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2019 Sun Belt Spoilers

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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If you want to be wholly surprised in 2019, 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 2019, 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. Tyler Bass will become the first kicker to make 100% of his field goal attempts since 2013. Six years ago, Boston College’s Nate Freese attempted 20 field goals and made 20 field goals. Since then, and including that season, almost 20 other place kickers have missed just once, but none have achieved perfection. Syracuse’s Andre Szmyt deservedly won the Lou Groza Award last season, and he’s back for the Orange, but even he wasn’t as valuable on a kick for kick basis last year as Bass was. Granted, Szmyt had a substantially larger sample size than any of the nation’s other top kickers, aside from LSU’s Cole Tracy who has since graduated. Still, based on field goal value per kick, which takes into account how often an average college kicker would connect from a given distance, Bass ranked #1 in the country, while Szmyt was 14th. That’s not to say Bass is clearly better than Szmyt, or vice versa, but Bass should’ve at least been a finalist for the award Szmyt took home last year. The Syracuse standout will probably repeat in 2019, too, simply because he’ll have more opportunities, but that also plays in Bass’ favor in the pursuit of perfection. While Syracuse ranked just 61st in drive finishing a season ago, Georgia Southern ended up in the national top fifteen. After going 9/10 from inside 40 yards and 10/11 from the 40 and beyond, on a similar sample size, 100% is absolutely in play.

2. William Bradley-King will lead the league in tackles for loss and sacks. For the last three years in a row, Arkansas State has not only had the Sun Belt’s premier edge defender, but the best player in the conference, regardless of position. From Ja’Von Rolland-Jones to Ronheen Bingham, the Red Wolves’ legacy is poised to continue with Bradley-King. He has big shoes to fill, although, in some ways, it’s easy to see him successfully carrying on their legacy. It wasn’t all that surprising when Bingham broke out in 2018, since Joe Cauthen had done such a good job getting him rotational reps the year prior. Cauthen is gone, but he left behind similar experience for Bradley-King. Plus, he’s already in the top ten among returning SBC defenders in tackles for loss, and the returning leader in sacks. Losing Bingham is a double edged sword for Bradley-King. On the one hand, he leaves behind a lot of production for his replacement to pick up, on the other hand, that means Bradley-King will now be more of a focal point for opposing offenses. Still, with the best interior defensive line duo in the league, I’d bet on Bradley-King keeping the streak alive.

3. The Sun Belt will have at least six 1,000 yard rushers. That hasn’t happened since 2015, when there more teams in the league, and even then it has only happened twice over the past decade. Three 1,000 yard rushers return from the 2018 season -- Darrynton Evans, BJ Smith, and Trey Ragas. Those are all locks to repeat. Georgia Southern will have at least one, too. Depending on their running back usage, it might just be Shai Werts, but Werts should get there after hitting 901 last year, and the Eagles could have two. Louisiana will also probably have two, after Elijah Mitchell fell just short of joining Ragas across that threshold. I also feel very comfortable saying that Coastal Carolina could get there with CJ Marable, given the quarterback uncertainty, the loss of Malcolm Williams at receiver, and the fact that OAYP’s #2 RB will no longer be sharing carries with Marcus Outlow. Same goes for Arkansas State’s Marcel Murray, now that Warren Wand is gone. That’s at least seven, possibly eight depending on Georgia Southern, without even mentioned Tra Minter, or perhaps someone from ULM behind what promises to be among the best offensive lines in the league. There have only been six the last two years combined. 2019 will almost certainly see that number tied, and maybe even topped.

4. Texas State will upset one of the top half SBC teams. And that’s without even getting another shot at Georgia Southern, who they almost knocked off last season. Speaking of last season, even with one of the most anemic offenses in the country, they nearly snuck up on Arkansas State, too. There’s no way the offense will be any worse, and it could get substantially better with the hires of Jake Spavital and Bob Stitt, who have some fun toys to play with in Hutch White and Jeremiah Haydel. Meanwhile, the defense returns almost everyone of consequence, featuring a defensive line led by Ishmael Davis that could make a lot more plays under Zac Spavital’s more aggressive approach, a bonafide playmaker on the edge in Frankie Griffin, the top inside linebacker pairing in the Sun Belt, and a secondary with absolutely no weak spots. This will be the most improved team in the conference this season, and while they don't yet have the offensive consistency to compete with the class of the conference on a week-to-week basis, they should have enough firepower to catch somebody slipping. At App State probably isn’t happening, and Arkansas State ought to be ready this time around, so my money is on at Louisiana or home against Troy.

5. App State will go 3-1 (at least) against other Carolina schools. With all due respect to Charlotte and Coastal Carolina, App State is winning both of those games at home. They just are. The road games against an ACC and SEC foe are where the challenges lie. Obviously, of those two, North Carolina should be the more winnable game. The Tar Heels are coming off a 2-9 season that saw Larry Fedora lose his job. His replacement, Mack Brown, and the new staff do have some pieces to work with, but App State’s own new coach arguably has more proven commodities at his disposal. The Mountaineers also ranked in the national top fifteen in OAYP last year, while UNC ended up 93rd. App also fared better in the metric’s individual offensive and defensive rankings, 17th and 56th respectively, for a #29 net rating, as compared to 68th and 101st, with a #96 net rating for UNC. App State’s defense should, theoretically be challenged by a good P5 offense, especially after losing two elite cornerbacks, but UNC, with a true freshman quarterback, may not be the team to do it. On the other side of the ball, App State has almost everyone back and could truly be more of a test for new defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, formerly at Army, than a lot of the ACC teams they’ll play. As far as South Carolina, that’s a taller task. The Gamecocks were also a top 30 OAYP team, and top 40 in the net rankings. They’re also better suited to attack App’s inexperienced cornerbacks with a more established cast of pass catchers and a senior quarterback. Granted, by November those corners won’t be new anymore, but regardless, they’ll almost certainly be more susceptible than Duck and Hayes. Still, at the end of the 2018 season, OAYP, which is opponent adjusted, would have slightly favored App State over South Carolina on a neutral field, and while, unfortunately for App, the Gamecocks won’t be coming off of a particularly challenging stretch -- Tennessee and Vanderbilt in the two preceding weeks -- despite having the toughest schedule in the country, there’s a chance they could be looking ahead to the road game at Texas A&M. Oh, and if 4-0 against the Carolinas does happen, there’s not another game on the schedule that they should lose, so a NY6 bid could be in the cards.

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