2016 NCAA Football Preview: Sun Belt Conference

August 31, 2016

With this preview, we wrap up the Group of Five conferences. This is a relief to me, because it is also the final preview that I needed to finish before the games kick off on Thursday.

Let’s take a look at the Sun Belt Conference.


The largest conference not split into two divisions is essentially the “Go” square on the Monopoly board of college football. Several schools that have made the jump over the past decade from FCS to the FBS division have settled in the Sun Belt Conference, which creates a nice combination of newness (among the national landscape) and familiarity (among conference foes).

What’s more is that this is a league where the new guy in town can make a name for himself rather quickly. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, each with two years of Sun Belt experience, finished second and third in the division last season and made bowl games for the first time in school history.

While the Sun Belt doesn’t make many waves on the national stage save the weekend its teams play SEC competition, there is still reason to watch this conference. At the top of the league are several very solid teams that would fit in well in several other conferences across the country. Many people think of this conference as the forgotten one, but in reality the Sun Belt is far from irrelevant in the Group of Five conversation.

College Football Playoff Contenders


Fans of the Sun Belt are typically either fans/alumni of the school or die-hard college football fans. Either way, they aren’t watching the Sun Belt expecting to see one of the teams show up in the College Football Playoff.

As mentioned earlier, the highlight of this conference’s season is usually when one of its teams manage to give an SEC team trouble early (or late) in the year. There are plenty of opportunities for this to happen in 2016, so keep an eye out for teams such as Arkansas State, Appalachian State and South Alabama during the opening two weekends of play.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


The Trojans haven’t been to the postseason since 2010, and before that Troy was a consistent bowl contender from 2004-2010, playing in five bowl games during that span. Neal Brown could lead his team back to the postseason in his second season as head coach, however, thanks to an improved defense and a stud quarterback. Brandon Silvers has the body of an NFL quarterback, and with two of his favorite targets from 2015 returning at wide receiver, will have the chance to look like an NFL quarterback quite often.

A lot depends on the defense, which improved markedly under Coach Brown in 2015 and will need to continue to do so to get to six victories. If the Trojans are able to whether the non-conference schedule without getting discouraged (games at Clemson, Southern Mississippi), the conference slate is favorable enough that Troy could potentially challenge the favorites for the conference title.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State junior quarterback

Lamb led the conference in touchdowns last season with 31, taking full advantage of his tight end Barrett Burns, who led the team with eight touchdown receptions which was tops among tight ends in the Sun Belt. The good news for Lamb is that despite losing three wideouts from last year’s squad, Burns will be back in the lineup in 2016.

The junior quarterback may have been the Sun Belt’s leader in touchdowns thrown, but Lamb was just as dangerous as a runner as part of the nation’s No. 6 rushing attack. Lamb rushed for 436 yards and 5 touchdowns last season and may rely on his legs even more this year since he will essentially be starting over with regards to his receiving corps.

Matt Breida, Georgia Southern senior running back

Breida may benefit greatly from playing in a triple option offense, but he’s still the best running back you’ve probably never heard of. The senior was the linchpin of the Georgia Southern option attack in 2015, rushing for 1,608 yards and leading the conference with 17 rushing touchdowns. In two years, Breida has already cleared the 3,000 career rushing mark.

Thanks to the offense in which he plays, the production is unlikely to slow down in 2016. Georgia Southern surprised a lot of people with its ability to put points on the board so quickly and so frequently and much of that had to do with Breida. Something else that will surprise a lot of people? When they hear the name Matt Breida being called out on Sundays next year.

Out-Of-Conference Games to Watch

Appalachian State at Tennessee (September 3)

If Appalachian State is able to take down the Volunteers at Rocky Top, it would instantly evoke memories of 2005 when the Mountaineers went up to Ann Arbor and shocked then No. 5 Michigan. Only this time, more people would have predicted it because Appalachian State is now an FBS team and is a pretty good one at that.

The reason that the Mountaineers could hang around in this game is because of their defense. Appalachian State brings back nine starters to a defense that ranked No. 11 nationally in yards allowed per game. If Tennessee is looking ahead to the next weekend and sleepwalking through this game, things could get very interesting.

Georgia Southern at Mississippi (November 5)

The Eagles were a huge surprise to Around The Corn last season, not only winning games but winning some of them that should have been close rather handily. A lot of this had to do with whether the team was able to prepare for the triple option attack. In the case of Mississippi, the Rebels will hardly have time to look forward to this game while concentrating on the SEC schedule.

If Georgia Southern can contain the pass happy Ole Miss offense, this one could be worth watching past halftime. The Eagles proved they can hang with SEC competition last year with an overtime loss to Georgia, but the Rebels will be much more potent offensively. The triple option will need to produce a lot of points if Georgia Southern is to repeat that success.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Georgia Southern at Arkansas State (October 5)

Arkansas State ripped through the Sun Belt regular season in 2015, going 8-0 and wrapping up a fourth league title in five years. This season it may not be so easy, as the Red Wolves were offensively gifted last year and lost both quarterback Fredi Knighten and running back Michael Gordon.

The Red Wolves defense will need to step up in this game, as the Eagles were able to put points on the board against Arkansas State last year but had no answer for Knighten and the offense. Assuming that Arkansas State isn’t going to score 48 points against what should be a solid defensive unit, the defense will need to be tighter against Georgia Southern.

Appalachian State at Georgia Southern (October 27)

If Arkansas State does end up relinquishing the throne with the departure of its offensive stars, these are the two teams waiting in the wing to take the top spot in the conference.

Appalachian State had Georgia Southern’s number on the ground last season, rushing for more yards (232) than it passed for (202). If the Eagles want to win the Sun Belt title, two things seem certain: they must be able to be more consistent defensively from week to week and they will need to beat either Arkansas State or Appalachian State (potentially both).

Conference Predictions

1. Georgia Southern (9-3, [8-0])

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

3. Arkansas State (8-4, [6-2])

4. Georgia State (7-5, [5-3])

5. Troy (6-6, [4-4])

6. Louisiana-Lafayette (6-6, [4-4])

7. South Alabama (4-8, [3-5])

8. Idaho (4-8, [3-5])

9. Louisiana-Monroe (3-9, [2-6])

10. New Mexico State (2-10, [2-6])

11. Texas State (1-11, [0-8])

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