End of a dynasty? 2016 Sun Belt Football Preview

The Sun Belt Conference became a football conference in 2001, and since then it’s been known for dynasties.

North Texas dominated the early years by winning the first four conference titles. Troy took the torch in 2006 winning five straight. Then from 2011-13, Arkansas State won three straight titles with three head coaches, and in 2015 they crowned themselves again with yet another head coach.

Will Dynasties Continue, More Begin, or All Fall Apart?

The Incumbent Dynasty

It’s hard to top what the last three graduating classes have accomplished in Jonesboro. Each of them helped win three conference championships in their four years. That’s a lot for this 2016 team to live up to, but fortunately fresh faces are coming in free of that pressure.

Quarterback Justin Hansen transferred from Oklahoma, defensive lineman Dee Liner comes from Alabama, and electric return man Cameron Echols-Luper hails from TCU. Besides the transfers, head coach Blake Anderson has brought the second-best recruiting class in the Sun Belt to Jonesboro.

The Red Wolves will be going through an identity change with new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner. Hansen will likely be the starter at quarterback, bringing a total shift from a run-oriented offense that allowed the quarterback to run at will, to a spread and in the pocket style.

Two of Arkansas State’s top three receivers are no longer in town, leaving Dijon Paschal. He’ll clearly be Hansen’s ace, as he had 541 yards on 28 catches last year. But behind him, no one is proven.

The running game is a bright spot. Micheal Gordon is gone, but Warren Wand and Johnston White remain. The duo combined for 1,323 yards last season, which is more than Gordon’s total of 1,063.

The Red Wolves may be transiting to a pass-oriented offense, but they’d be going through an identity crisis if they sacrificed their run game for that transition in 2016.

New Dynasties 

Relative newcomers, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, are in their third year and were not strangers to success in the FCS. Between the bitter rivals are nine national titles and 29 conference titles heading into the 2016 season. The Eagles already have a Sun Belt title, but both programs are primed to take control of the conference.

A head coaching change didn’t hurt Georgia Southern’s recruiting, seeing how Tyson Summers signed 27 prospects and a conference high 15 three-star prospects rated by 24/7 Sports, for the best class in the Sun Belt. But the Eagles have a lot coming back for their 2016 campaign.

Their rushing attack will be as good as ever. Last year, led by Matt Breida’s 1,608 yards, the Eagles top five rushers combined for 4,401 yards and 51 touchdowns. All five of those players return. Depth should be the least of their worries in the running game. If Breida falls to an injury, L.A. Ramsby and Wesley Fields are prepared to step up. They ran for 816 and 682 yards, respectively in 2015.

But the Eagles need to improve their passing game, which had a 43.1 completion percentage and 4-to-10 touchdown to interception ratio last year. It’s one thing to disproportionately favor the run, but it’s another  to allow yourselves to be futile in the passing game.

That may be why it was a no-brainer for Summers to bring Rance Gillespie back to Statesboro as quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. He was the team’s offensive coordinator from 2007-2009, and in his last two years, the Eagles led the Southern Conference in passing yards. He could be just the man needed to help make the passing game a threat, even if it will only be used in low doses.

Appalachian State has yet to win a Sun Belt Championship, but if their final years in the Southern Conference is any indication, the Mountaineers are more than capable of holding the Sun Belt by it’s throat for years at a time. They have won six-straight conference titles from 2005-2010 and won their seventh in eight years in 2012.

Jerry Moore is no longer head coach of Appalachian State, but Scott Satterfield led the Mountaineers to a second-place finish in the conference and an 11-2 record last year. Their only losses were against Sun Belt Champions Arkansas State and National Champion runner-up Clemson.

Much like Georgia Southern, Appalachian State is a shotgun/pistol, one-back option team. But they do turn to the passing game more often and were able to do so last year with four capable receivers and quarterback Taylor Lamb. Lamb completed 60.1 percent of his passes, for 2,387 yards and 31 touchdowns to just nine interceptions last year.

Running back Marcus Cox returns to help lead the option attack, but Shaedon Meadors is the only receiver that returns from last years four-man group.

Cox will be complimented by Jalin Moore and Terence Upshaw who combined for 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns last year. If Meadors can get receivers to compliment him as well, Appalachian State’s offense will not skip a beat.

Both teams are extremely stout on defense. The Eagles are replacing four defensive backs and one linebacker, but their front seven remains stable. They add former Florida State defensive end/linebacker Ukeme Eligwe to add to an already talented bunch, while Appalachian State only lost three starters from last year’s defense.

Missing Their Turn

Louisiana Lafayette is looking to bounce back from last year’s 4-8 campaign. The Ragin’ Cajuns have had mild success under head coach Mike Hudspeth with a share of the Sun Belt Championship in 2013 and four straight 9-4 seasons [Although all nine wins in 2011 were vacated, so they are in the record books for three straight 9-4 seasons].

Last year’s offense, which was supposed to be one of the conferences best, failed them. But this year they replace their starting quarterback, main wide receivers, and three offensive linemen.

They still have Elijah McGuire to lead their rushing attack, and he’s about as unstoppable on his own as Georgia Southern and Appalachian State’s rushing attacks are as a group. He cannot carry the offense on his own, and it will be too much to expect a 180-degree turnaround in 2016.

Defensively, a unit that struggled to stop passing teams returns nearly intact. If they grew up enough in the off-season, they can be the backbone of this team, it helps that all five of their starting defensive backs returned.

Lafayette got used to 9-4 seasons, an improved defense and just enough offense from McGuire can lead them to another 9-win campaign and maybe a conference championship.

On The Rise

South Alabama with their prime recruiting area in Mobile and near the Florida state line is climbing the conference ladder. Georgia State is another program with an unlimited ceiling in the conference thanks to recruiting. It’s only a matter of time before they insert themselves into the championship picture.

South Alabama had the fourth best recruiting class in the conference according to 24/7 Sports with 27 commits and eight three-star prospects. But Georgia State is still struggling to bring in recruits as they have the ninth best with only three three-star recruits.

The Jaguars offense has a ways to go before they can call themselves one of the conferences best. The talent is there with quarterback Dallas Davis, talented receivers and a stable of tailbacks. They have the skill to become a better unit as the season presses on, especially if the defense can improve as well. Their run defense was porous last year, but their interior defensive line is more mature.

Essentially South Alabama has a high ceiling for 2016 and beyond, they just need to reach for it at a faster pace.

Georgia State has struggled on the recruiting front, they finishing 6-7 and fourth in the conference with a 5-3 record in 2015. They also ended the regular season on a four-game win streak including a blowout win over Georgia Southern.

Prior to the win streak, however, they were 3-29 in their two and a half years of FBS football. In 2016, Georgia State can either build on the success they had last November, or they can fall back to obscurity.

If there’s any hope for a positive season, it’s that Georgia State returns 17 total starters.

Their passing game took off last year and ended the season ranked ninth nationally, but quarterback Nick Arbuckle is gone. Although, four offensive linemen return, as well as their running backs and receivers. There’s enough quarterback competition between Conner Manning, Brett Sheehan, and Aaron Winchester to see each make major strides before their season opener against Ball State.

The defense has been improving year after year, and with nine returning starters there is no reason why they won’t be better this year. They do need to create a better pass rush, they only had 18 sacks in 2015, but like everything else on defense, that has been improving. They had 12 in 2014 and 11 in 2013.

The offense will be able to more balanced at times and the defense will be better. Georgia State will not be a team anyone in the Sun Belt should take lightly in 2016.

The Scraps

Those teams should comprise the top half of the final Sun Belt Conference standings in 2016, but what about the bottom half? Troy is the best in that group, they are trying to get back to where they were as a program in the late 2000s. Since winning five straight conference titles, they have only had one winning season and didn’t even get a bowl invite that year.

With 29 commits and seven three-star prospects, Troy had the third best class in the Sun Belt according to 24/7 Sports. Neil Brown took over the team in 2015, and is no stranger to the program’s renaissance. He was on the coaching staff for all but one of their conference titles.

With a great recruiting class and a man who is used to success at Troy, the Trojans may be on their way back to the top of the conference in the coming years, but there’s too much to surpass in 2016.

That leaves the regular cellar dwellers: Idaho, New Mexico State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Texas State.

Texas State has the most going for them with the sixth best recruiting class in the conference, the fact that they’re located in one of the most talent-rich states in America, and they had the most recent winning season going 7-5 in 2014. But head coach Dennis Franchione is gone, and Everett Withers is now in charge after two nine-win seasons as FCS James Madison.

The other three just do not have the talent coming in or the foundation to surprise anyone in 2016. They all have more losing seasons than winning seasons this decade. Idaho and New Mexico State brought in the two worst recruiting classes in the conference and the 126th and 129th classes in the nation according to 24/7 Sports.

Main Photo: