This is the first 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.
After a long, hot summer - or in the middle of said summer for us here in Statesboro — football season is finally within sight.
On Monday, coaches and players from each Sun Belt Conference team will descend upon New Orleans for the league’s annual media day which also serves as the de facto start of the new athletics year. Along with the team representatives will be media members from around the conference all looking to gather information about each team’s summer.
But the truth is that media days are usually much ado about nothing. The coaches and players stick to their rehearsed scripts and stock answers. Similarly, everyone can be as positive as they please about the coming season since no one has suffered a loss in late July.
The real answers about the Sun Belt will slowly emerge once the games begin, but here is a pressing question for each team as it gets ready for the long haul.
Can the Mountaineers live up to expectations?
Last season, Appalachian State shared the regular season championship and won its second bowl game in as many years. This time around, the Mountaineers look even more dangerous. To go along with its always-stingy defense, App also enjoys the luxury of a four-year starting quarterback in Taylor Lamb. Add in the friendliest schedule of any team in the conference (Appalachian misses both Arkansas State and Troy and plays Georgia Southern at home) and the stars seem to be aligned for a huge season. The Mountaineers will likely be favored in every game after their season opener, so they’ll have a target on their back each week.
Can the Red Wolves do
Arkansas State has been at or near the top of the Sun Belt for most of the last decade. The Red Wolves have proven time and time again that they can find the talent - and new head coaches — necessary to get the job done against conference rivals. But the Wolves’ non-conference performances in recent years has been a black eye for the team and (considering their Sun Belt success) the league. Arkansas State hasn’t beaten a non-conference FBS foe in a regular season game since 2013 when it beat Idaho a year before the Vandals joined the Sun Belt. Tilts against Nebraska and Miami will be tall orders for the Red Wolves, but they could get another FBS non-conference win when they visit SMU.
Will there be more newcomer success?
In 2014, both Georgia Southern and Appalachian State were picked to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt in their first seasons as FBS programs. Instead, both exceeded expectations, with Georgia Southern winning the league outright. Since then both have winning records and both reached and won bowl games in their first eligible season. The Chanticleers will look to repeat those success stories, but might have a bit more to prove. Georgia Southern and Appalachian State had a combined nine FCS national championships to their names before moving up. And while Coastal quickly turned itself into an FCS contender, it never won a championship and its program is just over a decade old.
Will the option once again prove successful?
Call it a weird coincidence or call it superstition, but don’t stray away from it. That seems to be the feeling of most Eagle fans when it comes to their team’s bread-and-butter option offense. When Tyson Summers took over as head coach in 2016, he said that the Eagles would remain an option team. Georgia Southern pitched the ball a bit last season, but nothing ever resembled the two-time national rushing leaders from 2014-15. Enter new offensive coordinator Bryan Cook, whose option background is light years ahead of the two coordinators he replaces. The only three losing seasons in the Eagles’ modern history have come in seasons where a true option wasn’t the base of the offense.
Will a new coach and stadium get the program on its feet?
Georgia State first took the field in 2010. That season resulted in a winning record against FCS and Division II competition. Since then, the Panthers are just 14-57. A late spurt got them into a bowl game in 2015 game (where they lost to a San Jose State team that entered the postseason with a losing record), but all of that momentum was lost in a 2016 season that resulted in a 3-9 record and the firing of Trent Miles as head coach. In steps Shawn Elliott as the Panthers move from the Georgia Dome into the recently-vacated Turner Field. The Panthers don’t have the easiest schedule, so Elliott will have to work some magic to see immediate improvement.
Will the Vandals be haunted by their future?
The Idaho Vandals will find themselves in a very strange place this season. The Vandals went to — and won — their first bowl game since 2009 to finish with a 9-4 record. Early predictions have Idaho gearing up for another bowl run this fall, but even a conference championship won’t change the fact that they’ll be dropping down to FCS competition in 2018. Ironically, last year’s stellar season came immediately after an announcement in the spring that poor performance — along with limited funds and untenable travel demands — would preclude the Vandals from continuing on as an FBS member. Idaho has the talent to leave the FBS party with a bang if the looming drop doesn’t affect the players.
NEW MEXICO STATE
Can the Aggies find
Like Idaho, New Mexico State will also be leaving the Sun Belt following the 2017 season. The Aggies are poised to remain an FBS football squad, but now face the uncertainty of not having a conference in which to play. Independent scheduling can be tricky and the Aggies’ relative remoteness in the southwest won’t do them any favors. A string of rough football seasons doesn’t figure to come to an end this year, but any wins will be crucial for New Mexico State as it looks to court future opponents and possibly a new conference to call home.
When will the Jags
get over the hump?
For a program that is just 10 years old, South Alabama has plenty to be proud of. Following a rough FBS debut in 2012, the Jaguars have been at or close to the .500 mark in every year since. The Jags already have two bowl appearances to their name and hit high water marks last year with wins over Mississippi State and then-19th ranked San Diego State. But a home loss to Georgia Southern and missed chances on the road at both Louisiana schools left South Alabama out of the race for the Sun Belt’s most prestigious bowls. Replacing plenty of lost talent and a brutal non-conference schedule will be big hurdles if the Jags want to finish with a winning record for the first time since their FCS days.
When does the rebuild start?
The 2016 season was never going to be a great one for Texas State. The program was welcoming in new head coach Everett Withers who immediately cleaned house to get the team on his envisioned track. The season opened with an unexpected bang as the Bobcats notched a triple-overtime road win at Ohio, but a victory over FCS Incarnate Word was the only other bright spot for the year. The worst of things came in Sun Belt play as Texas State was drubbed by its rivals by an average of 25.4 points per game. The depth chart still looks a bit sparse in San Marcos and the 2017 conference slate starts with Appalachian State before ending with consecutive road trips to Arkansas State and Troy.
Will lightning strike twice?
Troy figured that Neal Brown would put a spark into the Trojans when he took over in 2015, but the spark turned into an explosion in his second year. Troy grabbed the spotlight early on as it went toe to toe with the eventual national champions from Clemson, only falling in the final minutes. The Trojans steamrolled through the early portion of their Sun Belt schedule and become the first Sun Belt team to crack the Associated Press top-25, but losses in two of their final three regular season games cost them the conference title.
Is Hudspeth in trouble?
Mark Hudspeth inherited a 3-9 team when he took over the Ragin’ Cajuns prior to the 2011 season. The team immediately turned things around, notching four consecutive 9-4 seasons and four straight New Orleans Bowls to go along with it. But things have hit a snag since then. UL Lafayette spiralled to a 4-8 finish in 2015 and went 6-6 last season before dropping their bowl game. To add insult to injury, NCAA sanctions levied last year have erased 22 wins and two bowl victories from their four-year run. Rumors have spread about Hudspeth possibly being on the hot seat and those rumors will only get louder if the Cajuns continue to play less like the 9-4 squads and more like the quarter-century’s worth of mostly losing football that preceded it.
Will Viator continue
to lead a turnaround?
Matt Viator went 4-8 in his first season at the helm of the Warhawks’ ship and despite the losing mark, there were plenty of silver linings. UL Monroe seemed to improve with each passing week and an offense that had been anemic in 2015 scored 30-plus points five times in 2016. The Warhawks will hope for continued improvement with another year of experience under Viator. Tough tests wait in the season’s opening weeks against Memphis, Florida State and Southern Miss, but ULM will then have a chance to make some waves. The Warhawks begin Sun Belt play with their rivalry game against UL Lafayette. Following that, Monroe has winnable games against Coastal Carolina, Texas State and Georgia State before hitting the tougher portion of its conference slate.