The Sun Belt Conference has become a steppingstone conference of sorts, serving as a rest area on the highway for teams moving up from the FCS ranks or serving as a last resort for teams whose conferences have disbanded. The Sun Belt regularly finds itself raided as teams move around the conference pecking order, with teams like Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, and North Texas moving on after time in the league.
The ragtag group of 11 schools that have banded together for the 2016 schedule are not going to change the perception of the Sun Belt any time soon. Seven of the 11 schools in the league are ranked outside the top 100, and every one of them is ranked in the bottom half of the FBS. Most of the top teams in the conference are more likely to win with defense than offense; as a result, the Sun Belt is not likely to produce many of the shootouts that draw attention to mid-major schools when it comes time to select weekly top-25 polls.
As a result this is almost certainly not the year that a Sun Belt champion contends for the Access Bowl bid granted to the best Group of Five school, barring some catastrophic series of events that results in an undefeated Sun Belt champion pipping a group of champions from the other four conferences that would all have to be severely blemished. But that doesn’t mean that the league is unlikely to produce a surprise or two — a Sun Belt school has knocked off a major-conference opponent in four of the past five seasons.
So let’s dive in and assess the Sun Belt pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
11. Idaho — In a period where schools are clamoring to move up to FBS football, Idaho is going in a radically different direction. In late April, the school announced that it would begin transitioning to FCS with the intention of beginning play in the Big Sky Conference in 2018. Thus we are graced with two more years of Vandals football at the top level of the sport, which isn’t saying too much. They will have one of the better passing attacks in the Sun Belt and one of the most experienced teams in the country, but the defense will cost the Vandals several victories this season and no game on their schedule (save maybe FCS Montana State and MWC lightweight UNLV) screams victory potential. Paul Petrino’s crew has to face both Washington and Washington State out of conference, though they mercifully avoided both Arkansas State and Georgia Southern in league play. The ceiling for this team is probably five wins, if everything falls perfectly; 2-10 is a more likely finish in the Vandals’ penultimate FBS campaign.
10. New Mexico State — With Idaho pulling the trigger on a self-imposed demotion after years of floundering between leagues, the Aggies are the next team that will likely begin to see the writing on the wall. After the death of the Big West at the turn of the 21st century, New Mexico State has scrambled from the Sun Belt to the WAC to independence and now back to the Sun Belt as a football-only member. Like the Vandals, NMSU is guaranteed just two more seasons before they need to have their next move figured out. Doug Martin has won just seven games in his first three seasons at the helm in Las Cruces, and like his counterpart Petrino he is looking at another season where a decent offense is likely to get stifled by a mediocre defense. Road trips to Kentucky and Texas A&M and a trio of games against Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Arkansas State mean that there is little margin for error and that bowl eligibility is almost certainly out of reach for the Aggies.
9. Texas State — A 3-9 season in 2015 sent Dennis Franchione out the door, with Texas State nabbing up James Madison head coach Everett Withers to replace the coach that navigated the Bobcats’ move to FBS football. Withers managed to resurrect a Dukes program that had tailed off in the last five years of Mickey Matthews’ tenure there, but he will have his work cut out for him as he tries to fix one of the worst defenses in the nation and deals with a depleted corps of receivers. If not for a home game against FCS lightweight Incarnate Word and matchups against Idaho and New Mexico State, finding potential wins on Texas State’s schedule would be tough. The best hope for the Bobcats is that senior quarterback Tyler Jones forms quick connections with some of the young three-star receivers on the depth chart and that they can outgun opponents to four or five wins. Another 3-9 season is a far better bet for a crew that is still thin in some critical areas throughout the roster.
8. UL-Monroe — The Warhawks have been the epitome of futility since moving up to the I-A ranks 1994 as an independent, with their only share of a Sun Belt title in 2005 coming in the midst of a 5-6 season where they went 5-2 in conference play and finished with the same league record as Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette. After going to the school’s first bowl game under Todd Berry in 2012, the program regressed over the next three seasons until Berry was fired two games before the end of the 2015 season. Into the hot seat steps Matt Viator, the longtime McNeese State head coach who has recruiting ties to the area and who turned the FCS school into a national contender. The Warhawks bring back by far the weakest defense in the league, a middling defense, and a slew of question marks throughout an inexperienced roster. After opening against FCS Southern, ULM faces Oklahoma, Georgia Southern, and Auburn on the road over the next four weekends. Toss-up games against South Alabama and Georgia State will spell the difference between bowl eligibility and another year of futility.
7. South Alabama — Under head coach and program architect Joey Jones, the Jaguars have formed out of whole cloth into a burgeoning contender in the Sun Belt. Last year the team trailed off after two straight .500 regular seasons, losing its last three games of 2015 to miss out on bowl eligibility. Less dynamic offensively than most other Sun Belt squads, South Alabama will depend on whether or not one of the least experienced teams in FBS in 2016 can mesh quickly into a pair of cohesive units. Out-of-conference battles with Mississippi State and LSU are likely to be mismatches, and the first half of the season could prove rough for the Jaguars with most of their toughest conference opponents stacked early in the year. But that also means that South Alabama is less likely to fade down the stretch, with toss-up games against Troy, ULM, and Georgia State and a pair of winnable games against Idaho and New Mexico State to wrap up the season. Bowl eligibility will be tough to obtain, but it is definitely possible.
6. Troy — There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Troy dominated the Sun Belt, winning at least a share of the conference crown in five straight seasons between 2006 and 2010 before plummeting from grace into Sun Belt mediocrity. Larry Blakeney is no longer at the helm, and as he enters his second season in charge it will be interesting to see whether Neal Brown can begin to nudge the Trojans back toward bowl eligibility. Last year three of their conference losses were by six points or less — but while one came against Appalachian State, the other two were against fellow middleweights Idaho and South Alabama. Just like last year Troy brings a middle-of-the-road offense and a decent-enough defense to the table, though they lack the raw talent of other schools in the league. When junior quarterback Brandon Silvers is on fire, he gives the Trojans a chance in any contest. If he can remain consistent this year, and the defense can bend without breaking, Troy could be bowling for the first time since the last conference crown in 2010.
5. Georgia State — The Panthers are a program at a crossroads, where they can either build upon the team’s first bowl appearance last year or could possibly cave after crumbling against San Jose State in said appearance. Trent Miles has the team on a similar trajectory to his rebuilding project at FCS Indiana State; then again, he never really got over the hump at Indiana State either before taking over in Atlanta. Georgia State has great running back depth but big questions at quarterback, a veteran receiving corps that could either help a new passer or struggle with whoever wins the job, and a defense that has veteran experience and so-so results. Unlike a couple of other teams hunting for a bowl berth, they have just one game against Power Five competition when they head to Madison to face Wisconsin. Another out-of-conference trip to Colorado Springs to face Air Force could spell another loss, but otherwise the Panthers benefit by facing Georgia Southern and Arkansas State at home and avoiding Appalachian State. If everything falls right another six-win season could be in the cards.
4. UL-Lafayette — Last year was the first since 2004 that a Mark Hudspeth-led football team won fewer than nine games, and the Ragin’ Cajuns can’t necessarily depend on their past glories to get them through a season where they have the same uncertainties at quarterback that plagued the team last season. With one of the least-experienced offensive lines in the Sun Belt this season, that uncertainty could prove especially costly for Louisiana-Lafayette in 2016. The defense, interestingly, was even less impressive than the offense in 2015, allowing nearly six yards a play and nearly 32 points per game on the way to their 4-8 finish. If there is one thing that the Cajuns can be counted upon, it is having solid special teams — they blocked a combined seven punts and placekicks last season, best in the conference, and also had one of the better punting and kickoff defenses in the league. The fact that their only Power Five game is between the hedges at Georgia is mitigated further by the fact that ULL plays Boise State at home in the season opener. If they win that, they’re set up well for a season of contention and bowling once again.
3. Arkansas State — It feels weird to have the defending champions this low in the pecking order, and perhaps it is foolish considering the fact that they have the third-most returning experience in the conference. They’ve retained a head coach for a third straight season, they’ve got a couple of passers that could replace Fredi Knighten’s production and then some, and the Red Wolves are still among the Sun Belt elite. If not for the neophyte programs ranked ahead of them here Arkansas State would likely be the next Troy-like dynasty in the league. Then again, the lack of a true round robin or divisional play means that there is always the possibility for a split championship, which has occurred in six of the league’s 15 football-playing seasons. They benefit from an early home game against fellow Access Bowl foe Toledo, play at Auburn in what looks to be a good-but-not-great year for the Tigers, and avoid Appalachian State while playing Georgia Southern at home. Yet the risk for regression is there as well, and while Arkansas State should qualify for a bowl the Sun Belt crown might be out of reach.
2. Georgia Southern — The only real question mark plaguing the Eagles heading into the 2016 season is how they will respond to new head coach Tyson Summers, a relatively unknown position coach who was the safeties coach for a season in Statesboro a decade ago when the team was still in the FCS ranks. He served as defensive coordinator last year at Colorado State under Mike Bobo, and steps into the position vacated by Willie Fritz after successful transitioning to the FBS. Fritz ably guided Georgia Southern into the top tier of college football, replacing Jeff Monken right at the point of promotion and going 14-2 in Sun Belt play (with the team going 18-7 overall, including its first bowl victory last year). Summers has a solid offense that has long been built around the option, a stout defense that snatched 27 takeaways in 2015, and a fan base that expects and demands victories. They play road games against MAC contender Western Michigan, ACC hopeful Georgia Tech, and SEC West stalwart Ole Miss — great fuel for an Access Bowl bid if they can win at least one Power Five matchup, but dependent on winning the conference.
1. Appalachian State — The problem for Georgia Southern is that Appalachian State has been just as good after transitioning over from the I-AA ranks alongside the Eagles in 2014. The Mountaineers have also gone 18-7 in that span, have won a bowl game, and still have the advantage of continuity with head coach Scott Satterfield at the helm for another season. No team save Idaho returns more experience than Appalachian State, and given the fact that they fielded the most productive offense and defense in the conference last year the returning talent bodes well for continued success. A loss to Arkansas State was the difference between winning the league and finishing second last year, and the Mountaineers avoid the Red Wolves in 2016. Facing Georgia Southern on the road is their biggest conference test, while an opener against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium and a home game against the Hurricanes provide tough but vulnerable Power Five opposition. Satterfield’s crew, led by junior quarterback Taylor Lamb, are the best bet in the Sun Belt this season.