitz may not derail that.

Appalachian State has favored possession based offense in the past, but Drinkwitz may turn them into a much more up-tempo squad. If that is the case and Zac Thomas can handle it, the Mountaineers may be a freight train offensively that even SEC defenses have trouble defending.

In-Conference Games to Watch

UL-Lafayette at Arkansas State (October 17)

From year to year, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re going to get from either program. Both have been successful at leaning on different units on both sides of the football and finding success. This year, it looks like the running game will be how both teams like to move the ball offensively.

The Ragin’ Cajuns have a stable of talented backs between Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais. The Red Wolves will hope that reigning conference Freshman of the Year Marcel Murray takes the next step to become one of the league’s elite offensive players. If he does, this game could resemble football of days past with three yards (or more) and a cloud of dust.

Appalachian State at Troy (November 30)

Barring a breakout season by another program or a wholly disappointing campaign by these two, this game will decide the East Division. Both teams must replace their head coach, but there is enough talent from the previous regimes that Appalachian State and Troy should have no issue contending for the division title.

The Trojans lost control of the division crown in 2018 after a 21-10 loss to the Mountaineers, so the home finale in 2019 will be an opportunity to return the favor.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Appalachian State (9-3, [7-1])

2. Troy (8-4, [5-3])

3. Georgia Southern (7-5, [5-3])

4. Coastal Carolina (2-10, [1-7])

5. Georgia State (2-10, [1-7])

West Division

1. Arkansas State (8-4, [7-1])

2. UL-Lafayette (8-4, [6-2])

3. Texas State (7-5, [5-3])

4. UL-Monroe (4-8, [3-5])

5. South Alabama (1-11, [0-8])

Championship Game: Appalachian State vs. Arkansas State

Winner: Arkansas State

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*