This is the second 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.
Sun Belt media day has come and gone. The official preseason predictions and all-conference teams have been selected by league coaches and media members and - at least in the case of Georgia Southern - fall camp is officially underway.
When the Eagles hit the practice field this morning, there will be 37 days remaining until they kick off the 2017 season at Auburn. The rest of the Sun Belt will also fire up their new seasons that weekend and the next five weeks will be spent trying to patch some holes while also figuring out what players and schemes will lead them to victory.
Here is a quick look at something each Sun Belt school can hang its hat on, as well as an area that needs improvement as the season continues:
Strength: The Mountaineers are the early favorite to win the Sun Belt and — like many championship teams — their success figures to begin in the trenches. Despite losing a pair of seniors on the offensive line, Appalachian State still has plenty of talent and experience. The unit is used to providing wide running lanes in the Mountaineers’ zone rushing offense and also has the ability to keep the pocket intact for four-year starting quarterback Taylor Lamb.
Weakness: If the Mountaineers find themselves in games that are low-scoring or tight in the final minutes, things could get interesting. Both the offense and defense have proven to be top notch, but the special teams units leave something to be desired. Michael Rubino will handle placekicking duties and will have to improve on a 15-of-21 field goal performance. When App punts, the duties could likely fall to freshman Xavier Subotsch.
Strength: Last season, the Red Wolves rebounded from a disastrous start to nearly run the table in Sun Belt play. The Wolves rarely looked polished, but their team athleticism overcame many potential rough patches. Nowhere is this more evident than along the defensive front where defending Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones leads a front that shuts down rushing lanes and often puts the opposing quarterback on the turf.
Weakness: The Arkansas State defense will have to hold tight until the offense gets rolling. While returning quarterback Justice Hansen will have nearly all of his running and receiving weapons returning, there will be five new starters on the Wolves’ line. Hansen will also need some personal growth as he completed just 58 percent of his throws last year.
Strength: There is nothing easy about making the leap into FBS football and there are dozens of schools that took plenty of time to become winning programs in the FBS after finding consistent success at lower levels. Then again, the 2014 Georgia Southern squad is proof that sometimes being too young and inexperienced to know the gravity of things can work out just fine. The Chanticleers built themselves into an FCS power in less than a decade and don’t intend to slow down that momentum.
Weakness: Teams that have found immediate success in the FBS have often been veteran squads. That’s not a very fitting description for Coastal Carolina. Quarterback Austin Wilson and receiver Chris Jones are the only veteran skill position players on a squad that has just 10 overall returning starters.
Strength: If the Eagles can find a way to gain a late lead, they should like the results. In 2016, many doubts were cast on the secondary as it was patrolled mostly by freshmen and sophomores. There was a bit of a learning curve, but the Eagles’ young defensive backs proved themselves and figure to be a solid unit for the next few years.
Weakness: The Eagles have high hopes for the four quarterbacks on the roster, but — as it currently stands — the number of snaps taken for the Eagles by those four quarterbacks can be counted on one hand. Georgia Southern may well find a great dual-threat quarterback emerging from the camp battle, but so much uncertainty at the quarterback position in an option offense is a huge liability until proven otherwise.
Strength: The Panthers lost 2015 Sun Belt Player of the Year Nick Arbuckle to graduation and had to find a new quarterback in 2016. The dropoff in production was predictable, but Conner Manning was able to rack up 2,684 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air. Now a senior, Manning hopes for the same farewell season that Arbuckle enjoyed. That will be helped by sophomore receiver Penny Hart who was one of the best in the Sun Belt in his freshman year.
Weakness: Seven years into its existence, the program at Georgia State is still struggling to find an identity. A home in downtown Atlanta hasn’t done much to build a fan base and it remains to be seen whether moving into a repurposed baseball stadium can help in that regard. The Panthers seemed to be gaining a reputation as an aerial threat over the last few seasons, but with new coach Shawn Elliott now in control, any sort of change could hit the reset button.
Strength: When quarterback Matt Linehan first saw the field for Idaho, the Vandals were coming off of consecutive 1-11 seasons. Given the reins as a freshman, Linehan went 1-10 in his first year, but did enough to show that he was the future of the offense. Fast forward a couple of years and Linehan’s 2,540 passing yards last season led Idaho to a 9-4 record and the program’s first bowl — and bowl victory — in seven years.
Weakness: If injuries pile up or the starters can’t get the job done, there might not be many answers found further down the depth chart. Recruiting players to Idaho is always a tough sell due to the lack of local FBS talent in the prep ranks and the generally remote northwest. But those factors pale in comparison to the looming shadow of the Vandals’ impending drop to FCS. Idaho has had the lowest rated Sun Belt recruiting class two years running.
NEW MEXICO STATE
Strength: When a program hasn’t had a winning season since 2002 and hasn’t seen a bowl since the Eisenhower administration, there aren’t bound to be a ton of positives out there. Despite the team’s many struggles, the Aggies bring back three-year starter at quarterback Tyler Rogers and running back Larry Rose, who is one of the more versatile offensive weapons in the Sun Belt.
Weakness: New Mexico State returns nine of 11 defensive starters, but that will only be a positive if they’ve made vast improvements over the offseason. The Aggies ranked 128th in overall defense last season. That included allowing an average of 38.8 points per game and giving up a concerning 6.6 yards per play
Strength: The Jaguars have struggled to break into the top of the Sun Belt standings, but any team seeing them on the schedule knows not to take them lightly. USA had a pair of signature wins last season as it took down Mississippi State and San Diego State, the latter of which was ranked No. 22 when the teams met up. Joey Jones has proven to be one of the better coaches in the league and is a threat in any game.
Weakness: While Dallas Davis returns for his second full season as starting quarterback, he’s likely spending camp learning about his teammates. No starters at receiver return and NFL draftee tight end Gerald Everett is also gone. If there are any offensive stars on the Jags’ roster, they won’t be known for at least another month.
Strength: The Texas State defense struggled mightily last season due in large part to a secondary that allowed a 66.8 percent completion rate. Much more effective was a linebacking corps that didn’t allow nearly as much damage on the ground. The rush defense should improve on those numbers with three returning starters and another year of experience in the 3-4 scheme.
Weakness: The Bobcats thought the future was bright when they went 6-6 in 2013 and 7-5 in 2014. But quarterback Tyler Jones wasn’t as effective in his final two seasons and the rest of the team went south at a faster rate. Texas State lost its top four quarterbacks from last season and will have to rely on Mississippi State transfer Damian Williams.
Strength: There aren’t many places to hide from the Trojans’ quick-strike pass attack. Four-year starting quarterback Brandon Silvers returns, along with his top seven receiving targets from 2016. The ground game is just as potent as senior running back Jordan Chunn returns after making a big splash last season.
Weakness: It seems like the offense’s only potential soft spot is if the quick-strike passing isn’t quick enough. Three departing offensive linemen will be replaced by sophomores this season. And with games at Boise State and LSU before Troy hits the meat of its Sun Belt schedule, the line will have some tough blitzes thrown at it early and often.
Strength: Whoever is in charge of cooking for the Ragin’ Cajuns has their job cut out for them. Looking at the offensive and defensive lines, only two of the nine projected starters weight less than 300 pounds and only one doesn’t crack at least 290. That abundance of muscle will be especially helpful on the offensive end as UL Lafayette starts a new quarterback and looks to replace all-time yardage leader Elijah McGuire.
Weakness: Much like Georgia Southern, the Cajuns are looking at what they think is plenty of raw talent at quarterback, but no guarantees. Jordan Davis and Dion Ray both saw some snaps last season, but did far more with their legs than with their arms.
Strength: The numbers aren’t promising, but the Warhawks at least seem to have hope — along with, arguably, the best nickname in the conference. Garrett Smith proved to be the best option at quarterback last season and has enough skill players and linemen returning to make some strides in the second year under coach Matt Viator.
Weakness: Smith and the passing game will need to do the bulk of the work for now. The Warhawks haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher in nearly a decade and had just one player turn in a 100-yard game in 2015. That improved a bit last season, but there is still much work to be done before UL Monroe can be considered a balanced offense.