The Sunbelt Conference produced six Bowl teams in 2016 and enters the 2017 season in a state of flux. Football only schools, Idaho and New Mexico State, leave after this year … the Vandals to FCS and New Mexico State will continue as an Independent. Coastal Carolina joins the SBC this year and can win the title but is not eligible for a Bowl while transitioning into the FBS. The conference adds a championship game in 2018 this year’s SBC title could come down to injuries, breaks, and scheduling.
The SBC looks to be a three team race this year between Appalachian State, Arkansas State, and Troy. The Mounties look to have the easiest pat to the title by missing the second two. Arkansas State has the pedigree and the talent to win or share the title for the fifth time in six years. Troy is right there and could be in a position to steal in the final week of the regular season.
App State has been an established program for a long time and the first team to make the transition from the FCS to the FBS and win Bowl games in each of its first two seasons. The Mounties are 27-5 in those two years with losses to Clemson, Tennessee and Miami, Fla. App State opens with Georgia but should be favored in their remaining game including hosting Wake. The Mountaineers miss Arkansas State and Troy and might very well run the table in the Sunbelt.
The Red Wolves have won or shared in five of the last six Sunbelt championships. Arkansas State as a rough non-conference schedule as usual and face their toughest conference foes on the road. That said, the Wolves are 19-5 in their L24 conference tilts with suitcase and with a couple of breaks, could share in the SBC title once again.
The Trojans are solid from top to bottom with 14 returning starters and excellent talent on both sides of the ball and special teams. The Trojans are in Boise and at LSU for their money games but the rest of the schedule is manageable. If Troy has an achilles heel, it could be on defense where it’s top five tacklers were lost to graduation. If App State was to falter, Troy’s December 2nd showdown with Arkansas State in the season finale for both teams could go a long way in determining the Sunbelt.
The Ragin’ Cajuns enter 2017 with some momentum after sandwiching three conference wins around a loss at Georgia to get Bowl eligible. ULL can play but is strangled by seven road games, six vs. Bowl teams plus Ole Miss out of the SEC. The Cajuns have been to Bowls in five of the last six years and have an M.0. of coming up money when the chips are down. ULL is capable but will really have to take care of business to get Bowl eligible this year.
The Aggies have had four winning seasons in the last 49 years and have not gone to a Bowl since 1960. This is the teams last year in the Sunbelt as it goes independent in 2018 so NMSU will be all in this year with 16 returning starters and the 12th most experienced team in college football. New Mexico State has a tough non-conference schedule and hosts Troy and Arkansas State. It’s now or never for the Aggies.
Last year, the Jaguars were the Jekyll and Hyde of college football. The Jags upset Mississippi State in their opener and then promptly lost to Georgia Southern, ULL and were extended to overtime by Nichols State. South Alabama then crushed a pretty good San Diego State outfit for the second straight year as a 19-point dog. With just 11 returning starters and a tough schedule, the Jags would do well to get to a Bowl.
Georgia Southern Eagles is a proud program with just three losing seasons in 34 years so it was a shock to the Statesboro faithful to see the Eagles fall to 5-7 in 2016. Success at this level means head coaches on the move and Tyson Sommers was GSU’s third in four years. The Eagles return just 10 starters, are short on experience, and will likely start a redshirt freshman at quarterback. All Sunbelt teams have tough non-conference schedules and Southern is staring down the barrel of a second straight losing season.
There is a reason for optimism in Atlanta as the Panthers return a solid 5 man core nucleus for new first-year coach Shawn Elliot who has a SEC pedigree and was the interim coach at South Carolina when Spurrier quit. GSU start play at Turner Field this year and looks to make a splash in its new digs. The Panther schedule is as good as it gets at this level giving State the chance to get Bowl eligible.
The Vandals were arguably the biggest surprise team in college football in 2016. A lame duck team that will be dropping to the FCS Big Sky in 2018, the Vandals won nine games and smoked a pretty good Colorado State team in the Idaho Bowl. Last year, Idaho ran the ball and had a big year with the verticle passing game with QB Linehan. The defense was shockingly good. Idaho returns Linehan and its top backs but figures to take a big step back in its final FBS season.
To its credit, ULM has always scheduled tough and was more often than not on the road leaving the Warhawks in the unenviable position of always hovering around .500 and not getting Bowl eligible. Last year the Warhawks were the second least experienced team in the FBS under first-year man Matt Viator but still managed to win four games. This year ULM opens with Memphis, Florida State, and Southern Miss and then closes with App State, at Auburn and Arkansas State. Four wins look to be about right again in 2017.
The Chanticleers (a fancy fighting chicken, Gamecock) move up to the FBS off a 10-2 year that included a one-point loss at Jacksonville State and an OT loss to SBC Georgia Southern. As a transitional team, CCU can’t go to a Bowl but despite just 10 returning starters, some pundits have the Chants challenging for the Sunbelt title. We don’t think so. Coastal is at App and Arkansas State and hosts Troy. The Sunbelt is not much but the top three are not Lamar, Presbyterian, or Monmouth.
It’s going to be another rebuilding year for the Texas State Bobcats. After going 7-5 in 2014, the Bobcats fell to 3-9 (despite 29 seniors) in 2015 and cost HC Dennis Franchione (yes, 30-year veteran Coach Fran) his job. Last year, the Cats stunned Ohio in their opener but went 1-10 the rest of the way with the lone win coming vs. Incarnate Word. Texas State faces the top four teams in the conference and is in Colorado and Wyoming. The Houston Baptist opener might be the only bright spot of the 2017 season.