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Sun Belt Rising

By Jim Johnson
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Not only is there a clear road to seven bowl teams for the Sun Belt, but there's even a chance to place a team in a New Year's Six Bowl, not down the road, but this season.

The Sun Belt has exhibited steadily increasing national relevance over the past few years. This is, perhaps, best exemplified by its postseason participation.

In 2013, just two Sun Belt teams went bowling, to cap off their respective campaigns. That total increased to three in 2014, four in 2015, and six last year, a conference record.

The 2016 total matched the total from two power five conferences, the Pac-12 and the Big 12, that same season.

With a 4-2 record, they also outperformed every conference except the ACC, as far as winning percentage, and fared far better than their fellow group of five counterparts.

The idea of continuing upon this trajectory for a few more years is unrealistic, bordering on impossible -- at least without a few bumps in the road.

However, seven in '17 is not. A path exists.

And not only is there a clear road to seven, but there's even a chance to place a team in a New Year's Six Bowl, not down said road, but this season.

Commissioner Karl Benson believes, "That is a realistic goal – not in the future, but today."

In his State of the Conference Address, at Sun Belt Media Day, he expressed that, "We want to be the highest rated conference and have the highest rated champion, and beat that bowl team from the Power 5. We’re no longer the younger brother of those nine conferences … we’re ready to stand toe to toe and shoulder to shoulder with them.”

Now's the time establish that as truth.

If a Sun Belt team is going to a New Year's Six Bowl this year, it's Appalachian State.

The preseason favorite happens to be the only team in the league that doesn't play any of the top four teams, according to the coaches' predicted order of finish.

As a matter of fact, every team in the conference plays at least three of the top four teams, aside from the other three top four teams, who, to the schedule makers' credit all have a round robin with each other.

So, with the best team in the conference playing the easiest conference schedule, and a non-conference slate that will see them as the underdogs just once, 11-1 feels like the worst case scenario, even given the ever-mercurial nature of college football.

Obviously, the lone game that the Mountaineers will not be favored in is at Georgia, in week one.

Certainly, with Georgia slotted as the early SEC East favorite and a top fifteen preseason team, Scott Satterfield's group will have to bring its A-game from the jump.

That said, there may not be a better week to catch the Bulldogs.

"The difference between Power 5 and non-Power 5 teams is depth," explained App State signal caller Taylor Lamb.

He's right.

"When one guy gets tired for them, they can just a run out another five-star," he continued, in regards to Georgia.

And he's right, if a bit hyperbolic, about that, too.

One could argue, though, that the disparity in reserve talent is most diminished in week one, relative to anywhere else in the season.

It would be much easier to pick Georgia over App State at the end of the year, a month later, even a week later. With everyone healthy and rested, it's much closer to a coin flip than people in Athens may care to admit.

Georgia's defense is a problem. Appalachian State will have its handful with, arguably, the best linebacking corps in the country, an elite defensive line, and one of the most experienced secondaries around.

The matchup in the trenches is fascinating. In 2016, an App State offensive line that returns three starters, finished in the top ten and top fifteen in sacks allowed per pass attempt on both standard and obvious passing downs, respectively. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs' defensive line was in the top twenty in sacks per opposing pass attempt.

Correspondingly, the Mountaineers gained five yards or more on carries where at least five yards was available 43.7% of the time (15th nationally), whereas Georgia's defense gave up that same amount on 35.1% of opposing rushes (28th nationally).

Barring significant progress or decline, that projects largely as a wash.

Football Outsiders has a stat called adjusted run rate in an attempt to "measure the intent of play-calling by looking at standard downs and passing downs run rates and calibrating so that every team has the same amount of each type of down".

Georgia played six teams last year with an adjusted run rate of at least 53%, which would indicate a clear desire to, first and foremost, establish the run. Of their five losses in 2016, three of them came against teams that fall into that category, and they went 3-3 against the six.

Therefore, it's fair to assume that App State's adjusted run rate of 60.3% could give them problems, especially with the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, Jalin Moore, carrying the ball.

Where the Mountaineers may run, er, throw into trouble is, well, throwing into trouble.

Georgia's defense forced turnovers on 16.3% of opposing possessions, good for tenth in the country.

While Taylor Lamb is often able to manage the game, utilizing the bevy of talent around him, including Moore, as well as first team preseason all-conference receiver Shaedon Meadors, he will not have the luxury of doing so in week one.

He must walk the fine line of pushing the ball downfield without making mistakes against one of the most opportunistic defenses in the land.

Appalachian State's defense will be one of the two to three best units that sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason and company face all year.

For all the deserved praise bestowed upon Georgia's secondary, the Mountaineers’ defensive backfield is nothing to scoff at.

Last year, the group finished 11th in the country in pass defense S&P+ (an opponent adjusted measure that combines efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers).

This, certainly, does not bode well for the home team that has an unproven, drop-prone receiving corps, and a quarterback that was 95th in the country last year in completion percentage.

App State's defensive front versus Georgia's o-line, similar to the inverse comparison, is, for the most part, even, except in this case it's two below average groups, although Kirby Smart's stable of running backs is unlike anything the Mountaineers have ever seen.

Ultimately, home field advantage will count for something, but the boys from Boone gave Tennessee all it wanted last year and, with the confidence that they can compete with the best teams in the SEC, will, at least, do the same to Georgia.

Given their strength of schedule, or lack thereof, an 11-1 App State team still probably doesn't play on New Years. In what might prove to be the most seminal game in conference history, it will be established in week one whether or not the Mountaineers can carry the conference to Karl Benson's promised land.

While that would be an incredible feat for the conference, it's just going to be the cherry on top, if it happens.

Again, the real goal is seven bowl teams. That's the sundae.

After App State, Troy is the next closest thing the conference has to a surefire bowl team.

Led by first team all-conference quarterback Brandon Silvers, Troy returns every single offensive skill position starter, including fellow All-Sun Belt preseason selections Jordan Chunn, Deondre Douglas, and Emanuel Thompson.

Vic Koenning’s defense is spearheaded by the best interior line duo in the conference, in Jamal Stadom and Baron Poole II, and the secondary, one of the best in the nation, has instituted a strict no fly zone.

There are nine games on the Trojans' schedule in which they will be clear favorites, with a manageable, albeit far from easy, regular season finale at Arkansas State.

The question is not if Troy will give the conference its second bowl team, the question is whether or not Neal Brown's squad will give the conference its second double-digit win team.

Rounding out the without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt SBC bowl teams is Arkansas State.

Even having to replace all five starting offensive linemen, the Red Wolves’ infrastructural continuity and sustained success -- they’ve won at least a share of five of the last six conference titles -- have earned them the benefit of the doubt.

Behind the best player in the league, Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, alongside Kyle Wilson, Blake Anderson’s defense will once again be amongst the nation’s best pass rushing units.

Despite having games at Nebraska and SMU, and a home game against Miami, all in the first four weeks of the season, as well as two of the other top four Sun Belt teams, South Alabama and Troy, on the slate, 8-4 feels like the worst case scenario for the co-defending champs.

Louisiana, picked fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll, might be the next best bet, as far as the Sun Belt’s postseason aspirations go.

The Ragin’ Cajuns have a lot of offensive issues to iron out.

The line was one of the worst pass-blocking units in the country, but they do return four starters from what was an, admittedly, inexperienced group.

Both the starting quarterback and running back have to be replaced, although the former should be significantly less challenging than the latter.

Jordan Davis, named the starter following the spring game, will be taking over for Anthony Jennings, behind center.

“He knows what’s expected from us and he has a great relationship with new offensive coordinator Will Hall,” Mark Hudspeth said of his new quarterback.

A much more cohesive offensive line, coupled with one of the more talented receiving corps in the Sun Belt should significantly ease Davis’ transition into the starting role.

The strength of Hudspeth’s team, however, will be the defensive front.

Against the run, with a line that returns three starters, they were effectively an immovable object. Opposing teams averaged 3.43 yards per carry, good for 17th in the nation, picked up at least five yards less than a third of the time, which was 13th in the country, and converted short-yardage situations on third or fourth down on just 57.8% of tries, 11th overall.

Joe Dillon, a freshman All-American, and consistent interior presence Taboris Lee ought to maintain the run-stopping production, whilst improving as pass rushers.

On the backend, Hudspeth enjoys a battle-tested secondary, as well, that returns three starters -- preseason All-Sun Belt safety Tracy Walker amongst them.

With respect to a challenging schedule, Louisiana doesn’t have much room for slip-ups, if it wants to be bowl eligible come December.

“We’ve got a tough schedule, to say the least,” Hudspeth conceded. “But, like I told our team, ‘the greatest views come from the hardest climbs’.”

Two early road games at Tulsa and Texas A&M could spell a slow start for a team that’s fighting to jell behind a new signal caller, but home wins against Southeastern, ULM, Texas State, New Mexico State, and Georgia Southern get them to within striking distance.

That leaves a couple of toss-up road games at South Alabama and Idaho to get to the necessary six; something that should be more than manageable. Plus, even if both of those were to result in losses, don’t put it past the Cajuns to go into SEC country and knock off one of the cellar dwelling West division’s A&M or Ole Miss.

Especially given Texas A&M’s uncertainty at quarterback, having to rely on Trayveon Williams against ULL’s run defense does not bode well.

There are enough winnable games out there for Louisiana that anything less than bowl eligibility would not only be disappointing but even surprising.

This where it gets tricky. Credit the Sun Belt, at large, for scheduling meaningful out-of-conference games against both power five and upper echelon group of five teams. That is of course, along with postseason success, the foremost way to establish itself amongst the G5 elite, as it is trying to do. However, in doing so, with as deep as the league’s second tier is, it runs the risk of cannibalizing its own postseason appearances.

Idaho should start off 2-0 against Sacramento State and UNLV.

With Matt Linehan at the helm, who had a 133.66 passer rating, averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt, and completed nearly 62% of his throws last year, the Vandals offense will be nothing if not efficient.

Paul Petrino believes that this defense, “will be the fastest I’ve ever coached.”

The three returning starters at linebacker form as formidable a defensive core as any in the conference.

Trips to Western Michigan and South Alabama, followed by a bye week and then a homestand against Louisiana is a tough ask. There should be at least one win in there, though.

The safe bet feels like the home game against Louisiana, after a week of rest. Given that the Cajuns have to replace all of their starting linebackers from 2016, and Linehan’s utilization of tight ends in the passing game, Idaho matches up quite favorably against a run-defense oriented conference foe.

With Louisiana-Monroe and Coastal Carolina both going to Moscow, on top of a road trip to New Mexico State, Idaho should get to six with relative ease, needing just one quasi-upset in the Western Michigan-South Alabama-Louisiana stretch.

Georgia State, under a first year coach, that was picked eighth in the preseason coaches’ poll, may seem like a stretch to some. It shouldn’t.

The Panthers return fifteen offensive and defensive starters; this team is littered with proven playmakers on both sides of the ball.

Penny Hart is back after missing last season, and will be accompanied by Todd Boyd and Glenn Smith, as well as a more than capable safety valve at tight end in Ari Werts.

Senior quarterback Conner Manning will flourish with all of those offensive weapons, behind an offensive line that returns four starters and allowed sacks on an incredible 2.5% of pass attempts last year, 13th in all of the FBS.

Now, Georgia State has to make some strides along the defensive front, both as run stoppers and pass rushers. Although with five returning starters in the front seven, led by Michael Shaw and Mackendy Cheridor, expect just that to happen.

Georgia State’s secondary will also continue to be one of the conference’s, if not the nation’s, best. Most of the starting defensive backs return after finishing last season ranked 18th in pass defense S&P+.

Georgia State’s defense also finished first in IsoPPP, which attempts to measure efficiency isolated from explosiveness.

Suffice it to say, Georgia State is much better than the polls would suggest.

Probable wins against Tennessee State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, ULM, and Texas State get the Panthers to five.

As good on defense and explosive on offense as this team has the chance to be, it seems more than reasonable to expect them to beat Idaho at home to close the season, or even Georgia Southern, in Statesboro, to earn a second bowl appearance in three years, although the Vandals are an infinitely better matchup.

Just those teams would be enough to equal last year’s record setting six bowl teams for the Sun Belt Conference, despite not even addressing South Alabama, picked fourth by the coaches in the preseason poll.

South Alabama is an interesting case because, while the Jaguars certainly have pieces to love, they may prove to be a bit overrated, relative to their preseason slotting.

Dallas Davis will essentially be throwing to an entirely new group of pass catchers, and, after missing spring practice due to injury, he’ll be forced to try to manufacture some semblance of chemistry while games are being played.

Only two offensive linemen return from a unit that already struggled in pass protection and was ever-so-slightly above average run blocking.

Xavier Johnson does provide a multifaceted threat out of the backfield, but he can only do so much.

They return three starters on the defensive line, as well as linebacker Darrell Songy, to a front that was in the top 25 in the country last year in standard down sack rate.

A whole new group of starting cornerbacks will have to adjust quickly, but will, luckily for them, have backend help from the best safety in the Sun Belt, Jeremy Reaves.

With probable losses at Ole Miss, against Oklahoma State, at Troy, against Louisiana and Arkansas State, that’s five already.

Throw in the road trip to Georgia Southern, who, with their revamped offense, will give a defense that finished 118th in rushing S&P+ fits, and South Alabama has exactly zero room to maneuver.

Perhaps the Jaguars can re-establish the “Giant Killer” narrative from last year, and knock off another power five foe. That’s probably what it would take to get to six wins, but don’t put it past them -- especially in the opener against an Ole Miss team in turmoil with nothing to play for.

Finally, Georgia Southern, despite being picked seventh by the conference coaches and playing the toughest Sun Belt schedule, other than perhaps New Mexico State, has the potential to scratch and claw its way to its second ever bowl entry.

The Eagles, a team undergoing sweeping philosophical changes, whilst dealing with monumental personnel attrition, will not be afforded the luxury of figuring things out on the go, once the season starts.

Three new offensive coaches will need to have fully implemented their schemes by week one, at Auburn.

“As we go into this year I think one of the big things, from an offensive standpoint, is obviously being able to bring in three guys with coordinator experience,” said Head Coach Tyson Summers. “Brian Cook, coming from Georgia Tech, has a background in both the gun and under center option. Bob Bodean, our offensive line coach, same thing. He was a coordinator at The Citadel in a similar option scheme, under center, brought in from West Point. And then Justin Wood, offensive coordinator the last couple of years at Cal Poly, lead the country in rushing in FCS.”

“I think what you're going to see,” Summers continued,  “is that those three guys, along with Chad Lunsford and Chris Foster, very much believe in the same things, and come from very similar backgrounds. I think that you're going to see an offensive line that is playing downhill and attacking. I think that you're also going to see your explosive plays and really those are all coming because of the continuity of the menu we're trying to bring out in plays. I certainly think answers are built into our scheme better than what you would've seen last year, so we're really excited about being able to do that again.”

That all sounds nice, but with only three returning starters on offense, all of whom are on the line, it will take time for the skill positions to start clicking.

Contrary to what many prognosticators may believe, it’s not a matter of if Georgia Southern will be good, only when.

As Wesley Fields pointed out at Sun Belt Media Day, it’s not that Georgia Southern’s overwhelming loss of production means that the cupboard’s dry -- it’s just hard to project a team composed largely of unknown commodities.

As well as the program recruits, Georgia Southern might be as talented as ever, people just don’t know the names… yet.

Assuming a predictably slow start, Summers and company will likely find themselves in a 1-3 hole with games at Auburn, Indiana, and a home game against Arkansas State in three of their first four contests.

However, probable wins against New Mexico State and at UMass would see them standing .500 at the halfway mark.

The proceeding three consist of at Troy, home against Georgia State, and at Appalachian State.

By this point in the season, Georgia Southern will have started looking like the team that fans have come to expect, since their transition to FBS. Still, given the overall lack of experience, coupled with the unfortunate draw of playing the two conference favorites on the road, it’s fair to forecast losses at the Trojans and Mountaineers, respectively.

Sandwiched betwixt them, however, Georgia State is a must win. Even having already highlighted why Georgia State will be better than most people think, Georgia Southern should take this game.

Georgia State was 97th in rush defense S&P+, 114th in adjusted line yards, and stopped a paltry 13.4% of opposing rushes at or before the line of scrimmage, 125th overall.

Those numbers, along with the simple fact that it’s so hard to win three consecutive rivalry games, especially with this year’s matchup in Statesboro, makes for a potentially huge statement game for the Eagles.

The regular season finale at Coastal Carolina gets Georgia Southern to a hypothetical five wins, leaving just one necessary in the two preceding weeks against South Alabama, at home, and then at Louisiana.

Eight teams.

Eight Sun Belt teams have not only reasonable, but likely paths to bowl eligibility. All eight making it would take a perfect storm of events, including some power five upsets (looking at you, South Alabama).

Given the fickle nature of college football, eight is a pretty tall order.

Seven, though? Seven is there for the taking.

The Sun Belt is no longer the rest of FBS’ little brother. It’s here, it’s here to stay, and it’s here to challenge for the title of best group of five conference.

In 2016, it showed it had what it takes to compete with the best in the country, beating SEC teams and ranked opponents.

It shed whatever media stigma that was still hanging on to the idea that the SBC was somehow ‘less than’, with Troy cracking the AP top 25.

It proved that it was no longer riding the coattails of a few, but standing on the merits of the many, with the same number of bowl teams as both the Pac-12 and the Big 12.

It made clear that there is no talent disparity, relative to the other G5 conferences, going 4-2 in postseason play, besting every conference, power five or otherwise, save the ACC, in winning percentage.

Last season made it obvious to anyone watching that the Sun Belt belongs in the national conversation about the best non-power conferences.

Seven bowl teams in 2017, and a potential New Year’s Six appearance from Appalachian State would make it obvious who the new number one is.

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