This isn’t your grandfather’s Sun Belt. The Sun Belt also probably wasn’t around in your grandfather’s day either. But while many people look to the MAC and Mountain West as non – Power 5 conferences most like to produce a College Football Playoff buster, don’t sleep on the Sun Belt. Sure some of the worst teams in the country are found here, but some of the best up-and-coming teams are here as well. So what do you need to watch for this year? Here are the top 5 storylines coming out of the Sun Belt this season.
5. Can Troy regain its former glory now that the Larry Blakeney Era is over?
Larry Blakeney had one heck of a run in southeast Alabama. He coached at Troy for 24 seasons leading them from the shadows of what is now FCS to the top of the Sun Belt in the mid-2000’s racking up wins against Oklahoma State and Missouri. But, the Trojans have faded in recent years. Can they regain that magic that Blakeney captured in the mid-2000’s under new coach Neal Brown? Only time will tell.
4. Can South Alabama keep it rolling?
Joey Jones did an incredible job last season in Mobile. South Alabama has only had a football team since 2007 and only been in FBS since 2009, yet Jones already has his squad in postseason play. The Jaguars are rising fast and could be a team to lookout for in the future. But this year’s team returns only five starters on the entire team. They do get some relief however with seven former UAB Blazers making their way down I-65.
3. Can UL Lafayette get over the 9 win mark?
UL Lafayette has been the model of consistency since 2011. They have gone 9-4 every year since then and have won 4 straight New Orleans Bowls. Will this be the year that they hit double digit wins? Looking at the schedule it seems unlikely. They start the year off traveling to Lexington to take on Kentucky. They also travel to Arkansas State, South Alabama and Appalachian State. Mark Hudspeth has done a remarkable job in Lafayette but this year looks like it might be the year the 9-win streak stops.
2. Can Appalachian State continue their meteoric rise?
People remember Appalachian State for upsetting Michigan in the Big House in 2007. Last season Appalachian State moved up to the big leagues and joined FBS. Most experts expected them to struggle after having a losing record their last year in the FCS, but the Mountaineers pulled out seven wins. Now returning 20 starters (the most in the nation), the Mountaineers look to take the next step forward and win the conference. I like their chances.
1. Can a Sun Belt team grab the Group of Five Conference spot in the New Year’s Six bowls?
Teams such as Georgia State and Idaho give the Sun Belt a bad reputation but there are 6 legitimately good teams that could challenge for a major bowl bid. Georgia Southern, UL Lafayette, Appalachian State, Texas State, Arkansas State, and South Alabama all are teams that could challenge for that spot. But which one has the best chance? I personally like Mountaineers from Boone, North Carolina. They have a marquee game against Clemson, but aren’t so overloaded with Power 5 teams that their overall record suffers. Georgia Southern, Arkansas State and UL Lafayette are all at home, and as mentioned before, they return 20 starters. If anyone from the Sun Belt has a chance to make a major run, I think it’s the Mountaineers from Appalachian State.