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What to expect from Sun Belt in 2016 season
Sun Belt WEB

Monday marks the unofficial beginning of the 2016 Sun Belt Conference football season as players and coaches for all 11 teams – plus a cameo from 2017 newcomer Coastal Carolina – will descend on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans for the league’s annual media day.
Far from the three-ring circus that is the Super Bowl’s media day, Monday will feature the only chance to get all of the Sun Belt’s coaches and top players together to share their thoughts before games begin in September.
As the beat writer for Georgia Southern, my focus on Monday is more about getting up to speed on the happenings of the other 10 conference programs. After all, those of us in the Eagles’ media contingent had all spring to talk to the new staff. Personally, I’ve heard every question possible that can be asked to new coach Tyson Summers regarding how the offense will or won’t look. Lucky for me, I’ll be able to walk away from those questions while Summers is stuck answering the same questions from different media outlets.
Only this fall’s games will tell the true tale of the 2016 season – and my opinion might even change by the time Media Day wraps up in just over 24 hours – but here’s one reporter’s early opinion on how the conference shakes up.
The Contenders

1.Arkansas State – In a conference that is widely speculated to be very closely contended, playground law holds that the defending champ should get the benefit of the doubt. The Red Wolves ran through the Sun Belt last season, going a perfect 8-0 and putting a convincing beating on second place Appalachian State in Boone. Arkansas State will have to replace an All-Sun Belt talent at quarterback with Fredi Knighten gone, but the Wolves have lost both star players and star coaches in the past without missing much of a beat.
2. Appalachian State – If not for Georgia Southern’s 2014 Sun Belt championship and solid 2015 season, Appalachian would have a solid claim for the best two-year transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Mountaineers have one of the top quarterbacks in the league in third-year starter Taylor Lamb and can likely improve on what was already a top-20 national defense last season. With Arkansas State and Appalachian missing each other on the schedule this season, there will be plenty of ‘what-ifs’ asked if both play to their potential.
3. Georgia Southern – Pound for pound, the Eagles can match up with both of the presumptive Sun Belt favorites. That said, there are plenty of unknowns that make Georgia Southern the least predictable of the top tier teams. First and foremost is Summers and the brand new coaching staff. Summers has maintained that the run game – which has led the nation in each of the past two seasons – will remain the Eagles’ identity, but hasn’t been shy about stressing the need for more passing. Even if the arms of Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw haven’t proven themselves in the past, the duo’s wealth of experience and ability to command a stable of very athletic skill players should keep the Eagles offense very dangerous regardless of how they try to move the ball. The other huge hurdle for Georgia Southern is its schedule. With just three Saturday home games, two matchups against P5 opponents and as the only team in the nation slated for four consecutive road games, all eyes will be on the Eagles’ ability to keep enough gas in the tank.
The Dark Horses
4. Troy –
The Trojans might seem like a reach of a fourth place pick for many Georgia Southern fans, but that’s a matter of perspective. The Eagles have manhandled Troy in each of the last two seasons, but while Troy was in a bad place in 2014, it rebounded (Georgia Southern game aside) to become one of the Sun Belt’s most feared offenses last fall. Now in its second season under coach Neal Brown, Troy’s quick-strike passing game aims to be even stronger.
5. UL Lafayette – No team in the Sun Belt has been less happy about the 2014 expansion teams than the Ragin’ Cajuns. Before Georgia Southern and Appalachian State joined the party, UL Lafayette had notched three consecutive 9-4 seasons with a conference championship and a few New Orleans Bowl appearances to boot. The Cajuns have fallen flat since then, lagging behind Georgia Southern in 2014 before missing out completely on a bowl game last season. The Cajuns have the potential for improvement in 2016, but this is no longer their conference for the taking.
6. Idaho – As fortunate as many claimed Georgia Southern to be for missing out on Arkansas State and UL Lafayette in its first two runs through Sun Belt play, the Eagles might be missing out on Idaho at just the right time this season. The Vandals won’t be picked by even the most optimistic analysts to make a run for the Sun Belt title, but they have also been steadily improving over the last two seasons. Third-year starting quarterback Matt Linehan is a dangerous weapon and will have the best offensive line of his career playing in front of him. If the Vandal defense can improve, a date with Idaho is one that no Sun Belt team will overlook.
7. Georgia State – After a first six years of football that could charitably be described as awful, the Panthers finally found a winning formula in 2015. Georgia State got off to an ominous start by blowing a lead to FBS upstart UNC Charlotte before winning its final four regular season games to qualify for a bowl game. Panther fans can be optimistic that a defense which showed huge improvement last fall returns eight starters. That will help, but if Georgia State doesn’t find an immediate replacement for departed Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Nick Arbuckle, its great receiving corps won’t be able to provide the offense needed to compete.


The Also-Rans

8. South Alabama – The Jaguars of USA started up their program in 2009 and won their first 19 games. That’s an impressive feat, no matter the level of competition. Unfortunately for the Jags, that competition was very weak. A 2-11 mark welcomed South Alabama in its first season as an FBS program and the Jaguars are still looking for their first winning season in college football’s highest level of competition. A plan to accept a wave of jettisoned Alabama-Birmingham transfers didn’t quite pan out last season and the Jags seem to be in need of finding a true identity before they can clear the .500 mark.
9. New Mexico State – Larry Rose III is one of the most dynamic players in the entire Sun Belt. What is even more impressive is the fact that Rose continues to rack up yards and touchdowns despite the fact that a lack of help means that all teams have plenty of sets of eyes on him. The Aggies posted a respectable 3-5 mark in conference play last season, but a winless non-conference stretch kept them well out of the bowl picture. The Aggies have the talent to pull some upsets and could also have the motivation as the offseason brought news that New Mexico will not be retained as a Sun Belt member following this season.
10. Texas State – Once on the verge of making a bowl game in its first few years of FBS play, 2015 saw Texas State bottom out with a 3-9 record. Tyler Jones had the makings of a breakout star as the then-freshman quarterback made the Bobcat offense one of the more dynamic Sun Belt attacks in 2014. But injuries throughout the offense and a lackluster defensive effort made Jones a non-factor last season. That will need to change in a big way if Texas State wants to be anywhere near the middle of the conference this time around.
11. UL Monroe – The Warhawks have – in this columnist’s humble opinion – one of the coolest nicknames in all of college sports. But until further notice, that’s about all UL Monroe has going for it. A new coaching staff looks to breath fresh air into the program, but a quick look through the Warhawks’ roster shows that full-scale upgrades are needed at almost every position in order to get back into Sun Belt contention.