After a 4-8 mark in year one, head coach Neal Brown has turned the ship around for the Trojans, going a combined 21-5 the past two years, including a Sun Belt Coach of the Year award in 2017, in part thanks to a road win against LSU. Quarterback Brandon Silvers is out of eligibility and his backups from the past two years will battle it out for the starting job in junior Kaleb Barker and sophomore Sawyer Smith who have combined for just 28 pass attempts over the past two seasons. The Trojans also lose their top two running backs, but look for junior RB Jamarius Henderson (355 yards, four touchdowns last year) to step into a bigger role in the backfield. As for the receiving core, the top returning guy is All-Sun Belt hopeful Deondre Douglas (628 yards, four touchdowns). Last year’s #2 receiver, Damion Willis also returns after a 620-yard campaign a season ago, and they add Louisville transfer Traveon Samuel.
The Trojans return a lot of pieces from a defense that ranked 11th nationally in opponent ppg (18.5) including every starter from a star-studded linebacking core. The star of that group will be Tron Folsom (80 tackles last year), and Oklahoma transfer Will Sunderland will slide into the nickelback role. The secondary should also be solid as they return All-Sun Belt corner Blace Brown (five interceptions in 2017) and Sun Belt Freshman of the Year CB Marcus Jones. Troy does need to replace both edges on the defensive line, but they get back nose tackle Trevon Sanders. The Trojans get everybody back from the special teams unit including All-Sun Belt punt returner Marcus Jones and K/P Tyler Sumpter (7/9 on FGs last year).
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (6-2 Sun Belt)
The Mountaineers have fit right in at the FBS level, going 37-14 in their first four years at the top of the college football world thanks to a terrific coaching job from Scott Satterfield. His DC, Nate Woody has moved on to Georgia Tech, and the Mountaineers have promoted from within to replace him with former cornerback coach Bryan Brown. Satterfield will also need to find a way to replace his longtime starting quarterback Taylor Lamb. The likely guy to replace Lamb will be dual-threat sophomore Zac Thomas, who will have plenty of talent around him if he can fill Lamb’s big shoes. Running Back Jalin Moore is back after putting up over 1,000 yards last year, as is his backup, Marcus Williams (500 yards last year). The receiving core loses two starters, but they also add two transfers in Corey Sutton and Dominique Heath. The top returning pass catcher is Thomas Hennigan, who racked up seven touchdowns and over 500 yards as a freshman.
The Mountaineer defense returns just two starters from the front seven but both NT Myquon Stout and ILB Anthony Flory (87 tackles) are All-Sun Belt contenders. Around them are a lot of question marks, but because of App State’s heavy use of rotations, a lot of their depth talent has playing experience. The secondary is an entirely different story, and perhaps the best unit on the team as they bring back three starters including All-Sun Belt contenders in CBs Tae Haynes (four interceptions) and Clifton Duck (six interceptions). FS Desmond Franklin (three interceptions) also returns and this is likely to be the Sun Belt’s top secondary.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (5-3 Sun Belt)
I mentioned back when the Panthers transitioned to the FBS that this would be a program to watch in the future. The Panthers are located right in the heart of downtown Atlanta, one of the best places in the country for recruiting, and have a solid donor base that has helped build a new stadium for the team. 247sports had the Panthers’ 2018 recruiting class, the first under head coach Shawn Elliot, ranked third in the conference, much better than you would expect for a startup. Elliot shocked many college football prognosticators in his first season, leading Georgia State to a 7-5 record, 5-3 in the Sun Belt, and he brings back a lot from that team. This year’s team is highlighted by a talented receiving core that brings back All-Sun Belt contender WR Penny Hart, who racked up 1,121 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017, as well as the #2 receiver from last season, Tamir Jones, who totaled 396 yards as a freshman. GSU adds a Texas A&M transfer, TE Camrin Knight, to fill that hole. The problem is that the Panthers don’t know who will be throwing to this talented group of wideouts. The race will likely be contended between last year’s backup, Dan Ellington, and JUCO transfer Aaron Winchester, although a talented pair of freshmen in Jack Walker and Swift Lyle may also have outside shots. Whoever it is will need a big year, as the running game, which was already one of the worst in the conference loses it’s top two guys. Last year’s #3 Taz Bateman could step into that role after 300 combined rushing/receiving yards last year, but Elliot may want to see what he has in the talented freshman Destin Coates.
The Panthers return four starters from their front seven, including senior DE Marterious Allen who could compete for All-Sun Belt honors. The linebacking core is highlighted by the return of last year’s #2 tackler, ILB Chase Middleton, who brought down 65 opponents last year. The problem will come in the secondary where the Panthers return just one starter in CB Jerome Smith, but FS DeAndre Applin got plenty of playing time last year. The other two starters are unknown quantities as freshman Jaylon Hones may start after impressing in spring camp. With a tough out of conference schedule that will end at 1-3, an unlucky draw with the top three teams in the conference all on the road, they will likely have to go 5-0 in their other conference games to make a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (4-4 Sun Belt)
Georgia Southern decided to remove the interim label from Chad Lunsford’s head coaching title at the end of last season, and he will continue the Eagles’ tradition of a fast-paced option offense with the hire of former New Mexico OC Bob DeBesse, who helped turn the Lobos into one of the best rushing teams in the nation in his six years there. On the defensive side, Lunsford hired former App State DC Scot Sloan. He was only the top guy in Boone for one year, but in that year he helped the Mountaineers hold opponents to about 20 points per game. He will run a traditional 3-4 defense and look to improve a D that let up 32.2 ppg last year. This team gets a lot back on the offensive side of the ball including most of the offensive line, their quarterback, and star running back Wesley Fields (811 yards last year).
The defense returns pretty much everybody too, including nine of last year’s starters. This is one of the smaller teams in the country, but because of Sloan’s coaching and that fact that they will have to replace almost nobody, I expect this side of the ball to be one of the most improved in the nation. The key to that success will be the secondary, which returns practically everybody including their top tackler in SS RJ Murray (60 tackles) and CB Monquavion Brinson, who led the Eagles with five interceptions last year. This should be one of the best groups of D-Backs in the conference.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-4 Sun Belt)
Last year was Coastal’s first year in the FBS, but it hit a snag when head coach Joe Moglia got sick and missed the entirety of the 2017 campaign. Even so, the Chanticleers went 3-9, with five of those losses being by one possession. Moglia did decide to make a change at defensive coordinator and bring in former USC D-Backs coach Marvin Sanders to help improve on that 3-9 record. As for the offense, quarterback Kilton Anderson, who started about half the season in 2017 is back after putting up 743 yards and seven touchdowns. He will be pushed by an eager group of freshmen looking to replace him when he graduates. The running back group looks less peachy as the duo of Alex James and Marcus Outlow combined for just over 500 yards last year, although the depth is quite solid. As for the receiving core, they return top pass catcher Malcolm Williams (793 yards, seven touchdowns) and the #3 guy, Ky’Jon Tyler (313 yards) as well as the #4 and #5 guys in what should be a much-improved unit.
The defense looks less optimistic, and they return just a few key guys from a defense that let up 34 ppg last year. New coordinator Marvin Sanders will look to make the most out of a D that may be half underclassmen and loses six of their top nine tacklers, and I’m not sure I like his chances, although the increased depth that comes with being an FBS program for two years should help. The schedule is tough, with the Chanticleers drawing all four Sun Belt bowl teams, and with three of the four non-bowl teams (AKA the winnable games) being on the road. I’d expect improvement on the field, but not necessarily in the record.
Projected Regular Season Record: 3-9 (1-7 Sun Belt)