CFB: Predictions for the Sun Belt in 2024

By Simon Carroll

The 2024 College Football season is on the horizon! As Saturday ‘ball gets ever closer, we bring you a series of conference previews. Today, Simon Carroll makes his predictions for one of the most interesting Group of Five conferences in the FBS – the Sun Belt:

Conference Winner - Appalachian State Mountaineers

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Is Troy’s dominance of the Sun Belt about to come to an end? With a host of Trojan talent gone to the NFL the last two offseasons, and head coach John Sumrall departing for Tulane, their rivals will be smelling blood in the water – and considering the high-powered offenses littered across the conference the ‘Fun Belt’ will no doubt live up to its nickname in 2024.

12 out of the 14 teams in this conference made a bowl game last year. That’s INSANE. Unheard of. And downright difficult for me to make a prediction for who comes out on top this season. That being said, I’m going to stump for App State to take home the hardware – a predicted fall-off from the aforementioned Troy, Coastal Carolina with the departure of Grayson McCall, and JMU losing Curt Cignetti and Jordan McCloud makes me think they have the edge. Head Coach Shawn Clarke heads into his sixth year in Boone, and has notched an impressive 34 wins over the last four years. With perhaps his most talented roster in his tenure, could the Mountaineers be a cheeky shout for an expanded playoff berth? A non-conference win against Liberty or even Clemson could put them on the national radar.

Most Valuable Player - Joey Aguilar, QB, Appalachian State

It was hard to see past Texas State quarterback Jordan McCloud for this award initially; his one year at James Madison was a major success and a big reason why the Dukes were able to browbeat the NCAA into giving them a bowl game. That said, jumping to a new team removes the familiarity factor, and there’s one other QB in the conference who also had a strong 2023 – and is primed for another big campaign this coming season.

Joey Aguilar made the jump from JuCo football to the Sun Belt look easy. His first year at the FBS level, the App State QB’s 33 TD’s broke the school record for single season touchdown passes (only Jayden Daniels and Bo Nix threw for more scores last year). Despite his lack of experience, he only threw for 10 interceptions too, and recorded 3,757 yards as the Mountaineers finished second in the East division. There’s nothing to suggest he won’t continue on the same trajectory in year 2, with the team looking to challenge for conference honours as suggested earlier in this preview.

Offensive Player of the Year - Ismail Mahdi, RB, Texas State

After an impressive debut year in San Marcos, head coach GJ Kinnie somewhat fumbled the football this offseason. HIs pursuit of quarterback Jayden de Laura in the transfer portal was not well received, with the QB facing a civil sexual assault claim at the time. Despite committing to the Bobcats, public outcry and the settlement of the case saw de Laura leave Texas State a month after joining, instead choosing to declare for the NFL Draft. Kinnie’s dalliance with de Laura saw former Auburn QB TJ Finley depart after a fine season in 2023, leaving the Bobcats light at the most important position in football.

Subsequently, TXST landed on their feet, bringing in Jordan McCloud from JMU. But I’d be surprised if this offense didn’t lean heavily on the strong run game that helped the Bobcats shock Baylor on the way to seven wins last year. The man at the center of that ground attack is Ismail Mahdi, who racked up 1,600 all-purpose yards and 11 scores last season. Despite a deeper roster at the position and McCloud offering a viable passing game, I expect Mahdi to double down and improve those figures in 2024. If he does that, he’s well set for conference honors.

Defensive Player of the Year - Jaden Voisin, S, South Alabama

After opting out of the 2021 COVID campaign, South Alabama safety Jaden Voisin locked down a starting spot for the Jaguars in 2022, becoming a ferocious force in the secondary with 79 tackles and 6 TFL’s. 2023 saw him emerge as one of the most gifted defensive backs in the Group of Five, nearly matching his tackle numbers and adding four interceptions to boot – the Sun Belt has a lot of talented quarterbacks, and Voisin has proved to be a menace to a number of them.

After dipping his toe into the transfer portal and being courted by the likes of Florida, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, Voising decided to return to Mobile for his final college season. That’s a real boost for new head coach Major Applewhite, who will value Voisin’s versatility – he’s consistently flipped between free safety, box safety and outside corner during his five years with the Jaguars. Perhaps being able to play with his twin brother Devin (wide receiver) who sat out all of 2023 due to injury was a factor, but with some serious talent being added to the South Alabama defense’s back end, Voisin has a serious shot of first team conference honors and padding a resume suitable for an NFL Draft prospect.

Freshman of the Year - Braxton Myers, CB, Southern Miss

I’ll come clean; knowing the finer details of the incoming recruits at the Group of Five level isn’t my strong point. We’re unfortunately not blessed with the volume of information you might see about tomorrow’s SEC or Big Ten stars, but how about a redshirt freshman who is now on his third team but incredibly has not seen one snap of college football yet?

A Dallas phenom, Braxton Myers initially committed to Ole Miss, spending the Spring of 2023 with the Rebels before following his cornerback coach (and the man who recruited him) to Purdue. After struggling in his new surroundings, he heads closer to home, and has already impressed in camp enough to see himself lined up as a starter for the Golden Eagles. 6’1” and long, Myers brings a physical brand of football to Southern Miss’ secondary – and he can move too, running track for his high school. Myers was a four-star recruit and will give a struggling secondary a much needed boost in Hattiesburg.

Breakout Player of the Year - LV Bunkley-Shelton, WR, Georgia Southern

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Say what you want about Clay Helton’s tenure at USC, but he’s found a home for his high powered offense in Statesboro. Whilst 2024 might not have a Kyle Vantrease or a Davis Brin at the helm, I’m confident Helton will be able to keep the Eagles soaring, even if their defense can’t seem to keep up.

One name who should benefit from this dedication to the passing game is wide receiver LV Bunkley-Shelton. Once considered the next big thing at Arizona State, Bunkley-Shelton made a splash as a redshirt freshman big enough to attract attention from Oklahoma. However, things didn’t go as planned in Norman, and he was pretty much restricted to special teams duties. He heads to the Sun Belt with a hell of a lot to prove – but has the raw tools to be a significant factor in this offense.

Bunkley-Shelton is slightly undersized but incredibly quick. He can play outside or in the slot, and will likely help out as a returner for his new team too. With perhaps two years to prove why he was a four-star prospect coming out of Compton that had the world at his feet at Arizona State, ‘LVBS’ is primed to make an impression for the Eagles.

Surprise Team of the Year - Marshall Thundering Herd

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2023 was a disappointing year for Charles Huff and the Herd. After notching up nine wins in 2022, they followed that up with just three Sun Belt victories. Most foresee a season of mediocrity in Huntington, but there are reasons for optimism that, with a fair wind, Marshall could give the pacesetters a run for their money this season…

Huff has done a good job in attracting portal talent to Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Quarterback Braylon Braxton, a unique dual threat, heads over from Tulsa – a good response from this team to keep up with the Jones’ in a league dominated by powerful arms. He’ll be supported by a strong run game led by NC State transfer Jordan Houston, who has some big shoes to fill stepping in for the departed Rasheen Ali. Ali fared well behind a suspect o-line, but that seems to have been a focus of attention for Huff and his staff this offseason.

NINETEEN other portal additions, along with 36 recruits, give this roster some much needed depth. Huff knows how to get his team playing above the sum of their parts – and with a tough schedule, he’ll need to. But if there’s one team in this conference who could surprise, it’s the Thundering Herd.

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