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2018 Sun Belt Spoilers

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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If you want to be wholly surprised in 2018, don't read this.

One of the most fun things about college football is its unpredictability. I wouldn’t recommend trusting the consistency of 18-22 year olds in pretty much any facet of life, and this is no different. Every season, a handful of things happen that, if it took place in a movie, we would needle the writing for being too unrealistic. I say this as a warning, if you want to be wholly surprised in 2018, stop reading. If you’re still here, proceed with caution, as you have now entered the spoiler zone. Here are five things I am absolutely, positively, uncategorically certain will happen this year.

(SPOILER ALERT)

1. Arkansas State’s Justice Hansen will break the league’s single season passing yards record. Just last year, he broke the record for passing touchdowns, and came reasonably close to the yardage mark. There’s no reason he can’t own both records, come season end. That may already be the case had the Miami game not been cancelled. He would have needed 402 yards against, assuming all else would have been the same. It’s not especially likely against that caliber of defense -- especially in the secondary -- but he put up more than that against ULM, Troy, and Nebraska, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility. In any case, moving forward, he would need to average about 336 yards per game in 2018 to beat Nick Arbuckle’s mark. That’s less than six more per contest, which is absolutely doable, given the return of his leading receiver who headlines what will truly be, arguably, the most physically imposing group of pass catchers in college football. Everything being equal, that alone, plus another year of experience should be enough to push him over the top. Factoring in just modestly improved pass protection, more short yardage conversions in obvious rushing situations, and fewer turnovers (all of which equal more opportunities), and him getting there almost seems like a foregone conclusion.

2. Georgia Southern will, at least, triple its 2017 win total and get to a bowl game. If the Eagles win even one game, Chad Lunsford, as the full time head coach, will already have infinitely more wins than Tyson Summers did last year. In-fin-ite. Through that lens, a mere tripling ought to be a walk in the park. This team will reap the benefits that come from struggling through a year with a young, inexperienced group, as the entire two deep is littered with returning talent on both sides of the ball. The offense was truly one of the worst in college football, last year, but should see vast improvement with the return to the shotgun based option that Willie Fritz had so much success with, under Bob DeBesse, who worked with Fritz at Sam Houston State. Shai Werts, with a year under his belt, will be far more equipped to handle the responsibilities of the quarterback position, which will only be amplified by the return of Wesley Fields, and the emergence of other playmakers like Wesley Kennedy, among others. Led by Curtis Rainey, improved offensive line play, too, will be pivotal to the team’s success. Even if the offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut right away, even incremental improvement will go a long way. The defense, however, could actually be pretty nasty. Monquavion Brinson and Logan Hunt are two of the best players in the conference at two of the most important spots on the field, and both lead deep position groups. Brinson, R.J. Murray, and Joshua Moon headline a secondary that, in spite of last year’s overall struggles, ranked 32nd in havoc rate and 12th in the percentage of passes defensed to incompletions, which basically just means that they were making plays at a much higher rate than average. And Hunt is actually one of six returning defensive lineman that allowed a sub-30% success rate. In fact, he, Ty Phillips, and Raymond Johnson had an allowed success rate below 14%, which is incredible. Plus, the special teams, as a whole, should continue to be the best in the Sun Belt. The way the schedule shakes out, there’s a chance that Georgia Southern never drops below .500, and actually reaches seven wins, but 6-6 is a mortal lock. Also, I got all the way through that without any triple option-triple win total double entendres or puns.

3. Louisiana’s Trey Ragas will lead the conference in rushing yards. Yes, that would mean that for the first time since Jalin Moore became the starter at Appalachian State that someone else would hold that distinction. Hardly a slight at Moore, who is a superhero, this is more circumstantial than anything else. Ragas, as a freshman, led all Sun Belt running backs (that had more than 70 carries) with a 5.73 yard per carry average. He will be running behind one of the two best centers in the league, one of the two best guards in the league, and, depending on Robert Hunt’s transition, perhaps the best tackle in the league. Appalachian State, on the other hand, just lost two of the genuinely most effective offensive linemen in the country, in Colby Gossett and Beau Nunn. Granted, App has been a bit of an o-line factory since joining the FBS, but that’s still hard to overlook. Gone from Louisiana is Darius Hoggins, who was one of the two guys that Ragas primarily had to share touches with, which should lead to more carries, while at App, Marcus Williams showed extreme promise spelling Moore, last season, which could lead to a more even distribution of carries between the two. And, while Appalachian State, despite having to replace Taylor Lamb, at least has a quarterback it is comfortable with, the Ragin’ Cajuns are in a state of flux at the position. Both Ragas and Moore are excellent running backs, and Moore might be better in a vacuum, but due to a perfect storm of circumstances, it is Ragas who will be the league’s most prolific rusher in 2018.

4. Troy will beat Nebraska. That is because Troy is better than Nebraska. Nationally, people will look at the matchup and just assume otherwise, citing platitudinal nonsense stemming from retrograde presumptions, although that LSU result last year may give them a little pause, and they will be wrong. Troy, in 2017, finished the season ranked 31st in S&P+. Nebraska ended up at 103rd. Offensively, Troy was 58th, Nebraska was 81st. Defensively, Troy was in the top 20. Nebraska missed the bottom 20 by one spot. These are opponent adjusted measures of efficiency, so regardless of the league they play in, the strength of schedule, any excuse someone could make up, the fact is Troy was a far better team than Nebraska a season ago, and will be again. Even after losing staples like Brandon Silvers and Jordan Chunn, the offense should not be expected to regress much, if at all. While neither Jamarius Henderson, nor B.J. Smith, are the same type of runner that Chunn was, both offer their own unique brand of playmaking ability, and whether Kaleb Barker or Sawyer Smith ends up taking the first team snaps, they will bring to the table a level of dual-threat athleticism that Silvers couldn’t. Both groups will also benefit from playing behind the best offensive line in the conference, and alongside the best group of pass catcher, as well. The defense, littered with straight dudes at every level -- from Trevon Sanders to Hunter Reese and Tron Folsom to Blace Brown and Cedarius Rookard -- should again contend for a top 20 rating. Nebraska, under Scott Frost, may be on the rise, but they’re just not ready to compete with a team like Troy, yet.

5. ULM’s Marcus Green will have more all-purpose production than anyone in the country. Just last year, he was in the top three in the nation in all-purpose yards per game. What Marcus Green did last season was nothing short of remarkable, averaging 32.4 yards per kickoff return and tying for the national lead with four kick returns for touchdown. One of college football's elite return men, he is a leading All-American candidate. He also had four 100-yard games a season ago, including eight catches for 193 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas State and eight receptions for 106 yards at Florida State. Now that Rashaad Penny and Saquon Barkley are out of the way, this crown is his for the taking. Hornung Award, here we come.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP