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How will the SBC shake out?

Team-by-team win-loss projections for 2017

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How will the SBC shake out?

As blocker engulf defenders all around him, Georgia Southern running back Wesley Fields runs through the attempted tackle of UL Monroe defender Shaquille Warren for a fourth quarter touchdown at Paulson Stadium Saturday.


This is the fifth and final installment in a series of ‘Countdown to kickoff’ columns that are leading up to Georgia Southern’s season opener. In the series, each Sun Belt team will go under the microscope in respect to questions for the 2017 season, strengths and weaknesses, predicted records and more.
    Over the last month, we’ve poked and prodded at all 12 teams in the Sun Belt.
    Some schools enter the 2017 season with huge dreams while others are just looking to get their feet under them. There are tough road trips and exciting upset opportunities abound for just about every team.
    As a whole, the Sun Belt is staring at one of its best chances ever to make a name for itself as the league has more bowl tie-ins than ever and more teams than not are expected to be on the upswing.
    But the fact remains that all of the expectations in the world - our analysis included - won’t mean much once toe meets leather later this week. Tons of unexpected surprises, both good and bad, are likely to fill out the next few months. Hindsight will be 20/20 come December, but here is our best guess as to how the Sun Belt will play out this fall.

1. TROY
Projected record: 11-1 (8-0)
    The Trojans were arguably the best team in the Sun Belt last season. They proved as much by becoming the first team from the league to ever secure a spot in the weekly Associated Press Top-25 poll. But a loss immediately following their ranking bounced them from the poll and another setback at Georgia Southern cost Troy a share of the conference championship and the hype was gone by bowl season.
    As a G5 school, it will likely take Troy another big September to get folks talking again and they’ve got the talent to do just that. What was a great offense in 2016 looks to have added even more pieces and more experience for 2017. An upset over LSU may be a bit too much to expect, but wins in every other game are certainly within the Trojans’ grasp.
   
2. APPALACHIAN STATE
 Projected record: 10-2 (7-1)
    While Troy has the talent, it’s App State that brings all of the preseason expectations… and also a ton of talent. The Mountaineers grabbed the nation’s attention on opening night last season as they took Tennessee to overtime. This time around, many are expecting the same sort of upset bid as App opens at Georgia.
    The Mountaineers have another chance to build their resume against a P5 school with a date against Wake Forest - which has been given all it can handle by G5 teams on many occasions. There are scenarios that have App fans dreaming of a New Year’s bowl bid, Appalachian could very well add a few more upsets to its resume, but will have to worry about someone returning the favor as everyone in the Sun Belt gears up for their shot against the team that topped the preseason poll.

T3. GEORGIA SOUTHERN
 Projected record: 8-4 (6-2)
    The Eagles might be one of the toughest teams in the Sun Belt to get a good read on until they have a few games under their belt.
    By all accounts, 2016 was a disappointment. A slew of experienced seniors regressed in their production as a new coaching staff couldn’t figure out how to make the Eagles’ option offense work. This fall brings a new group of offensive coaches with a much more impressive background in coaching the option schemes that have made Georgia Southern a perennial national rushing leader.
    The Eagle defense didn’t put up great stats last season, but was often left on the field for far too long when the offense couldn’t sustain drives. All of that said, the Eagles kept things competitive well into the third or fourth quarter of every loss in 2016. Even a small improvement should put them in bowl contention, while a reinvigorated offensive spark could return the Eagles to their former spot as a high-scoring threat to everyone on the schedule.

    T3. ARKANSAS STATE
 Projected record: 8-4 (6-2)
    The Red Wolves should be in the discussion for another Sun Belt championship this season and have proven that they are the school that most often takes advantage of chances to win the league.
    Arkansas State would be rated higher this season if not for its tendency to forget how to play football for large stretches of time. The Red Wolves’ 9-4 mark last season - complete with a shared Sun Belt title and a bowl victory - look great on paper, but the stat sheet shows that they played pretty poorly in half of their games.
    Credit is due for playing well at the right time and winning the important games, but given last year’s inconsistency, it’s hard to predict another league crown.

5. IDAHO
Projected record: 8-4 (5-3)
    Much the same as baseball teams are rewarded for sticking out the pains of a full rebuild, the Vandals saw the tough times vanish last season. An Idaho squad that had won just nine games over a five-year span put its faith in coach Paul Petrino prior to 2013.
    Likewise, Petrino put his faith in a bunch of young players who were thrown right into the fire early in their careers. Everyone stayed the course, leading to a 2016 season that produced a potent Vandal offense capable of outscoring just about anyone.
    A few of the veterans who made last year’s breakthrough have moved on, but enough remain to make Idaho a dark horse chance to make noise in conference play.

6. GEORGIA STATE
Projected record: 6-6 (4-4)
    Aside from a second straight win over Georgia Southern, the 2016 season was a big letdown for Georgia State. The Panthers returned almost all of their playmakers - aside from the big blow of seeing Nick Arbuckle leave - but couldn’t get much of anything going.
    The Panthers were all but out of bowl contention by Halloween and Trent Miles was sent packing with two weeks remaining in the season. Shawn Elliott now has the reins and the Panthers have plenty of momentum with an energetic and a new* stadium. Georgia State again has the benefit of fielding plenty of returning starters on both sides of the ball and will get an extra boost from the return of lethal receiving threat Penny Hart, who missed almost all of last year.
    Georgia State could surprise if everything clicks and should at least entertain thoughts of going to a second bowl in three seasons.

T7. SOUTH ALABAMA
 Projected record: 4-8 (3-5)
    Higher up on this list, Georgia Southern received the benefit of a doubt due to a track record of showing flashes of brilliance. South Alabama is the other side of that coin. Not that the Jaguars have shown flashes of horrible play, but rather that the team has never shown a dominant trait, even if the overall play is solid enough.
    Once again, the Jags look to have a roster that can beat plenty of Sun Belt teams. But again, it’s tough to pick out a player or personnel group that could become a breakout star and surge past teams projected higher in the standings.
    The schedule might be South Alabama’s biggest enemy this season. In Sun Belt play, the Jags travel to conference favorite Troy, as well as Georgia Southern (0-3 vs. Eagles in Sun Belt play), a long trip to New Mexico State and a trip to Atlanta for a game at Georgia State that has become a bit of a rivalry as the programs have grown up together. Add in a visit from Arkansas State and the Jags will have their work cut out in order to break into the top half of the standings.

T7. UL LAFAYETTE
Projected record: 6-6 (3-5)
    The Ragin’ Cajuns are nearly as talented as the run of UL Lafayette squads that were regulars at the top of the Sun Belt standings earlier in the decade. The conference has benefitted from overall improvement and the emergence of new powers, but that has made the climb back to the top difficult in Cajun country.
    UL Lafayette projects to be a good team in 2017, but will need a star or two if it wants to put a scare in some of the conference favorites. Power and experience along both lines will likely keep UL Lafayette competitive in most games. If some touchdown threats or turnover artists emerge farther away from the ball, the Cajuns could well win their fifth New Orleans Bowl in seven seasons.

T7. UL MONROE
Projected record: 4-8 (3-5)
    Of the teams that have really struggled in the Sun Belt over the last few seasons, UL Monroe might have enough pieces in place to start to make the move back towards contending.
    Now two years removed from a coaching change, things are showing signs of coming together. A defense that returned just two starters last season - and had some rough outings to show for it - now returns eight. The offense showed some real potency and enters the season healthy.
    There is likely another year or two to go before the Warhawks can expect to be near the top of the preseason poll. That said, UL Monroe possesses some of the more notable season and single-game performances in the Sun Belt’s recent history and no team is ever more than a year from turning things around if it gets the right breaks.

T10. COASTAL CAROLINA
Projected record: 4-8 (1-7)
    The Chanticleers have the deck stacked against them in their first FBS season.
    Not only will Coastal Carolina be replacing a bevy of key players from a core that spurred deep runs into the FCS playoffs, it will also jump into a Sun Belt whose top teams are stacked with plenty of three and four-year starters who are impact players.
The early weeks of the season will be a good test and introduction. Coastal faces a Massachusetts squad that has been struggling recently and will also take on a UAB team that is technically in its own first FBS season after the program was temporarily disbanded.
    Wins in Sun Belt play might be tough to come by this season, but that doesn’t mean that teams should expect to roll through the Chanticleers - or that subsequent seasons will provide similar success.

T10. NEW MEXICO STATE
Projected record: 3-9 (1-7)
    The Aggies have some offensive weapons and will hope to make a statement during their Sun Belt swan song, but there seem to be too many questions across the board preventing them from going out with a bang.
    There is no doubting that Larry Rose is as good as any playmaker in the Sun Belt and three-year starting quarterback Tyler Rogers is capable of making game-changing throws. On the other hand, the NMSU defense has allowed at least 5.3 yards per carry in each of the last seven seasons.
    The Aggies will have to face the top three vote-getters in the Sun Belt coaches preseason poll and don’t get a crack at conference newcomer Coastal Carolina, making a rough W-L record all the more likely.

T10. TEXAS STATE
Projected record: 2-10 (1-7)
    For a second consecutive season, Texas State will be struggling to get out of the Sun Belt basement. The program began a painful strip-and-rebuild process last season. And while a few games showed glimpses of potential, the Bobcats were rarely able to capitalize.
    Perhaps due more to the overall advancement of the league than any bump in the rebuilding road, 2017 doesn’t look a lot better for Texas State. The Bobcats have an FCS opponent on the schedule, but will also take on P5 Colorado and a strong Wyoming team in non-conference play.
    Texas State will try to play the role of spoiler once Sun Belt play rolls around. If all goes according to plan, the Bobcats will be ready to compete in what could be a wide open West when the Sun Belt splits into divisions next season.

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