NEW ORLEANS — Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield understood the implication when Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson asserted that the league could have a team in New Year's Day bowl game for the first time — and win it — as soon as this season.
While Benson didn't name that team, Appalachian State, which shared the Sun Belt title a season ago, is now the league's preseason favorite in 2017, according to a poll of coaches and selected media. Troy and Arkansas State — which are not on the Mountaineers' eight-game league schedule this season — were picked second and third.
"We'd love to be that team and certainly at the end of the season, I hope we are," Satterfield said. "You can't focus on that if you're in my position or our players' position. ... You have to focus on the moment."
Satterfield's roster is leaded with returning starters — including the reigning Sun Belt offensive player of the year, running back Jalin Moore. And the program that has posted at least 10 victories, including bowl wins, in each of the past two seasons.
"We have a team that can compete in all our games," Satterfield said. The first game looks like the toughest — a Sept. 2 visit to Georgia.
Appalachian State senior quarterback Taylor Lamb said players embrace the notion of being that history-making team the conference commissioner envisions.
"It's talked about. We've got a great schedule this year that sets up nicely for us to win every game. That's what we want to do," Lamb said. "This team wants to go to the next step, and that's winning the Sun Belt and then going to a bigger bowl.
"When you've done it, you want to do it bigger," Lamb added. "And that's just how we've progressed over the years and that's definitely on the table for us this year."
Here are some of the Sun Belt's premier story lines in 2017:
TROJAN HORSE: Troy, which enjoyed a five-year run as Sun Belt champs from 2006 to 2010, seems to have returned to the league's elite after a half-decade downswing. Troy went from a 4-8 record in 2015 to 10-3 last season, when quarterback Brandon Silvers passed for 3,180 yards and 23 touchdowns. Running back Jordan Chunn is also back after rushing for 1,288 yards and 16 TDs. If new starters the offensive line and defense pan out, the Trojans could reclaim their perch atop the league.
HUNGRY WOLVES: Arkansas State can't be overlooked, having won at least a share of the conference championship in five of the last six years. The Red Wolves also have stability at the top; coach Blake Anderson enters his fourth season after being the fifth coach in five years at the time of his hiring. Last season demonstrated the resilience of the program. After starting 0-4 in non-conference play, Arkansas State won 7 of 8 Sun Belt games for a share of the league title and then beat Central Florida 31-13 in the Cure Bowl. This season will hinge on an entirely new offensive line.
"I love the way we look up front. We're bigger than we've ever been," Anderson said. "The question for us is how quickly we can get all five of those guys communicating together and playing like a group." Arkansas State's non-conference schedule features the Miami Hurricanes' visit to Jonesboro on Sept. 9.
MEMBERSHIP'S BENEFITS: Recently accepted Sun Belt member Coastal Carolina plays its first official season at Division I's top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision and will be eligible for the conference championship. However, NCAA rules prevent them from playing in a bowl game this season. CCU also will be without coach Joe Moglia this season because of a recent medical procedure. Offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell is the interim coach. Outside expectations aren't high.
The Chanticleers are forecast for last place in the Sun Belt's preseason poll. That's a little ironic given how Sun Belt members Appalachian State and Georgia Southern enjoyed early success soon after moving up from the Football Championship Subdivision.
BIDDING ADIEU: Idaho and New Mexico State are playing their final seasons in the Sun Belt. They joined on a four-year term that is expiring. The NCAA's decision to no longer require conferences to have a minimum of 12 teams in order to host championship games left Sun Belt presidents with less incentive to retain the league's farthest-flung members.
The Sun Belt will play its first championship game in 2018 as a 10-team league made up of Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Troy in the East Division, while the West Division will contain Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Texas State. Idaho plans to return to the FCS level in the Big Sky Conference, while New Mexico State will compete as a Division I FBS independent pending its search for a new conference.