This is the third installment in a series of ‘Countdown to kickoff’ columns that will run over the next month. 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.
By now, all 12 Sun Belt teams have had a taste of the practice field.
With no huge injuries or surprises coming out of any of the camps, the early days have been filled with typical optimism and coach-speak. And who can blame them? When there is a ‘0’ in the loss column, it’s easy to see all of the ways in which 2017 will be a great one for all Sun Belt squads.
But once the season begins, there is a cold reality that will be faced. By all accounts, the conference figures to be as good or better than in 2016 when the Sun Belt filled all five of its allotted bowl slots and filled an at-large spot to boot. When it comes to getting bowl eligible - or lofty goals such as a conference title - every win and loss weigh heavily.
Here’s a list of one potential breakthrough win and one possible costly loss on each team’s schedule this season.
Possible Upset: Following a Sun Belt co-championship and a second consecutive bowl victory, the Mountaineers are the clear cut favorites to win the league outright this season. In fact, early projections show that the Mountaineers will be favored in every game except their season opener, so that makes this section an easy call. Appalachian State kicks off its season at Georgia in a primetime game. App nearly pulled an upset at Tennessee last season and already has the SEC buzzing about a possible repeat performance. With a win, the Mountaineers would be an early favorite to claim the G5 spot in the group of New Year’s bowls.
Possible Trap: Part of the reason that Appalachian State is expected to rule the Sun Belt is that it avoids playing the next two highest vote-getters in the preseason poll — Troy and Arkansas State. So a possible upset of the Mountaineers could easily fall on the shoulders of their most hated rivals. For the fourth consecutive season, Georgia Southern and App will square off in a nationally televised Thursday night game. The Eagles haven’t had much luck in Boone, but their last win on top of the mountain came in the same season that Appalachian scored its upset of Michigan. If App pulls more early-season fireworks, the irony of the situation won’t be lost when Georgia Southern comes to town.
Possible Upset: The Red Wolves are sure to have a packed house when they welcome Miami to town in the second week of the season. In recent seasons, non-conference games have been the bane of Arkansas State’s existence — the low point coming with an 0-4 mark and a loss to FCS Central Arkansas last season. But the Wolves’ long streak of Sun Belt success also shows the talent that is present and capable of playing up to the Hurricanes’ level. If Arkansas State plays like it did for the final three months of 2016, it should at least make things tough for Miami.
Possible Trap: If Appalachian State gets tripped up along the way, it’s likely that the Sun Belt championship will come down to the final weekend of the season. Last year, Troy became the first Sun Belt team to ever crack the Associated Press Top-25 poll, only to receive an unceremonious 35-3 drubbing at the hands of the Red Wolves just three days later. Troy will get its shot at revenge - and possibly a shot at the conference title — when the two meet in Jonesboro on Dec. 2.
Possible Upset: Coastal Carolina is in its first year as an FBS team and has never beaten a team at that level. With a home game against a struggling Massachusetts program scheduled for muggy Conway, S.C. on Sept. 2, there may be no better time than their first FBS game to get their first FBS win. The Chanticleers have the talent to win a few, but the first one is the hardest to get, so they might as well get it as early as possible.
Possible Trap: The surest way for the Chanticleers to prove themselves as a bona fide FBS team is to take care of business against the FCS. Coastal Carolina will be favored by at least a touchdown when it hosts Western Illinois on Sept. 23, but the two squads have played a pair of close games in their history, with the Leathernecks coming out on top during a 2010 FCS playoff game.
Possible Upset: In a strange twist of logic, Georgia Southern has more wins over ‘Power 5’ conference members as an FCS school than it does as an FBS school. The Eagles will be heavy underdogs when they face the SEC’s Auburn on opening weekend, but may have more of a puncher’s chance when they visit Indiana out of the Big Ten in September. The Eagles will likely still be settling into their new option attack when they square off against the Hoosiers, but that scheme will also be a very new and difficult look for Indiana.
Possible Trap: After a difficult 2016 season, the Eagles’ revenge list is running long. But there is no question that the top grudge to be taken care of is a current two-game losing streak against Georgia State. The Eagles were stunned by the Panthers in 2015 and the Atlanta squad eliminated Southern from bowl contention last season. The Eagles have been the objectively more talented team in both of those games - and figure to be again this season - but there is something to be said for one team having the number of another.
Possible Upset: The Sun Belt often gets the worst of conference-wide evaluations due to how many of its members are new to the FBS — and in many cases, new altogether. But a league full of programs growing up together has also cultivated some interesting rivalries. Georgia State and South Alabama both fired up their programs within the last decade and have played each other in almost every season of their shared existences. Georgia State has only defeated the Jaguars once, but a mid-fall matchup this season could determine which of the two still has bowl aspirations heading into the final month of play.
Possible Trap: In 2015, the Panthers suffered an embarrassing loss when they fell to Charlotte in the 49ers’ first ever FBS game. Georgia State rallied and went to a bowl that season, but struggled to just three wins in 2016. And while Charlotte took its lumps in 2015, last year saw some improvement and back-to-back upsets over Marshall and Southern Miss. Georgia State must travel to Charlotte on Sept. 23 and will want to take care of unfinished business.
Possible Upset: In a bit of tragic irony, one of the Vandals’ highest-profile wins in program history could come just months before they step back down into the FCS. Idaho rattled off an 8-4 season last year, won its bowl game, and returns enough talent for a return trip to the postseason this year. A Sun Belt title likely isn’t in the cards, but a veteran offensive unit could easily have a big day and spring a trap on an SEC squad when Idaho visits Missouri in late October.
Possible Trap: Idaho outlasted UNLV in an overtime thriller, pulling the first of a few upsets that ultimately led to the Vandals’ run to a bowl game. Idaho hosts the Rebels this season and - with a more veteran team — will likely be favored. But with a new offensive line and a tough conference schedule lying ahead at that point, the early-season matchup could be vital to giving the Vandals breathing room in terms of being bowl-eligible once again.
NEW MEXICO STATE
Possible Upset: The 2017 season will be the last for the Aggies in the Sun Belt. And what better way to leave than to put a scare into a conference power during Halloween weekend? On Oct. 28, New Mexico State will celebrate homecoming as Arkansas State pays a visit to Las Cruces. The Aggies have had more than their share of struggles in conference play, but boast a veteran team with longtime starters and weapons in the offensive backfield. Add in a bye week before the game and a long road trip for the Red Wolves and an upset could be brewing.
Possible Trap: The Aggies’ impending trek into the uncertain terrain of being an independent FBS team is more of a problem for the administration, but is likely somewhere in the minds of players as well. If New Mexico State doesn’t have enough early success to entertain thoughts of a bowl game, there will be discussion of the team’s future — and also of the future of head coach Doug Martin. If minds aren’t right, a game like the Nov. 4 matchup at Texas State could prove costly as the Bobcats don’t expect a great season, but will be fighting for anything to use as a springboard into 2018.
Possible Upset: In a rollercoaster 2016 season, South Alabama saved its best performances for its biggest games. The Jaguars upset Mississippi State in their season opener and later took down ranked San Diego State. South Alabama will have a chance to make the Oxford-leaning half of Mississippi miserable as the Jags travel to Ole Miss on opening weekend. Armed with a veteran quarterback and possibly playing off of the Rebels’ offseason troubles, another early upset isn’t out of the question.
Possible Trap: South Alabama has lost the two bowl games it has appeared in and wasn’t selected for a postseason appearance after going 6-6 in 2013. The Jags are hopeful for another crack at getting their first bowl win this season, but a brutal first half schedule will force them to take care of business late. It’s likely that a season finale road trip all the way out to New Mexico State will be a do-or-die situation for South Alabama.
Possible Upset: To be brutally honest, the still-under-reconstruction Bobcats don’t figure to have many opportunities to make a splash. But that was also the case last season and — while Texas State stumbled to a 2-10 mark — the Bobcats managed a road win over an Ohio team that had finished the previous season in a bowl game. If Texas State is looking to pull off that same sort of surprise this season, it could come in the high country of the Cowboy State. Wyoming is expected to be a contender in the Mountain West, but maybe Texas State’s rebuild will be ahead of schedule.
Possible Trap: If the first half of the season doesn’t provide any bright spots, the Bobcats will need to suck it up in an attempt to not go winless in the Sun Belt again. On Oct. 28, the Bobcats will have the benefit of a bye week, but will also have a long road trip out to Coastal Carolina. If Texas State hasn’t built up any momentum by then, the Chanticleers — if they haven’t done so already — will be itching for their first conference win.
Possible Upset: In the last two years, the NCAA has thrown a bone to the ‘Group of 5’ conferences, guaranteeing a New Year’s bowl to the top finisher. If Troy wants to claim that spot, it would come at the expense of a team that has long held claim to the title of ‘best team from non-major conference’ Boise State. The Broncos aren’t quite as potent this year, and if Troy can survive the altitude and hostile environment on opening night, the Trojans’ high-powered offense could give it an early boost toward national recognition.
Possible Trap: Troy achieved a Top-25 ranking last season, only to immediately lose it the next week after an embarrassing Thursday night loss. If the Trojans can get past Boise State and take care of business in the Sun Belt, they could sit at 7-1 and another possible national ranking heading into November. If that’s the case, Troy will face another Thursday night home game, this time against Idaho. The Trojans will likely be favored in the matchup, but the Vandals have the weapons to deal out another discouraging loss.
Possible Upset: The SEC is routinely ranked No. 1 out of the 10 FBS conferences while the Sun Belt is often ranked 10th. And yet, it’s teams like UL Monroe, South Alabama and Georgia Southern that have starred in some of the SEC’s most notable recent non-conference losses. Texas A&M has seven straight winning seasons, but has been prone to off games recently. Louisiana has dominant offensive and defensive lines and - if the game remains close into the final minutes — could ultimately prevail in a battle of attrition.
Possible Trap: UL Lafayette avoids Troy on its schedule and doesn’t play Appalachian State until the final week of the season. If the Ragin’ Cajuns live up to their hype, they could easily still be in play for a Sun Belt title heading into Thanksgiving. On Nov. 25, ULL hosts Georgia Southern. The Eagles put up a fight last season and — if their new offense is clicking — could provide an even bigger challenge just in time to ruin the Cajuns’ holidays.
Possible Upset: If the Warhawks can enter 2017 with the bit of momentum they gained at the end of last season, they could make more noise than is expected of them in the Sun Belt. UL Monroe is still a work in progress, but has a lot of young pieces in place. The Warhawks end their regular season a week early on Nov. 25, but if bowl eligibility is within reach — and if opponent Arkansas State is out of the conference title picture — ULM could put its rebuild on fast-forward.
Possible Trap: While this could be a turnaround year for ULM, the positives likely won’t come early. The Warhawks will be big underdogs against Memphis, Florida State and Southern Miss before taking on UL Lafayette in their annual rivalry game. If an 0-4 start is in the cards for UL Monroe, a Sept 30 home date against Coastal Carolina could be the swing game that either sends them into a much more positive second half or shifts the focus ahead to 2018.