By Marc Lawrence of Playbook who has 2016 Sun Belt Conference Football Betting Preview.
The Sun Belt Conference will hold its first ever football championship game beginning in 2018.
“This championship will be a first-class experience – and we look forward to it being a launching-pad for a team to reach the College Football Playoff’s ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl games,” said Commissioner Karl Benson.
Details regarding how the two participants will be selected will be available at a later date.
After four consecutive seasons with no less than nine victories – including four straight New Orleans Bowl wins in four years under head coach Mark Hudspeth – Louisiana Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajuns saw the tables turn on them in 2015 when they won just four games.
And speaking of four-of-a-kind, Arkansas State saw its four straight GoDaddy Bowl games streak come to a halt. Obviously bummed to the max, the Red Wolves closed out the campaign with a 19-point loss to Louisiana Tech in the New Orleans bowl.
More Than Holding Our Own
After a rocky 1-5 start in bowl games from 2001-05, the Sun Belt has gone toe-to-toe with other bowl teams since, sporting a respectable 14-12 SU and 13-12-1 ATS winning record in the post season since 2006.
The fun in the sun guys have been especially profitable for backers when taking more than 3 points in bowl games, going 6-1 ATS. More impressive, they also managed to win six of the seven games in SU fashion, including Georgia Southern’s impressive 58-27 romp over Bowling Green as 5-point dogs in last year’s Go Daddy Bowl.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2016 PLAYBOOK College and Pro Football Preview Guide magazine, on sale now at newsstands nationwide. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
2016 SUN BELT PREVIEW
APPALACHIAN STATE Off – *6/3 Def – 9/2 47 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: UPLOAD THE APP
Behind returning QB Taylor Lamb with 2,387 passing and 524 rushing yards for 34 combined touchdowns, and RB Marcus Cox with 1,481 rushing and 160 passing yards for 11 combined touchdowns last year), the boys from Boone outyarded conference foes by 144 YPG, best in the Sun Belt, last season. And that in only ASU’s 2nd year with FBS credentials. Looking back, the Mountaineers have suffered only ONE losing season since 1993 (in part to an injury-riddled 2013 campaign). And just like last year when they won 10 games while tackling a schedule dotted with only 4 winning opponents, this year’s schedule is a mirror-comparison to last – only with no back-to-back away games. Here we go again.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mountaineers are 5-2 SUATS versus winning foes since becoming an FBS squad.
ARKANSAS STATE Off – 6/4 Def – 7/2 49 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: HALLELUJAH
Like a good evening prayer before bedtime, Blake Anderson’s return to Jonesboro for a third successive season is comforting for Red Wolves fans. It’s safe to say that after taking the field with 5 different head coaches in as many years, ASU has finally found tranquility. They also found life in the Sun Belt Conference to their liking last season, going 8-0 en route to an SBC title. In the process the Wolves scored 8 defensive TDs (tops in the nation), intercepted 26 passes (most in the nation), and finished tied for the 2nd most turnovers gained (34). However, 4 road games in the final 5 contests of the campaign will certainly put our STAT YOU WILL LIKE below to the test.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Red Wolves are 31-8 SU and 27-12 ATS from Game Six out the last five years.
PLAY AGAINST: at UL-Lafayette (11/26)
GEORGIA SOUTHERN Off – *6/3 Defense – 6/4 43 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: OFF THE FRITZ
How impressive was Ga Southern’s season last year? Consider: All 3 of the Eagles’ FBS non-conference opponents in 2015 – West Virginia, Western Michigan and Georgia – played in, and won, their respective bowl games. The 4th non-conference team, The Citadel, advanced to the 2nd round of the FCS Playoffs. New head coach Tyson Summers, a former defensive coordinator at Colorado State and UCF, brings in a staff that has been a part of 4 NCAA national championships, 19 NCAA conference championships, and 51 NCAA postseason victories. Summers also welcomes the top recruiting class in SBC this year to a team that has recorded 109 rushing TDs and 9,292 rushing yards – the most in the FBS over the past 2 seasons. Whew!
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Eagles have gone 10-1 SU at home the last two years, with an average win margin of 30.8 PPG.
PLAY ON: at Georgia Tech (10/15)
GEORGIA STATE Off – *7/2 Def – 9/3 43 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: AS THE WORM TURNS
Until last season, Georgia State was -29 in net turnovers in 2 seasons under head coach Trent Miles. The Panthers whittled that number down to a respectable -3 last season and, in the process, went from a 1-23 FBS team under Miles to a bowl squad in 2015 – a dramatic turn of events. They closed like a freight train in the process, winning and covering in each of their final 4 games of the season by a whopping 95.5 points ATS, including a stunning 34-7 win over SBC powerhouse Georgia Southern as 20-point dogs! Sixteen returning starters, including Sun Belt Freshman of the Year WR Penny Hart (71 receptions and 1,099 yards last season) are anxious to resume where they ended but the question is: have the linemakers been alerted? Stay tuned.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Panthers ranked No. 127 (worst) in 4th down conversion percentage (.111) last season.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Georgia Southern (11/19)
IDAHO Off – *7/3 Def – 6/2 41 Lettermen
Team Theme: FCS VISION
It was understandable learning of Idaho’s decision to head back to the FCS in 2018. The Vandals’ recruiting class ranks No. 128 (last) among FBS teams the last five years. And the results of such are indicated on the playing field. In twenty seasons at the FBS level, Idaho is 67-162 – a .293 winning percentage. Since 2000, the Vandals have had just one winning season. During 18 years playing at the FCS level, Idaho went 134-79 for a .629 winning percentage. The Vandals had 15 winning seasons and went to the postseason 11 times. Heck, you’d make the move, too, if given a choice. Note, though: To Paul Petrino’s credit, they’ve managed to improve the offense each and every year.
Stat You Will Like: The Vandals have lost 30 of their last 32 away games, including 24 losses in a row, until a win at Troy last season.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Troy (10/1)
NEW MEXICO STATE Off – *7/3 Def – 7/3 38 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: WHERE TO TURN
Riding a 17-game losing skid, the Aggies broke their cherry in a dramatic 55-48 overtime victory against Idaho last season. In the process, they erased a 23-point deficit while also triggering the first 3-game win streak for NMSU since 2004. Unfortunately, the program suffered its biggest loss during the offseason with the Sun Belt opting to end its partnership with the school in 2017. The Aggies must decide whether to operate as an independent team or follow Idaho’s lead and move down to the FCS level. Meanwhile, star RB Larry Rose III
returns after rumbling for 1,651 yards and 14 TDs last season, his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Expect the Aggies to send a signal to the Sun Belt this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aggies have allowed 20 of 36 foes season-high yardage under Doug Martin.
PLAY ON: at UTEP (9/3)
SOUTH ALABAMA Off – 6/3 Def – 6/2 43 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: NO SLEIGHT OF HAND
After bowling for the first time in school history in 2014, last year’s laundry list of missing returnees looked mighty worrisome: gone were the starting quarterback, 2 leading rushers, 2 leading wide receivers, 3 multiple-year starting O-linemen, 3 top tacklers on the DL, 3 leading tacklers at linebacker, and 3 of 5 leading tacklers in the secondary. Through it all, head coach Joey Jones’ troops ended the season just one win away from being bowl-eligible for a second straight year, with a signature win at San Diego State as 17.5-point underdogs. Jones has built this program from the ground up since its inception in 2007 and his coaching prowess has put his signature on his this program.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: For the second consecutive season, 10 Jaguars earned all-conference honors last year.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. San Diego State (10/1)
TEXAS STATE Off – *4/3 Def – 6/2 44 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: START YOUR ENGINES
The Dennis Franchione era is officially over. After leading the Bobcats to a 17-19 record in their first three years of existence as an FBS program, he hands the reins over to Everett Withers, who in three years as a head coach guided the last two James Madison teams to NCAA Division I FCS Playoff appearances, and North Carolina to the 2011 Independence Bowl. His coaching background also includes working under Urban Meyer, Mack Brown and Jeff Fisher. Withers had one of the top offenses in the nation in 2015, ranking second in scoring and total offense with 44.3 points and 528.8 yards per game. The spring game resulted in an offensive blitzkrieg with the offense defeating the defense, 71-70.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Head coach Everett Withers’ James Madison Dukes led the FCS in 3rd-down conversions with 54 percent last season.
PLAY ON: at Georgia State (10/8)
TROY Off – *8/5 Def – 8/3 46 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: SECURE FOUNDATION
Neal Brown, formerly an assistant at Troy and also at Kentucky under Hal Mumme, won at least 8 games each year he was on the sidelines with the Trojans. And while it appeared 4 wins last year was a major disappointment, rest assured it was not. The Trojans improved 60 YPG on defense while outgaining 5 of their final 7 foes. In addition, the second-half improvement was especially noticeable as Troy averaged 36 PPG as opposed to just less than 20 PPG in the first six ‘getting to know Brown’ stage of the season. With 16 starters back, look for the surge to continue in Year Two of the makeover.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Trojans are 0-6 SU in their last six one-possession games.
PLAY ON: vs. Appalachian State (11/12)
UL-LAFAYETTE Off – 7/3 Def – 6/3 46 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: MISSION PROBABLE
After a run of 4 consecutive 9-4 seasons, and behind a rash of senior starter losses, the Ragin’ Cajuns ran out of creole last year, suffering their first losing season in the Mark Hudspeth era. With Hudspeth back along with 13 starters, ULL becomes a “mission team” in 2016 – and we’re not about to argue. With 50 of the 95 players on the roster hailing from the state of Louisiana, there is a genuine Cajun flavor to this squad. Interestingly, under Hudspeth, ULL is 28-3 SU in games when leading after the 1Q, 31-2 when leading at the half, and 35-1 when leading after the 3Q. In-game players would serve themselves well saving those numbers.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Hudspeth is 11-2 ATS as a dog versus winning opponents, and 10-2 SUATS as a dog of 6 or less points.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. UL-Monroe (12/3)
UL-MONROE Off – *9/4 Def – 3/0 36 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BACK UP OFF THE MATT
When your team ends the season outscored 20.8 points and outyarded 157 yards per game – the worst in the conference – it generally leads to coaches looking for new jobs, as Todd Berry is doing these days. Hired in his place was highly acclaimed Matt Viator, former 10-year mentor at McNeese State, where he led the Cowboys to a 78-33 record (the only coach in the Southland conference to make such a claim), including 5 appearances in the FCS playoffs. The first matter of attention will be addressing an offense that has been in serious decline each of the past 3 seasons. A new 4-2-5 defense completes the makeover. Seven away games, though, ensures an uphill battle.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Warhawks have been shut out in at least one game in 6 of the last 7 seasons – all versus Power Five conferences.
PLAY AGAINST: at Auburn (10/1)