Head Coach Blake Anderson has been absolutely terrific in his four years with the Red Wolves. The former North Carolina offensive coordinator has led Arkansas State to a winning record and a bowl game every year thus far with the Red Wolves, including a 21-3 mark in Sun Belt play the past three years with all three losses being by just one possession. This year’s team will be highlighted by the passing game. Oklahoma transfer Justice Hansen came in midseason in 2016 and put on an absolute show, earning the starting job. Last year he racked up 3,967 passing yards, plus another 422 on the ground, along with 44 combined touchdowns en route to Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year honors. He will be throwing to a receiver group that is in the upper echelon of the conference, led by All-Sun Belt contender Justin McInnis (800 yards last year), Oklahoma transfer Dahu Green, and Texas A&M transfer Kirk Merritt who will also be key weapons in the passing game.
On the defensive side, last year’s Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja’Von Rolland Jones is gone, but the Red Wolves do bring back one starter on the D-line in NT Hunter Moreton. Ronheen Bingham (22 tackles, three sacks last year) will step into a starting role on the edge in his senior year alongside Washington State transfer Thomas Toki. The back of this A-State defense appears to be the strongest part of it as they bring back both safeties in BJ Edmonds and Michael Johnson. All in all, the schedule shapes up pretty nicely for Arkansas State to make a run this year. The Red Wolves won’t have to play Troy until a potential Sun Belt title game matchup, and they get Appalachian State at home. This team will contend for double-digit wins.
Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3 (7-1 Sun Belt)
Joey Jones just couldn’t put the pieces together at South Alabama. As the first coach in the program’s history, he had a very tough job, but with a 29-46 record and exactly zero winning seasons in the six years after the Jaguars made the transition to the FBS, it was time for a change. Steve Campbell is the guy to do it. Campbell was one of my favorite hires of the coaching carousel (check out the article), he has worked his way up through the college football ranks, be it JUCO, Division two, or most recently FCS. In his 19 years of head coaching experience, he has never had a losing season, and while that will be an incredibly hard streak to keep up in year one at South Alabama, he does inherit a terrific passing game. Senior Cole Garvin started about half the year last season (1,490 yards), but freshman Cephus Johnson has a good shot at winning the job and throwing to a receiving core that returns all four senior starters including WR Jamarius Way (762 yards last year). The problem will come in the run game as USA will have to replace the entire interior of their line and junior running back Tra Minter will have to step into a bigger role after just 341 yards last season.
Jones not only will inherit a terrific passing game, but also one of the better secondary units in the conference. The back five for the Jags returns four starters, but the one loss is a big one in Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Reaves. Nigel Lawerence will move from a rover role up to safety after 83 tackles a season ago, and Malcolm Buggs is back at the nickelback spot. Much like the offense, the problem comes in the run game as they lose a bunch from the front six including Darrel Songy at linebacker and NT Zach Befort. The Jaguars will need JUCO transfer Roy Yancey to stop in to replace Songy at linebacker, and as for Befort’s replacement, it will likely be another JUCO, Jordon Beaton. A tough out of conference slate means that the Jags will likely need a winning record in conference to make a bowl, which is very possible, but not quite likely.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (4-4 Sun Belt)
Matt Viator had a tough job to do when he took over ULM two years ago, and while the Warhawks have gone just 8-16 over the past two years, it is worth mentioning that in the two years before Viator’s arrival, they went 6-19. It should also be pointed out that in the two years before Viator came to Monroe the team was averaging just over 20 points a game, and last year, the Warhawks racked up almost 34 per contest! That is on the backs of one of the great combinations in the conference of quarterback Caleb Evans (2,868 yards last year in ten starts) and speedy wideout (and return man) Marcus Green (812 yards last year), both of whom will contend for All-Sun Belt honors. RJ Turner is another name to watch after leading the team with six receiving touchdowns last year.
The defense is, to put it lightly, quite atrocious. This unit gave up over 532 yards per game last year, and while this year’s side should have more experience with seven returning starters, I would be shocked if this is suddenly a team routinely holding opponents under 35 (they let up 41 points per game last year), but they should be at least a little better. Much like South Alabama, this is team that because of a brutal nonconference stretch outside of one FCS opponent, will need a winning record in the Sun Belt to make a bowl, and with swing games like South Alabama and Georgia State on the road, I’d say it is more not than likely.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (4-4 Sun Belt)
After going 15-22 in 2015-17, Louisiana decided it was time to move on from Mark Hudspeth and hire a replacement in former Arizona State OC Billy Napier, who has coached under both Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban in the past. The Ragin’ Cajuns return almost everybody from an offense that put up a respectable 28.2 per game last year, good for just about the national average, including running back Trey Ragas, but quarterback Jordan Davis (1,386 passing yards, 347 rushing yards in limited playing time last year) left the team in the spring. This leaves a big QB battle between sophomore Levi Lewis who started two games and put up 377 yards last year and senior Andre Nunez who played in four games, racking up 783 yards.
Much like ULM, this Louisiana defense was extremely bad last year (opponents averaged 40 points per game), but unlike ULM, they don’t get the bonus of a lot of returning experience, as the Cajuns return just three starters from last season’s 124th ranked group. Some transfers are coming in to provide competition, but this may be one of the worst defenses in the country. The schedule shapes up nicely for ULL this year, and they’ll get a chance at two out of conference wins, meaning a .500 record in conference will send them bowling. They get Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, and South Alabama at home to get them 3/4 of the way there, with a rivalry game against Monroe on the final week of the season potentially providing the difference between bowling and not.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (3-5 Sun Belt)
Everett Withers has gone 4-20 in his first two years with the Bobcats, and anything short of matching that win total in this season alone may cost him his job. Withers has recruited well given Texas State’s great location, and this is the first year with the roster being full of “his guys”. The offensive line was really young last year, and is still relatively so, but they bring back four starters from the aforementioned group that that paved the way for 134.1 rushing yards per game. Speaking of which, Junior running back Anthony D. Taylor returns after rushing for 436 yards last year, as does his backup, Anthony Smith, who ran for 352 yards last year as a freshman. This offense should be much improved, especially in the run game.
The defense should be improved this year as well, as every single starting position is expected to be held by an upperclassman. The crown jewel of this Texas State defense is the linebacking core. The Bobcats return two All-Sun Belt contenders in ILB Bryan London and OLB Frankie Griffin (four sacks last year), who are the top two returning tacklers on the team. Overall, this team probably won’t make a bowl, but I see them picking up an FBS win out of conference, and while the in conference schedule shapes up brutally (Arkansas State & Appalachian State at home, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road), they should double their win total and go 4-8.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-6 Sun Belt)