Conference Preview 2023: Sun Belt
By Simon Carroll
A team-by-team analysis of the Sun Belt, the season ahead and final standings predictions.
1. Marshall Thundering Herd
2022: 9-4 (5-3)
I’m putting it out there right now; Marshall will be the team to beat in the Sun Belt in 2023. Head coach Charles Huff navigated The Herd to nine wins in just his second season in Huntington. They dropped games to only the elite in the conference (App State, Coastal Carolina, Troy), and were competitive in each matchup. The bulk of their best players return this year, and it should be enough to see them take that next step.
My optimism for Marshall stems from a fearsome run game. Rasheen Ali might be the best ball carrier in the conference – he racked up 1,400 yards in 2021 but missed last year with a knee injury – allowing Khalan Laborn to dominate in a 12 month cameo role. Laborn departs and Ali is set to take back his spot, and will run behind a strong o-line – with Juniors Ethan Driskell and Logan Osburn standout performers.
There are a few new faces on defense, including coordinator Jason Semore, who comes over from Georgia Tech. Last year this unit dominated up front, but in 2023 it may be the secondary that shines. Corner Micah Abraham (6 picks in ’22) is joined by transfers JJ Roberts (safety, Wake Forest) and Ishamel Ibraheem (corner, Texas) to give Marshall a back end that should strike fear into Sun Belt quarterbacks.
Verdict: 9-3 (7-1): This is a particularly tough schedule, with road trips at SBC heavyweights App State, Coastal and South Alabama. That said, I still fancy them to top the pile in what looks set to be a very competitive East division once again.
2. Appalachian State Mountaineers
2022: 6-6 (3-5)
After registering at least nine wins in each of the previous seven seasons, 2022 saw something of a drop-off for App State in 2022. In Shawn Clark’s third year as head coach the Mountaineers won just six games – and only three in the conference.
I think that record is misleading. Five of those six losses were by one score – and it’s easy to forget they did shock Texas A&M at Kyle Field in Week 2. Expect this program to be back challenging for the Sun Belt once again – despite losing quarterback Chase Brice. Redshirt Freshman Ryan Burger will compete with JuCo transfer Joey Aguilar to replace him, but whoever wins the job will likely lean on the run game, with junior Nate Noel set to shine.
Clark brings in the experienced Scott Sloan to run the defense in 2023, after spending last year at West Point. The Mountaineers will trouble offenses with their front seven; edge rusher DeAndre Dingle-Prince looks set to be a breakout star, and tackling machine Andrew Parker returns at linebacker after impressing his first year in Boone. Whilst something of an unknown the secondary also has some promise, with Ethan Johnson coming into his own and Richmond transfer Tyrek Funderburk expected to start.
Verdict: 9-3 (7-1): App State’s schedule is a little prettier than Marshall’s but if their lone loss comes against the Herd at Kidd Brewer Stadium then they may just fall short of a place in the Sun Belt Championship Game. Regardless, Clark has this program back pushing for double-digit wins.
3. James Madison Dukes
2022: 8-3 (6-2)
JMU’s introduction to FBS Football couldn’t have gone much better. In their first year in the Sun Belt, Curt Cignetti’s Dukes handled the step up admirably, winning their first five tilts – with some real beatdowns registered too. A final record of 8-3 with six conference wins was very impressive – if they had been eligible, James Madison would have made a bowl game at the first time of asking.
This wasn’t an anomaly – the Dukes are legit. And they look set to be competitive in the Sun Belt once again. They have some real weapons on offense in running back Kaelon Black and wide receiver Reggie Brown – whoever wins what looks to be a four-way battle at quarterback to replace Todd Centeio will have some tools to work with. My money is on former USF and Arizona QB Jordan McCloud to get the nod, but Cignetti is creative and this stable of signal callers are all pretty dynamic.
JMU’s defense was miserly last season, allowing just 289 yards per game. Seven of those starters return to Harrisonburg, bringing this unit continuity and experience. They are very stout against the run; defensive tackle James Carpenter can get into the backfield and stop ball carriers before they even begin, whilst linebacker Jailin Walker is an absolute animal at the second level. Some playmaking ability has been lost in the secondary, but I have faith this defense will still be one of the best in the conference.
Verdict: 7-5 (5-3): James Madison face every one of the programs in the mix for a conference title this year, and it will be a tough ask for them to repeat 2022’s exploits. That said, they have the ability to beat anyone on their day. The Dukes are dangerous.
4. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
2022: 9-4 (6-2)
2022 felt like the end of an era in Myrtle Beach. Jamey Chadwell, who had presided over 31 wins in three years on the teal ‘surf turf’, left to replace Hugh Freeze at Liberty. And the Chants came mighty close to losing their star quarterback too, with Grayson McCall testing the waters of the transfer portal. Ex-NC State offensive coordinator Tim Beck comes in as head coach, hoping that some momentum remains from the overachievement of the previous regime.
Keeping McCall at Brooks Stadium was crucial to their hopes of being Sun Belt contenders once again. The mullet-topped QB’s claim that he ‘pisses teal’ was put to the test as he entertained offers from others, including Auburn. But he’s back, and he’s got a pair of elite targets to throw to. Sam Pinckney and Jared Brown racked up nearly 1,800 yards between them last season. I expect this offense to be every bit as explosive as it has been in the recent past.
Last year was a backwards step for the defense, as they shipped 10 points per game more than they did in 2021. To that end, the Chanticleers have added a bevy of talent up front from the portal; Michael Mason had TWENTY sacks at Wofford in 2022. Getting after the QB is a priority for new DC Craig Navier, and Coastal also add edge rushers Carlos Hatcher (Tulane) and Clinton Anokwuru (JuCo) to help. This unit has a mean linebacker corps, and I foresee better things this season.
Verdict: 8-4 (5-3): The show goes on, at least for one more year. There might be one more loss on the conference schedule than last season – put that down to one hell of an exciting Sun Belt in 2023. The Chanticleers will be in the mix right up until facing JMU in the season finale.
5. Georgia Southern Eagles
2022: 6-7 (3-5)
This is where I see the dropoff in the Eastern half of the Sun Belt. And that’s not an indictment of the Eagles, or the job Clay Helton did his first season in Statesboro; the former USC head coach doubled the win total, beating Power 5 Nebraska along the way. Four of their seven losses were by one score or less. At the very least, Georgia Southern were competitive. And on their day, they were downright difficult – just ask rivals App State about that 51-48, double overtime loss that capped their season.
That said, things get tougher this year. App State and Marshall will be better. JMU & Coastal will still be good. Life in this half of the Sun Belt is treacherous, and the Eagles have a ceiling because of it. That’s not to say Helton won’t have them firing – with Kyle Vantrease out the door, two QB’s transfer in. Davis Brinn (Tulsa) and Beau Allen (Kentucky, Tarleton State) will compete for the starting role. But providing he’s fully recovered from injury I presume Brinn gets to orchestrate this spread offense. In Khaleb Hood and Derwin Burgess, he has two elite playmakers to target. This offense is legit, and might be even more deadly than last year.
I’m a little nervous about the defense – they shipped 488 yards per game in 2022, and have lost seven starters. Outside of linebacker Marques Watson-Trent, who was a revelation as a true freshman last year, there really isn’t a whole lot to hang your hat on. Perhaps former ECU corner Damel Hickman can come in and make an impact in the secondary, but Eagles fans should prepare themselves for more shootouts this coming season.
Verdict: 5-7 (3-5): A difficult team to predict, Georgia Southern will be in more than their share of close games. Identifying which way those games fall is tricky, but there’s no doubt that Helton has brought the entertainment factor to Allen Paulson Stadium. Take the Eagles lightly, and pay the price.
6. Georgia State Panthers
2022: 4-8 (3-5)
Four bowl games in five seasons prior to last year’s campaign made Shawn Elliott one of the more consistent coaches in the Group of Five ranks. But 2022 was disappointing, with the Panthers winning just four games all year. Close losses to JMU and Marshall provide hope for a bounce back in 2023, and despite the healthy competition in the division there are indications that Georgia State will be better.
Quarterback Darren Grainger is the key to the offense. The dual-threat signal caller returns as a senior and his third year leading this unit. A successful season will undoubtedly see him become the leading passer in the school’s history, and that’s before we even mention the danger he poses on the ground. He’s operating with a new supporting cast, but hopes are high that junior running back Marcus Carroll can give this offense some much needed balance.
Last year, this defense was watertight on the back end, but toothless up front. This season it may be the opposite – edge rushers Shamar McCollum (coming over from Wake Forest) and Javon Denis look set to give this defensive front the jolt it needs. But the secondary loses both CB Quavian White and S Antavious Lane, who won conference honours last year. New DC Chad Staggs has some work to do after coming over from Coastal Carolina this offseason.
Verdict: 4-8 (1-7): The conference schedule is diabolical, with six of Georgia State’s eight games coming against the cream of the Sun Belt. Despite some improvements on offense, I find it hard to see how they keep up. It might be one more year before Elliott has this program back on track.
7. Old Dominion Monarchs
2022: 3-9 (2-6)
Old Dominion were just plain crazy in 2022. After jumping to the Sun Belt from Conference USA, the Monarchs struggled mightily, winning just three games all season. But the wins were incredible – smashing conference powerhouse Coastal Carolina (9-4) and shocking Power 5 Virginia Tech. Head coach Ricky Rahne will want to take those highs and make them translate to more consistency, but it will be an uphill battle in what looks to be another tough year in Norfolk.
There’s a lot of upheaval on offense. New OC Kevin Decker brings something of an air raid approach with him, but lacks the tools at his disposal to bring instant results. Quarterback Hayden Wolff transferred out to Western Michigan, and Decker brings Grant Wilson with him from Fordham to step in. Wilson has little starting experience, and will rely heavily on receiver Javon Harvey, who looks to take the WR1 role this Fall. The biggest concern is the protection up front, which loses three elite starters including RT Nick Saldiveri.
There’s not much more optimism on defense. This unit gave up 443 yards per game last year, and it would have been a lot more had it not been for linebacker Jason Henderson, who dominated as a true freshman. Henderson thankfully returns, but with losses almost everywhere else across the board, 2023 might be tough. They do add Jahlil Taylor from UNC, who helps add size up front, but I fear for the scoreboard at SB Ballard Stadium.
Verdict: 1-11 (0-8): Facing Louisiana and Southern Miss from the West division doesn’t give Old Dominion much hope of registering a win in the Sun Belt this year. Returning to Blacksburg to face V-Tech and having Wake and Liberty on their out of conference schedule is also brutal. The Monarchs will prop up the East.
1. South Alabama Jaguars
2022: 10-3 (7-1)
Searching for a GO5 school who have a legitimate shot at earning a New Year’s Six bowl game this season? Look no further; South Alabama are my pick to be this year’s version of Tulane. In only his second season as head coach, Kane Wommack managed to register ten wins for the first time in their FBS history. It also happened to be their first winning season too – and despite being in their infancy as a program, the Jaguars look set to continue that upward trajectory in 2023.
Wommack benefits from consistency. OC Major Applewhite returns, and has one of the best quarterbacks in the conference at his disposal in Carter Bradley. Bradley threw for 3,343 yards and 28 TD’s last year, and has all kinds of weapons to work with – namely WR duo Caullin Lacy & Devin Voisin and TE DJ Thomas-Jones. When their high-octane passing game requires a breather, how about leaning on La’Damian Webb? the ball carrier went for over 1,000 yards in 2022 and will be a handful once again.
Defensively, South Alabama look even more imposing. Nine starters return, and maybe seven of them are in the mix for conference honors. It’s hard to decide which position they excel at most, but LB/S hybrid Yam Banks and nose tackle Wykevious Thomas deserve a mention. If this unit isn’t the best in the Sun Belt then I would be surprised.
Verdict: 11-1 (8-0): Considering they travel to both Troy and JMU, as well as facing Marshall at home, suggesting South Alabama goes undefeated in conference play is ballsy. But that’s how good this football team is. I think Wommack and his staff can improve on a tremendous 2022, and win the Sun Belt.
2. Troy Trojans
2022: 12-2 (7-1)
What a year Troy had in 2022. After dropping a close one at App State to open conference play, the Trojans went undefeated the rest of the way – winning the Sun Belt, Cure Bowl and finishing ranked for the first time in their history. Having them finish second in the West is no insult to the work Jon Sumrall did in his first season – just an acknowledgement of the improvement of their in-state rivals…
Troy were a defensive powerhouse in 2022, and that looks set to continue. They are fearsome up front, with edge rusher Javon Solomon and run stuffer TJ Jackson the pick of the bunch. The secondary is led by productive corner Reddy Steward, who recorded 68 tackles and 15 pass breakups last season. Despite some big losses in the shape of LB Carlton Martial and DT Shakel Brown, this unit will still give offenses nightmares.
The offense is spearheaded by their ground attack, with Kimani Vidal the workhorse – he has 1,833 rushing yards in the last two seasons. He is complemented by transfer addition Asa Martin, a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield who has spent time at both Auburn & Memphis in his college career. They run behind a solid o-line, and will balance out an adequate passing game that has lost it’s best two receivers.
Verdict: 10-2 (7-1): Another impressive year is in store for Sumrall and his team, with the Thursday night tilt against South Alabama on November 2 likely determining the winner of the Sun Belt West.
3. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
2022: 6-7 (4-4)
Following in the footsteps of Billy Napier, who won 33 games in his last three years in Lafayette, was never going to be easy. And so it proved for Michael Desormeaux, who was promoted from OC to replace Napier – the former Cajuns’ QB presided over an up and down season that ultimately led them to a 6-7 record, being beaten by Houston in the Independence Bowl.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that this offense sputtered in 2022, losing legendary QB Levi Lewis and a pair of productive running backs. This year they should bounce back, although there are still question marks under center – Ben Wooldridge is the presumed starter, but an ACL tear last year leaves his status for Week 1 in doubt. Backup Chandler Fields will be ready to deputise, and will need to lean on tight end Neal Johnson, who figures to be attracting the attention of NFL scouts.
Defensively, Louisiana have a job on their hands. Traditionally a tough team to score on, The Cajuns have lost eight starters and a whole lot of production this offseason. The secondary appears to be the big concern, with Trey Amos (Alabama) and Kam Pedescleaux (Tulane) both departing. It will be interesting to see how DC LaMar Morgan copes, him being a former Louisiana DB himself.
Verdict: 7-5 (5-3): A fairly pleasant conference schedule that avoids the ‘big four’ from the East helps Louisiana back to a winning record in 2023. That said, their defensive losses wont help them challenge the cream in their own division.
4. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
2022: 7-6 (4-4)
2022 represented the first year in the Sun Belt for Southern Miss, and they acclimated well; going 4-4 in the conference and winning a bowl game. Head Coach Will Hall has a history of winning at the FCS level, and entering year three will be hopeful the Eagles can continue their upward trajectory since his arrival in Hattiesburg.
In a very competitive Sun Belt, that is a tough ask. They’ll certainly need more from their passing game – the QB position has been a problem for Hall since his arrival, frequently opting for a Wildcat offense to mask their deficiencies. This offseason saw two transfer QB’s come in; Holman Edwards (Houston) and Billy Wiles (Clemson) will battle for the job, but it surely has to be an upgrade on what went before. Regardless, the offense will run through superstar running back Frank Gore Jr. once again.
Defensively, their biggest loss may be coordinator Austin Armstrong, who has gone to Florida (via a quick pit stop in Alabama). Armstrong is considered one of the brightest young defensive minds in the game and will be missed. Despite that, they have continuity with the elevation of Dan O’Brien to DC from safeties coach – and he has some terrific talent in the front seven to work with. Kalen Williams (NT) and Ole Miss transfer Quentin Bivens (EDGE) should help this unit be more than competitive in the conference.
Verdict: 5-7 (4-4): Southern Miss have done themselves no favors with a tough out of conference schedule. That said, they open the Sun Belt with three very winnable games. It might just evade them, but the Eagles will be pushing for another bowl berth in 2023.
5. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks
2022: 4-8 (3-5)
Two years so far in Monroe, and modest success for veteran coach Terry Bowden. To be fair to Bowden, Malone Stadium isn’t particularly accustomed to wins; the Warhawks have enjoyed one winning season in the past twenty years, and Bowden himself took the reins of a program that went 0-10 the year before he started.
Let’s begin with some positives. The ULM offensive line has improved beyond measure in the time this new coaching staff has been here, and looks set to offer the run game better blocking to work behind. That’s good news, because OC Matt Kubik has beefed up the backfield with transfer additions Thad Franklin (Miami) and Isaiah Woullard (Ole Miss), who look set to improve the ground attack. The passing game has more questions, with Chandler Rogers transferring to North Texas; Jiya Wright and Hunter Herring (Louisiana transfer) will battle for the starting job.
Last year, DC Vic Koenning came in and dealt with a host of departures fairly well – but this defense can still improve. Five starters left in the offseason, and whilst there are no particular standout names returning, there is a raft of under the radar talent that could break out. Kenard Snyder (DE) and Tristan Driggers (LB/S) flashed in 2022, and transfer additions Deuce Mayberry (CB, Kansas) and Adin Huntington (DT, Kent State) should give this unit more depth. All that said, ULM’s defense still sits a rung or two below that of their division rivals.
Verdict: 3-9 (2-6): At 67 years old, Bowden is officially coaching for the fun of it, not for results. Which is a good job, because despite roster improvements, the depth of the Sun Belt means the Warhawks improving on 2022 will be difficult.
6. Arkansas State Red Wolves
2022: 3-9 (1-7)
Things have been tough for Butch Jones for a while now. Ever since he posted back to back 9-4 campaigns at Tennessee (2015-16), the win-loss columns on his resume are not pretty. Since he took over at Arkansas State, he has won just five games in two years. Compare that to his predecessor Blake Anderson, who has just one losing season in eight years in Jonesboro.
Jones needs to win in 2023, and the signs are not good. The troubles start at quarterback, where the talented James Blackman departs. He’s replaced by JT Shrout, who comes over from Colorado where he threw for more picks than touchdowns in 2022. He’ll be working with a receiving group that has lost their top three targets in Te’Vailance Hunt, Champ Flemings and (TE) Seydou Traore, and an underwhelming run game that hopes former Buckeye Brian Snead is finally over his injury woes. One cause for optimism? A beefed up o-line that looks much more capable of competing in this conference.
Defensive coordinator Rob Harley deserves some credit for turning the Red Wolves’ defense from laughing stock to functional in two years. This year they hope to take the next step, adding some talent via the transfer portal. Star linebacker Jaden Harris will likely shine in his junior year, and there’s belief that the d-line will be more stout against the run – DT’s Micah Bland (North Alabama) and Nate Martey (Princeton) two low-key additions that have turned heads in Spring camp.
Verdict: 3-9 (1-7): Matching the same record as last year might not move the needle for an Arkansas State fanbase used to better things. But in a tough conference it is something of an improvement. Whether it’s enough for Jones to be around in 2024 is another question.
7. Texas State Bobcats
2022: 4-8 (2-6)
The Jake Spavital era is over in San Marcos. After four seasons and a 13-35 record, Spavital was relieved of his duties as the Bobcats look to kick on from being the yearly whipping boys of the Sun Belt. To be fair to Spavital, four wins in a season was the most for Texas State in a decade – that says less about his coaching acumen and more about the difficulty that new head coach GJ Kinne faces at Bobcat Stadium.
After a successful career as an offensive coordinator, Kinne made the jump to head coach in 2022 at Incarnate Word. He led the Cardinals to the FCS Semi Finals and a 12-2 record, and hopes to bring a high-powered offense with him to Texas State. The former NFL QB brings OC Mack Leftwich with him from UIW, where between them they orchestrated 52 points and 581 yards per game. The beneficiary of this supercharged offense looks to be quarterback Malik Hornsby, favoured to beat out TJ Finley (Auburn) as the starter. He’ll have running back Calvin Hill (7 yards per carry in 2022) and wide receiver Ashtyn Hawkins (4x100yard games last year) to work with.
Kinne didn’t just bring his OC with him – Jonathan Patke also comes over from Incarnate Word to run the Bobcats’ defense. The volume of change on this side of the ball is eyebrow raising; only four starters return, and no less than TWELVE transfers come in – with at least five predicted to start. Texas State’s defense was surprisingly mean in 2022, and it’s hard not to foresee a step back with all the new faces. Bobcat fans might want to brace themselves for some high-scoring contests this coming season.
Verdict: 1-11 (0-8): I’m very excited for the future of Texas State; the hiring of Kinne gives this program a direction that perhaps it hasn’t had since joining the FBS. At the very least it will bring more excitement to San Marcos this season, but there’s no getting away from the overwhelming roster deconstruction. Save your hopes for 2024 – this is going to be a rebuild year.
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