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The fun's at the top: what to expect in 2016
Sun Belt WEB

 At the annual Sun Belt Conference football media day in New Orleans earlier in the week, new
    Georgia Southern coach Tyson Summers was quite popular. The Eagles’ new leader faced plenty of questions regarding what – if any – changes can be expected.
    As expected, Summers maintained the same stream of answers that Georgia Southern fans have been hearing since his introduction in the final days of 2015. Georgia Southern will still be a run-firstteam.
    The Eagles will still run the option. And yes, even with all the running, an improved passing gameis necessary.
    For any more insight into what exactly the 2016 Eagles will bring to the table, fans will have to wait for reports from preseason practices.
    But the rest of the conference also sent players and coaches, making for a clear picture of what
    Georgia Southern can expect to face in its third year of Sun Belt competition.

No More Surprises
    In the Eagles’ inaugural FBS season, they were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference. A fierce rushing attack and an opportunistic defense took the league by storm and the
    Eagles were in the Sun Belt driver’s seat midway through the season. Georgia Southern finished things off, ending with an undefeated conference record and sole possession of the Sun Belt title in 2014.
    The Eagles entered 2015 as favorites to repeat, but some questions still remained about whether teams would fare better since the Eagles were a known quantity. Georgia Southern fell short of the Sun Belt title, but another slew of offensive outbursts has guaranteed that every defensive coordinator has his team’s date with the Eagles circled.
    “There’s a lot of talent and a lot of great skill position players throughout the entire conference,” Troy coach Neal Brown said. “Looking at (Georgia Southern), there’s just so much speed.
    Players are fast and they execute very quickly. We have an experienced defense and that is critical to
    defend against teams like that.”

    Best Foot Forward

    For the last decade, the Sun Belt has struggled with its reputation as one of the least intimidating conferences in the FBS.
    Despite a couple of upsets of ‘Power 5’ conference teams and a few bowl wins, the Sun Belt is routinely ranked at or near the bottom of conference power polls and has never had a team crack the
Associated Press’ top-25.
    Hopefully, those days are numbered.
    “We have positioned ourselves to benefit both financially and in competition,” Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said. “We play two more non-conference games against our peer conferences this season and I’m very optimistic about how our schools will match up.”
    Better non-conference records and a deeper league will help the perception of the Sun Belt’s best teams at the end of the season, but it is making life tougher for some traditional powers.
    “We know that we’ll be challenged,” UL Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said.
    Hudspeth’s Ragin’ Cajuns rattled off four consecutive 9-4 seasons from 2011-2014 before stumbling to a 4-8 mark last fall.
    “4-8 isn’t something I like to think about,” Hudspeth said. “And it will take a lot to get back to where we want to be. You look at some of the new schools that have come in and had immediate success and you know that there aren’t any easy weeks out there.”

    Looking Ahead
    While a deeper league makes it tough to focus on games farther down the schedule, there are a few names that Georgia Southern fans can’t help themselves from keeping an eye on.
    As the Eagles ripped through the Sun Belt in 2014, the two conference teams not on the schedule – UL Lafayette and Arkansas State – just happened to be the two teams who had been sitting atop the league before Georgia Southern and Appalachian State crashed the party. After skipping the
    Cajuns and Red Wolves again last fall, the teams will finally meet in 2016.
    Arkansas State will play its first conference game against the Eagles in a nationally televised
    Wednesday night game in Jonesboro. Later in the season, the Eagles will get their first ever look at ULL when it hosts the Cajuns in a Thursday night game that will also serve as homecoming for Georgia Southern.
    Fan bases for all three teams have spent two seasons speculating about how things could have played out in a true round-robin schedule. The players are also excited for the meetings, but were more reserved in their expectations.
    “It’s impressive seeing what Georgia Southern has done the last two seasons,” ULL linebacker Otha Peters said. “We’re a team that has had success and we know (Georgia Southern) is the kind of team we need to beat if we want to get back there.”
    “I think every player wants to play good teams and prove what they can do,” Arkansas State defensive back Cody Brown said. “We can’t focus on Georgia Southern yet since we have other games first, but I’m sure everyone is going to be up for that game.”

    A Teal Takeover
    Media day held plenty of speculation about which team will claim the conference crown in
    December, but one of the most popular coaches at the event heads up a team that won’t play a single Sun Belt game this fall.
    Coastal Carolina was officially admitted into the Sun Belt on July 1. While most Chanticleer teams will compete in the Sun Belt this season, the football team must go through the transition process and won’t enter league play until 2018. Still, that didn’t stop Coastal coach Joe Moglia from attending media day and facing the press.
    One of the oddest success stories in the coaching world, Moglia coached at various high schools and small colleges from 1968-1983 before trying his hand at the world of business. Moglia’s playbook in the boardroom may have been even more effective than it was on the field as he eventually took over as the CEO of TD Ameritrade.
    “We were one of the only firms that saw (the 2008 financial crisis) coming and got it right,”
    Moglia said. “Because of that, we saw a lot of growth and made a lot of money.”
    Hoping to leave his foresight and leadership as his legacy, Moglia stepped down as CEO, only to be drawn back to the coaching world.
    “Yale asked me if I’d be interested,” Moglia said. “They told me that they didn’t care how long I had been out of coaching. They said that they studied the traits of successful coaches and that I matched that. I didn’t take that job, but that got me intrigued.”
    Moglia reentered the coaching world as an assistant for Nebraska and coached the Omaha
    Nighthawks of the United Football League before taking the helm at Coastal Carolina in 2012. Since then, he has turned the Chanticleers into a perennial FCS power and is confident that they can carry that momentum into the FBS.

Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.