Sun Belt preview: Sizing up App State, Troy, JMU and other contenders

NCAAF

The Age of the Sun Belt is upon us. Following the AAC’s trade of quality (three of its best programs leaving for the Big 12) for quantity (six Conference USA schools coming in as replacements), and following the Sun Belt’s addition of brilliant FBS newcomer James Madison, among others, we have a new king of the Group of 5.

The SBC pretty comfortably produced the best average SP+ rating among G5 conferences in 2023, and while last year’s top three teams per SP+ (JMU, Troy and South Alabama) are all replacing their head coaches, the Sun Belt is projected to have the edge this time around, too. But can it produce a College Football Playoff team? Or will its biggest strength, depth, backfire in that regard? SP+ gives only one Sun Belt team even a 10% chance of going 11-1 or better, and no one has better than a 21% chance of winning the conference.

It’s a free-for-all! Let’s preview the Sun Belt!

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another FBS conference exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 134 FBS teams. The previews will include 2023 breakdowns, 2024 previews and team-by-team capsules. Here are the MAC, Conference USA, AAC and Mountain West.

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2024 projections | Best games
Title contenders | Who’s close?
Hoping for 6-6

2023 recap

The Sun Belt produced three top-50 teams last year, but only one reached the conference title game. James Madison, still in only its second year of FBS membership, wasn’t yet eligible (this really is just the silliest rule), and South Alabama was just plain confusing. The Jaguars recorded some of the conference’s most absurdly impressive performances — 33-7 over Oklahoma State, 59-10 over Eastern Michigan, 28-0 over Marshall, a combined 110-10 over Louisiana Monroe and Southern Miss — but went 1-4 in one-score finishes.

In the end, a solid Appalachian State team couldn’t keep up with ridiculously good Troy in the Sun Belt championship game, and the deepest G5 conference produced a whopping 12 bowl teams. They did a collective South Alabama impression, losing seven of their first eight bowl games (with four one-score defeats, two in OT), then winning the last four by an average of 26 points.


2024 projections

The Sun Belt still has divisions! A throwback! Here are the projections for each. (Teams are listed in descending order by conference title odds.)

EAST DIVISION

JMU is finally eligible for the East title, and the Dukes are immediately dealing with the most significant turnover of their FBS lives. Head coach Curt Cignetti left for Indiana; newcomer Bob Chesney has won big at each of his smaller-school stops and most recently ripped off an incredible run of success at Holy Cross — his non-scholarship Crusaders won playoff games in consecutive seasons — but he’ll face immediate pressure to win while breaking in a new quarterback and almost entirely new (but tantalizing) skill corps.

JMU does face an easier schedule than App State, however; that gives the Dukes a slight division edge despite the Mountaineers’ higher projected SP+ rating. It feels like a two-team race, but a run from Coastal Carolina might not be out of the question. Anyone else emerging would be quite a surprise.

WEST DIVISION

While the East feels like a two-team race, the West race could be an absolute battle royale. In terms of average projected conference wins, four teams start out within 0.8 wins of each other at the top, and Arkansas State isn’t too far behind. Troy, the two-time defending champion, will absolutely have a shot at a third straight title, but the Trojans will be breaking in a new head coach (Gerad Parker), a new starting quarterback and an almost completely new defensive line and secondary. That might open a door for whoever can take advantage.

SP+ thinks Louisiana could be ready for a big move; the Ragin’ Cajuns are 15th nationally in returning production, and no one else in the Sun Belt ranks higher than 47th.


Five best games of 2024

Here are the five conference games that feature (a) the highest combined SP+ ratings for both teams and (b) a projected scoring margin under 10 points.

South Alabama at Appalachian State (Thursday, Sept. 19). Major Applewhite takes over at South Alabama, and we’ll pretty quickly learn if he has fixed some of the Jaguars’ more enigmatic qualities. They play four of their first six games on the road, including three straight against App State, LSU and Arkansas State. The last of the three might mean the most in terms of the West title race, but this Thursday night affair is a nice, early tone-setter.

Appalachian State at Louisiana (Saturday, Oct. 12). By mid-October, App State will have been in two games that played huge roles in both the East and West races.

Troy at South Alabama (Tuesday, Oct. 15). Troy has won six straight over South Alabama, the most important of which came in the Trojans’ last trip to Mobile. They beat the Jaguars, 10-6, in a game that decided the 2022 West title. This game might be just as important, but the new coaches and the heavy West competition might have something to say about that.

James Madison at Appalachian State (Saturday, Nov. 23). Even though App State has the highest projected SP+ rating in the Sun Belt, five of the Mountaineers’ eight conference games are projected within one score. This is probably the biggest one of the bunch.

Troy at Louisiana (Saturday, Nov. 23). We’re not messing around here. There’s a chance that head-to-head matchups decide both division titles on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.


Conference title (and, therefore, CFP) contenders

Head coach: Shawn Clark (fifth year, 35-18 overall)

2024 projection: 51st in SP+, 7.7 average wins (5.4 in Sun Belt)

It was a hell of a hangover, but it might be over. After winning at least nine games for seven straight seasons, Appalachian State began 2022 playing three straight epic games: a 63-61 loss to North Carolina, a 17-14 upset of No. 6 Texas A&M and, with “College GameDay” in attendance, a 32-28 Hail Mary win over Troy. Shawn Clark’s Mountaineers were the story of September that season. It was glorious.

Then they lost nine of their next 16 games. They lost eight of their next nine one-score finishes — the price of winning via Hail Mary, I guess — and not only finished 2022 with a 6-6 record but also began 2023 just 3-4. Entering the back half of the season, they were scrambling desperately for traction. And then, poof, they found it, winning five straight games to take the Sun Belt East title (with help from JMU’s ineligibility). They ended JMU’s 13-game winning streak in mid-November, and after a loss to Troy in the Sun Belt title game, they outlasted Miami (Ohio) in an absolute slopfest in the Cure Bowl.

After such a mediocre start, the Mountaineers were back to winning nine games again. And now they return 3,700-yard passer Joey Aguilar, his top six receivers and 15 of 21 defenders who saw at least 200 snaps last season. The defense was shuffled constantly, and a lot of freshmen and sophomores saw the field; most of them are back in 2024.

App State has ranked in the offensive SP+ top 50 for six straight seasons, but last year’s attack was a little different in that it derived its efficiency from a far more pass-happy attack than normal. Only one Mountaineer quarterback had topped 3,000 yards since their move to FBS, but despite a slow start to the season, Aguilar threw for 3,757 yards and 33 TDs. He’s back, and his receiving corps, led by Kaedin Robinson (905 yards, 10 TDs), is absolutely loaded. Plus, sophomore running back Kanye Roberts rushed for 100-plus yards in three of the last eight games. The question mark on offense comes up front, where four starters are gone. Three linemen return with starting experience, and Clark brought in three power-conference transfers, so the potential is still pretty high.

On the other side of the ball, the Mountaineers have slipped in defensive SP+ for three straight years; they were 95th last year, their worst performance since 2014, their first FBS season. But as mentioned above, youth was everywhere, and 20 players started at least once. There are some exciting playmakers returning — sophomore lineman Santana Hopper (10 TFLs, 11 run stops), sophomore edge rusher Nate Johnson (9.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks), junior safety Jordan Favors (four INTs, six breakups) — but simply maintaining a stable and more experienced lineup should generate improvement.

My favorite player: QB Joey Aguilar. In his first month succeeding Chase Brice, things didn’t go so hot for the Diablo Valley Community College transfer. The next two months? Very hot!

Aguilar, first four games: 58% completion rate, 12.2 yards per completion, 240.8 yards per game, 50th nationally in Total QBR

Aguilar, next nine games: 67% completion rate, 13.1 yards per completion, 295.1 yards per game, 19th in Total QBR

By the end of the season, only Liberty’s brilliant Kaidon Salter could top Aguilar in the Total QBR department in the Group of 5.

A full season of late-year Aguilar could make App State the conference title favorite.


Head coach: Gerad Parker (first year)

2024 projection: 54th in SP+, 7.8 average wins (5.6 in Sun Belt)

The USA Today finance database is nice shorthand for financial status. And it’s a nice reminder that money isn’t everything. Of the 111 FBS schools listed (public schools only), Troy ranked 101st in revenue for the most recent year reported. The Trojans also ranked 23rd among those schools in SP+, ahead of nine Big Ten teams and five SEC teams, among others. If you hire coaches and develop talent well, if you support your program as best as possible, and if you just operate well as a football program, you can beat a lot of richer teams that don’t hire and develop as well and don’t have as good a plan. I appreciate those reminders.

With head coach Jon Sumrall off to Tulane, Troy is on its fourth head coach since the legendary Larry Blakeney retired in 2014; two worked out pretty well. Neal Brown needed one year to get the infrastructure rebuilt, then went 31-8 over three seasons with a Sun Belt title. Chip Lindsey took over for the West Virginia-bound Brown and went just 15-20, but then Jon Sumrall replaced him and reestablished order, going 23-5 with two more titles. Troy hasn’t won fewer than five games in a season since 2014, which suggests a higher floor than other Sun Belt programs. Now we get to see if Gerad Parker can approach the same ceiling. The bar’s high for the former Notre Dame offensive coordinator.

It’s hard to imagine Troy avoiding at least some level of drop-off in the beginning. That’s just how things work when you rank 129th in returning production. The Trojans have four offensive starters and basically one defensive starter returning. They still have some reasonably proven pieces in junior receivers Chris Lewis and Devonte Ross, three returning offensive linemen (including all-conference guard Daniel King) and linebacker Jordan Stringer (6.5 TFLs, 13 run stops). Throw in a solid kicker in Scott Taylor Renfroe too. But the top five defensive linemen and top seven defensive backs are gone, and even with seven defensive transfers — including intriguingly disruptive FCS transfers in Gardner-Webb linebacker Brendan Jackson and Southeastern Louisiana cornerback Ian Conerly-Goodly — and five JUCOs coming in, that’s tough to overcome.

Longtime former Troy assistant Sean Reagan returns to run the offense, and he should be able to build a physical identity around running back Damien Taylor and a number of offensive linemen listed at 315 pounds or heavier. And in Lewis, he has one of the best play-action deep-shot threats in the country. If junior Goose Crowder — who came to Troy from West Virginia, as if he were the player-to-be-named-later in the Neal Brown deal (he has been decent in backup roles at both schools) — or sophomore Tucker Kilcrease comes through at quarterback, a serviceable offense could come together. But it’s going to be difficult for the defense to live up to its No. 47 defensive SP+ projection, I think.

My favorite player: WR Chris Lewis. Hey, if you’re going to be an all-or-nothing receiver, be the allest-or-nothingest receiver in the country.

Lewis caught just 32 of 74 passes thrown his way in 2023, a 43% catch rate, but eight of those catches gained at least 30 yards, and 15 gained at least 20. His masterpiece: a four-catch, 120-yard, three-touchdown performance against South Alabama. He’s a fades and go-routes specialist, and who doesn’t like a good go route?


Head coach: Michael Desormeaux (third year, 13-14 overall)

2024 projection: 56th in SP+, 8.4 average wins (5.4 in Sun Belt)

1. Michael Desormeaux has not cleared the bar that Billy Napier set in his incredible four-year tenure at Louisiana. Napier went 34-5 with shares of two Sun Belt titles in his last three years in Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns peaked at 23rd in SP+ in 2020. That bar is absurdly high, and Desormeaux hasn’t cleared it in the two years since Napier left for Florida.

2. All things considered, life is still pretty good in Lafayette.

In the last two years, Louisiana has ranked 70th and 64th in SP+, with one good defense (36th in 2022) and one good offense (31st in 2023). Outside of the Napier era, the Cajuns have topped those rankings only five times in the last 50 years. That they went 6-7 both years was a bit unlucky: They were a jarring 2-9 in one-score finishes in that span and should have finished at least about 7-6 both years. But while coaching can certainly play a role in close games, so do things like experience and plain old bad breaks. The Cajuns are not too far away from another high-level season, and they rank first in the Sun Belt in returning production.

But Louisiana doesn’t return everyone of import this year. Zeon Chriss was emerging as a particularly delightful quarterback but transferred to Houston, and while the defensive line has its starters back, the depth has been hollowed out pretty significantly. But UL still has two quarterbacks with plenty of starting experience — Ben Wooldridge (injured for most of 2023) and Chandler Fields — plus most of its offensive line, a majority of the skill corps and nine defensive starters. The defense should benefit from surviving with a load of sophomores last season, and including second-year coordinator Tim Leger, the offense should have what it needs for its fifth top-50 ranking in six years.

Missing Chriss does hurt, but experience indeed isn’t an issue at QB. Wooldridge missed spring ball in recuperation, but both he and Fields have more than 2,300 career passing yards, and Fields was evidently in a nice battle with JUCO transfer Samari Collier this spring. Having three potentially solid QBs increases the likelihood of finding one particularly good one. Running back Dre’lyn Washington should be a nice backfield companion for whoever wins the job, and four offensive linemen and most of a by-committee receiving corps returns.

The bulk of the most intriguing defenders are juniors, from defensive tackle Jordan Lawson (seven sacks) to edge rusher Cameron Whitfield (eight sacks) to safety Tyree Skipper (three INTs) to corners Caleb Anderson (30.3 QBR allowed) and Jalen Clark (three INTs). The run defense needs improvement, but the pass defense should be solid.

My favorite player: LG AJ Gillie. Louisiana has been a pretty reliable producer of big, exciting offensive line talent in recent years, and the 6-foot-2, 328-pound Gillie is particularly solid. The three-year starter was credited with just a 0.4% blown block rate for the season, 0.0% against the pass rush. He is a brick wall.


Head coach: Bob Chesney (first year)

2024 projection: 58th in SP+, 9.0 average wins (6.0 in Sun Belt)

Nineteen wins in 24 games. A 13-3 record in Sun Belt play. James Madison had one of the most steadily awesome FCS programs in the country prior to its move to FBS, but there’s always a reason to wonder if a team might struggle a bit when moving up to a different level. The Dukes have not struggled at all. No one has made the FCS-to-FBS transition look quite this easy since Marshall in the 1990s. And Marshall kind of cheated: The Thundering Herd brought Randy Moss with them.

Now that the transition period is over, however, the Dukes are dealing with transition of a different sort. Head coach Curt Cignetti, quarterback Jordan McCloud, the top four running backs, the top five passing targets and a whopping 14 of 18 defenders with 300-plus snaps (including the top five defensive linemen and eight of the top 10 DBs) are all gone. Hell, so, too, is athletic director Jeff Bourne, who recently retired after guiding the FBS transition. JMU ranks 123rd in returning production, and that obviously does not include coaches or ADs.

JMU has the facilities and the track record for success, but few of the guys on the field or the sidelines for the Dukes this fall will have been part of building that track record. We’ll see if Bob Chesney can guide them through without at least a temporary setback.

The ceiling is still awfully high. Chesney brought in former blue-chip quarterback Dylan Morris (Washington) and 1,000-yard rusher Ayo Adeyi (North Texas), plus six transfer pass catchers, three offensive linemen (to go with five returnees with starting experience), four defensive linemen, three linebackers and two DBs. Two of the most disruptive defenders in FCS — Holy Cross linebacker Jacob Dobbs (123 tackles, 12 TFLs) and Long Island defensive end Eric O’Neill (23.5 TFLs!) — are now Dukes, and the list of defensive returnees includes end Abi Nwabuoku-Okonji (six TFLs in 301 snaps in 2022), tackle Immanuel Bush (4.5 TFLs in just 182 snaps) and corner Chauncey Logan (four TFLs, seven passes defended). Depth is a far greater concern than it was last year, but the starting 11 on D should still be stout.

Chesney and coordinator Dean Kennedy crafted a delightful attack at Holy Cross; the Crusaders could wing the ball around when they needed to but were happy to lean on the run game until opponents stopped it. Between Adeyi, former blue-chipper George Pettaway (North Carolina) and versatile Holy Cross transfer Tyler Purdy, they should indeed be able to lean on the run. But the passing game is enduring quite the makeover. The leading returning receiver (Taji Hudson) caught eight passes, and the most proven of the incoming transfers are probably UConn’s Cam Ross and San Diego State’s Brionne Penny.

My favorite player: RB Ayo Adeyi. North Texas head coach Eric Morris is a pass-first kind of guy. But when he made an exception in 2023, he was rewarded; Adeyi averaged 7.1 yards per carry and needed just 143 carries to hit 1,000 yards. He’s above average when it comes to generating yards after contact, but his strength is how quickly he hits the hole. Almost no one in the country generated more yards before contact than he did.

Obviously good blocking contributed to that before-contact average, but while Adeyi averaged 3.9 yards per carry before contact, his UNT backups averaged only about 2.8. And he should enjoy running behind what is still a stout JMU line.


A couple of breaks away from a run

Head coach: Major Applewhite (first year)

2024 projection: 73rd in SP+, 7.0 average wins (4.6 in Sun Belt)

South Alabama has been just good enough to be disappointing. (You could almost say the same of Major Applewhite.) Kane Wommack led them to 17 wins and back-to-back top-50 SP+ finishes in 2022-23, but they lost to nine-win UCLA and 12-win Troy by a combined five points in 2022, and as mentioned above, they combined blowout wins with a dreadful close-game record in 2023.

Applewhite, meanwhile, continues to impress people just enough to earn solid opportunities. He was Nick Saban’s first Alabama offensive coordinator at age 29 in 2007, and he eventually earned the Houston head coaching gig in 2017. He went 15-10 with the Cougars, neither great nor terrible, but they were in their “anything less than 10 wins is a crushing disappointment” phase, and he quickly landed back in Tuscaloosa as an analyst as part of the Nick Saban Fired Coach Rehabilitation Program. In 2021, he became coordinator of a previously dreadful South Alabama offense, and he improved it for three straight years. That earned him the head coaching gig when Wommack left for, yes, Tuscaloosa, as Kalen DeBoer’s new defensive coordinator.

Perhaps sensing South Alabama wasn’t far from something excellent and aiming for continuity, Applewhite promoted from within to hire both his offensive coordinator (Rob Ezell) and defensive coordinator (Will Windham). But his first roster doesn’t have a ton of said continuity. Five offensive starters return, but quarterback Carter Bradley, leading rusher La’Damian Webb and all-world receiver Caullin Lacy do not. And while a pair of star defenders return in cornerback Ricky Fletcher and safety Jaden Voisin, eight starters do not. Applewhite didn’t get carried away in the transfer portal — he signed 15 transfers, but many are redshirt freshmen or sophomores — which is a sign that either he still likes what he has or he is building with the long term in mind.

When it comes to quarterback Gio Lopez, it might be both. The redshirt freshman held his own when thrust into the starting lineup against Troy last year, then absolutely torched Eastern Michigan in the bowl blowout, completing 14 of 19 passes for 192 yards and three scores while rushing seven times for 88 yards and another touchdown. And with Lacy already in the transfer portal, the quartet of Jamaal Pritchett, Javon Ivory, DJ Thomas-Jones and Braylon McReynolds — all 2024 returnees — all came up big. Pritchett is a potential star, and 2022 starter Devin Voisin, hurt in 2023, returns as well.

My favorite player: S Jaden Voisin. With 4.5 tackles for loss and six run stops, Voisin proved his “physical safety” bona fides in 2023, but he’s also one of the best coverage guys in the country. His man was targeted 25 times last year; he had as many interceptions (four) as completions allowed. He allowed a QBR of 2.3. Goodness.


Head coach: G.J. Kinne (second year, 8-5 overall)

2024 projection: 80th in SP+, 7.4 average wins (4.7 in Sun Belt)

Some offenses are evidently plug-and-play. G.J. Kinne, 35, took over at Texas State last season after leading a prolific Incarnate Word attack to the FCS semifinals in his first year as a head coach. The Bobcats hadn’t ranked better than triple digits in offensive SP+ since 2014 … and immediately surged to 37th under Kinne and coordinator Mack Leftwich. With extreme efficiency and a top-10 tempo, Texas State began the season with an upset of Baylor, scored 40-plus points six times and doubled their win total, from four to eight. Even with the defense suffering some epic glitches down the stretch — they allowed a combined 121 points against Arkansas State and South Alabama, somehow going 1-1 in the process — this was some serious improvement.

Kinne initially and needlessly botched his quarterback situation this offseason: He brought in Arizona’s Jayden de Laura, which resulted in 3,400-yard passer TJ Finley entering the transfer portal. When TXST students protested the move due to de Laura’s involvement in a sexual assault case and civil lawsuit, de Laura withdrew from school. But somehow the Bobcats still ended up with a quarterback upgrade when James Madison’s Jordan McCloud committed in late February. McCloud will work with a prolific receiving corps led by Kole Wilson and Joey Hobert (combined: 1,642 yards, 16 TDs), and he’ll share a backfield with 1,300-yard rusher Ismail Mahdi. Three starters return on the line, too, including both tackles. Translation: TXST is going to score a lot once again.

Whether the Bobcats are Sun Belt contenders will depend on the defense. New coordinator Dexter McCoil Sr. is tasked with maintaining some of the successful aggressiveness without nearly as many abject breakdowns. The aggressiveness part shouldn’t be a problem. The Bobcats have one of the best pass-rushers in the country in Ben Bell (18 TFLs, 10 sacks), plus an active tackle in Tavian Coleman (9 TFLs) and sticky corners in Chris Mills and Joshua Eaton. Kinne added some intriguing portal pieces, in 290-pound former blue-chipper Tunmise Adeleye (Michigan State) and FCS pass-rushers Brice Bass (Gardner-Webb) and Steven Parker (Incarnate Word). I think I see more improvement than SP+ does here, but with a fast-scoring offense, the defense will likely remain under decent stress.

My favorite player: DE Ben Bell. The 250-pounder from Cedar Park enjoyed one of the bigger breakouts you’ll ever see last year. After recording three TFLs and two sacks in 2022, he exploded for 16 TFLs and 10 sacks, and he recorded some of the most consistent pressure in the country. From the edge rusher position, only UCLA’s Laiatu Latu topped his 20.1% pressure rate.

He was better than even All-Americans Jared Verse and Jalen Green in that regard. He’s dynamite.


Head coach: Tim Beck (second year, 8-5 overall)

2024 projection: 83rd in SP+, 6.7 average wins (4.0 in Sun Belt)

Despite a coaching change, despite quarterback injuries, despite an up-and-down defense, Coastal Carolina met expectations, almost to the decimal, in 2023. Tim Beck took over for Jamey Chadwell, longtime starting quarterback Grayson McCall made it only seven games due to a head injury, the defense got torched the last two weeks of the regular season, and after being projected 68th in SP+, with a projected win total of 8.2, the Chanticleers … finished 68th in SP+ with eight wins. I’m used to coming to some sort of tentative conclusion about a coach a year into the job, and I really don’t have anything for Beck. He piloted his team to exactly what was expected, nothing more, nothing less.

With the amount of turnover he’s dealing with this season, those expectations get knocked down by about 1.5 wins this time around. Bowling each year is good living, especially when you’ve only been in the FBS for seven seasons, but Beck is attempting a pretty interesting gambit to pull his defense back up the rankings. Plenty of Sun Belt schools have dipped into the smaller-school ranks to look for stars, and from a circle-of-life perspective it makes perfect sense. There are lots of awesome players at the FCS level or lower, and you might get away with paying less in NIL to find some of them. But Beck brought in a pair of FCS defenders and four Division II defenders.

He signed a receiver from Eastern New Mexico (6-foot-4 Andre Jones, who averaged 22.7 yards per catch as a freshman last season) and a DL-turned-OL from Texas-Permian Basin (315-pound Heston Edwards). I hope these moves work because I want coaches rewarded for scouring less obvious places and making strong talent evaluations. The Chanticleers need it to work out, especially on defense, because of the team’s 18 defenders with 200-plus snaps last year, only seven return. Defensive tackle Will Whitson and cornerback Matthew McDoom are returning stars, but depth is a major question mark.

The passing game has upside. Sophomore quarterback Ethan Vasko looked decent in four starts at quarterback and will get competition from Michigan State transfer Noah Kim and young former blue-chipper Tad Hudson (North Carolina). Jones and fellow transfers Senika McKie (UNLV) and Malick Meiga (Penn State) join big-play junior wideout Jameson Tucker in an intriguing but new receiving corps. The run game has, well, less upside: Leading rusher Braydon Bennett averaged just 4.5 yards per carry, and three starting linemen are gone.

My favorite player: CB Matthew McDoom. I mean, it’s an A-plus name, first of all, but McDoom did his best to live up to it, breaking up 10 passes, allowing just four completions of 20-plus yards and allowing just a 30% completion rate on passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield. McDoom Island? Is that a thing maybe?


Just looking for a path to 6-6

Head coach: Butch Jones (fourth year, 11-26 overall)

2024 projection: 90th in SP+, 5.8 average wins (4.2 in Sun Belt)

Two years do not a trend make, but we might have witnessed the start of a trend in Jonesboro the last two seasons.

Despite four coaching changes in four years, Arkansas State registered nine straight winning seasons, with five teams ranked in the SP+ top 80, from 2011 to 2019. But the Red Wolves slipped to 4-7 in Blake Anderson’s final season, then lost 21 of their first 24 games against FBS competition under Butch Jones. They began his third year by losing to Oklahoma and Memphis by a combined 110-3. Dire stuff.

Damned if they didn’t turn things around. The Red Wolves won six of their next nine games, cleaning up against poor competition but also thumping Louisiana by 20 and destroying Texas State, 77-31. The offense surged despite starting a freshman quarterback (Jaylen Raynor) and six sophomores, including leading rusher Ja’Quez Cross, leading receiver Corey Rucker and second-team all-conference tackle Makilan Thomas. They’re all back, and Jones added intriguing transfers such as quarterback Timmy McClain (UCF), receiver Reginald Harden Jr. (Benedict) and QB/WR Malik Hornsby (Texas State). Harden averaged 24.9 yards per catch at the Division II level. I love finds like that. If simple experience solves some drastic inconsistency issues — Arkansas State averaged 11.0 points per game in losses, 45.8 in wins and didn’t finish a game in the 20s all year — they could end up a lot higher than their No. 62 offensive projection.

The bar is still pretty low for a defense that shined when it knocked opponents off-schedule but rarely did so and got wrecked by instability. Coordinator Rob Harley had to give 20 guys 200-plus snaps, and 21 started at least once (not sure I’ve ever seen that combination). About half are back. Linebacker Charles Willekes is good, defensive tackle Nate Martey is a good pass-rusher for his size, safety Trevian Thomas does a little bit of everything, and Jones added nine transfers to plump up the depth, mostly for the front six.

My favorite player: QB Timmy McClain. I really like Jaylen Raynor, and we’ll see if adding McClain throws off his development (or general harmony). But McClain was responsible for maybe my single favorite play of last season, so what was I supposed to do, not pick him?

Head coach: Clay Helton (third year, 12-14 overall)

2024 projection: 96th in SP+, 4.9 average wins (3.1 in Sun Belt)

Georgia Southern was one of the most interesting teams of 2022, using the transfer portal to attempt a massive offensive identity shift, from option-heavy to pass-heavy, in a single offseason. It worked: The Eagles jumped from three wins to six in Clay Helton’s first season.

In his second season, the Eagles’ offense got even better, the defense got worse and the record stayed the same. Year 3 will tell us whether that was a solidification of gains or a sign of stagnation.

Helton will have a third starting quarterback in three years, and it might be another transfer. Dexter Williams II (Indiana) took part in spring ball alongside sophomores J.C. French and David Dallas, and it appears the battle will continue into fall camp. Two of last year’s three primary receivers, Derwin Burgess Jr. and big-play Dalen Cobb, return, as do two running backs (Jalen White and O.J. Arnold) who combined for 1,300 yards at 5.5 per carry. Helton also dipped into the Division II well, bringing in a pair of receivers (Allen’s Deyandre Ruffin and Tuskegee’s Deuce Petty) who each averaged at least 16.9 yards per catch. If the QB play is again solid, then the offense should be fine, though the line might have depth issues.

Overall team improvement will require improvement from the defense. Leaning heavily on youth, the Eagles fell to 126th in defensive SP+ last year; that youth is evident by the fact that, of the 13 returnees who had at least 200 snaps, 10 are sophomores or juniors. Senior linebacker Marques Watson-Trent is the prototypical tackling machine, safety Tyrell Davis is ultra-aggressive, tackle Justin Rhodes made 13.5 TFLs at 280 pounds, and edge rushers Da’Shawn Davis and Isaac Walker could be fantastic this season. But cornerback is an enormous concern, as is the immense number of big plays the Eagles allowed in 2023.

My favorite player: DE Da’Shawn Davis. Maybe the greatest small-sample all-star of 2023. Only four players made at least 10 havoc plays (TFLs, passes defended, forced fumbles) in fewer than 300 snaps last year, and no one came close to Davis’ 12 havoc plays in just 201 snaps. That’s an individual havoc rate of 6.0%, far greater than what All-Americans produced.

He did as much as one humanly can with 201 snaps. That’s a good sign for what might happen if he gets a lot more.


Head coach: Charles Huff (fourth year, 22-17 overall)

2024 projection: 103rd in SP+, 5.4 average wins (3.7 in Sun Belt)

We’ve grown accustomed to first-year coaches loading up on transfers. It makes sense. If you’re taking a new job, there’s a good chance you’re inheriting a roster in quite a bit of flux, and with signing day in mid-December, signing high-schoolers on short notice might not bear much fruit. So you load up on transfers, hope for some instant success, and hope you can wean yourself off the portal over time.

Marshall’s Charles Huff is hoping for a different portal boost. After winning 16 games with a pair of top-70 teams in 2021 and ’22, the Thundering Herd slipped to 6-7. The offense was decent enough, but after losing coordinator Lance Guidry and about seven starters, the defense collapsed from 17th to 98th in defensive SP+.

Combined with perpetually bad special teams, Marshall dove from 67th to 99th in SP+, and only a fast start and a 4-1 record in one-score finishes kept the Herd bowl-eligible. Then 34 players entered the portal. Huff didn’t have much of a choice: He took in 30 transfers of his own.

On offense, with new coordinator Seth Doege — approximately the 400th former Mike Leach quarterback coaching in college football — taking the reins, Marshall could start a transfer at quarterback (Wake Forest’s Mitch Griffis or Tulsa’s Braylon Braxton), running back, all receiver and tight end spots and a few offensive line spots. The defense welcomes seven transfer linemen, a pair of linebackers and a pair of DBs.

A few play-makers stayed in Huntington. Senior receiver DeMarcus Harris averaged 16.5 yards per catch, center Logan Osburn was honorable mention all-conference, defensive tackles TyQaze Leggs and Isaiah Gibson Sr. combined for 10 TFLs, sophomore defensive end Michael Green was strong as a backup, and junior nickel Josh Moten made 10 havoc plays. But this is a lot of turnover at a time when a head coach’s culture is supposed to be kicking in. We’ll see if Huff’s redo attempt takes hold.

My favorite player: DE Michael Green. Like Georgia Southern’s Da’Shawn Davis, Green was a small-sample star in 2023. The Virginia transfer recorded a forced fumble and sack against Virginia Tech — like a good Cavalier — then made 4.5 TFLs, 4 run stops and 1.5 sacks in the last three games. He also finished with a stellar pressure rate of 14.4%, suggesting that he was close to a lot more than 4.5 sacks.


Head coach: Dell McGee (first year)

2024 projection: 107th in SP+, 5.1 average wins (3.1 in Sun Belt)

The college football coaching profession is under a lot of stress right now. The rules have changed. Roster management, with its general lack of windows or regulations, is utterly exhausting.

That said, just because Shawn Elliott left his position as Georgia State head coach to become South Carolina tight ends coach doesn’t mean that the sport is in some sort of outright crisis. We saw that reaction quite a bit this offseason, even when successful head coaches left for the NFL — something they’ve been doing for decades — and it’s overwrought. There are plenty of guys who will be willing to take on these (well-paying) jobs. Elliott’s loss is Dell McGee’s potential gain.

In Elliott’s seventh and final season at GSU, his Panthers surged, then cratered. They were up to 71st in SP+ after a 6-1 start but tumbled to 101st during a five-game losing streak. A bowl thumping of Utah State meant another slight rebound, but the odd timing of Elliott’s February departure meant a predictably large amount of portal turnover: more than 30 guys out, about 30 guys in.

The QB room will feature four transfers, the most experienced of which are Christian Veilleux (Pitt) and Zach Gibson (Georgia Tech). Sophomore DJ Riles (Middle Tennessee State) is a fun run threat. But as with Marshall, the entire starting offense could be made up of new faces. I’m curious about running back Freddie Brock, though; the junior holdover rushed just 30 times last year but gained 307 yards. Trevor Timmons is a pretty good right guard too.

Defense was an issue the last couple of years, and — surprise! — there are lots of new pieces. McGee welcomes five transfer linemen, five linebackers and six DBs, though he does have proven pieces in defensive tackle Henry Bryant III, linebacker Justin Abraham and active DBs Jeremiah Johnson (safety) and Gavin Pringle (corner). The Panthers might be loaded at corner: Aside from Pringle, transfers Mumu Bin-Wahad (UConn), Sam McCall (Texas A&M) and Kenyatta Watson II (Georgia Tech) all appear to have high ceilings. I think I’m more optimistic about the D than the O, which would be a shift for GSU.

My favorite player: CB Gavin Pringle. Here’s a complete list of players who recorded at least 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 4 interceptions and 7 pass breakups in 2023: Alabama’s Terrion Arnold (a first-round NFL draft pick) and Pringle. I’m going to boldly call that pretty good company.


Head coach: Ricky Rahne (fourth year, 15-23 overall)

2024 projection: 111th in SP+, 4.0 average wins (2.9 in Sun Belt)

For a moment, Ricky Rahne made this look easy. In his first season as Old Dominion head coach, despite inheriting a 1-11 team and despite the school electing to sit out the 2020 COVID season, Rahne’s Monarchs jumped to 6-7. Two years later, however, they’re basically the same team. They faded late in 2022, but they’ve otherwise basically been a .500 team under Rahne.

ODU boasts a bit more continuity than a lot of the other teams in this portion of the preview. Quarterback Grant Wilson and two of his four primary receivers are back, as is most of a decent defensive front six. But the secondary, inefficient in a bend-don’t-break way, is replacing its top five players. There are some intriguing sophomores in the back — nickel Mario Thompson and safety transfer Patrick Smith-Young (North Texas), to name two — but they’re still sophomores. But veteran linebacker Jason Henderson is a one-man run defense, at least. (Seriously, he had 31 run stops last year. Thirty-one!)

The offense was all-or-nothing, making loads of big plays but going three-and-out 36% of the time (117th in FBS). Wideouts Kelby Williams (17.4 yards per catch) and Dominic Dutton (22.3, albeit on just nine catches) are explosive, and running backs Devin Roche (6.2 yards per carry in a redshirt year) and transfers Aaron Young (Rutgers) and Bryce Duke (Virginia Tech) could be. We’ll see if a more experienced Wilson (or Boston College transfer Emmett Morehead?) can smooth out some bumps.

At 111th in SP+, ODU is projected to battle through a heavy load of close games — seven projected within one score. There isn’t a single sure win on the schedule, so the Monarchs will have to shine in those close games to bowl again, but hey, they played 11 one-score finishes in 2023. They’re used to this, at least.

My favorite player: LB Jason Henderson. His stats just make me laugh out loud at this point. He made a tackle nearly once every five damn snaps last season, and 16.5 of his tackles came behind the line of scrimmage. His 12.3% pressure rate is stellar too, and on the rare occasion he ended up dropping into coverage, he also did well there. He’s been the nation’s best tackling machine for two years now.

That’s nearly 50 more tackles than anyone else in FBS over two seasons. That’s absurd.


Head coach: Will Hall (fourth year, 13-24 overall)

2024 projection: 123rd in SP+, 3.6 average wins (2.1 in Sun Belt)

I love living in a world in which Southern Miss is capable of just about anything at any time. This is a school that upset a peak-of-powers Florida State to start 1989, finished 5-6, then beat Alabama to start the next season. It’s a program that went 12-2 in 2011 and 0-12 in 2012. You don’t see many programs with highs this high and lows this low.

I’m ready for another Southern Miss high, though. The last few years haven’t been incredibly kind. Will Hall took over in 2021 after a three-win season, and he’s sandwiched one decent run between two more three-win campaigns.

Spicy defense drove a run of five wins in six games in 2022, which was enough to land a LendingTree Bowl bid and win over Rice. But the Golden Eagles nose-dived from 56th to 126th in defensive SP+ last season, and while the offense was semi-promising, it now has to replace nine starters, including longtime workhorse back Frank Gore Jr. Either sophomore Ethan Crawford or Florida State transfer Tate Rodemaker could bring a relatively high ceiling to the quarterback position, and Hall added three SEC transfers, including former blue-chip receiver Dannis Jackson (Missouri) to boost the ceiling in the receiving corps. Also, senior running back Rodrigues “Dreke” Clark outshined Gore on a per-carry basis last year. The starting 11 on offense could be pretty high-level, even if depth is a concern.

On defense, Hall is hoping both young SEC transfers and solid mid-major starters like linebackers Desmyn Baker (Western Kentucky) and Ryan Johnson (Akron) can engineer a rebound. The run defense is decent, and Jalil Clemons is a solid pass-rusher. But the secondary was a bit of a disaster. They’ll need newcomers to fix that.

My favorite player: OLB Jalil Clemons. Southern Miss blitzed with abandon last year and pretty regularly got torched for it. But you can’t blame Clemons for that. He had 5.5 sacks, forced two fumbles and made a total of 15.5 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. He made a total of nine havoc plays against App State and Texas State … and the Golden Eagles gave up 98 combined points anyway. Get this man some help.


Head coach: Bryant Vincent (first year)

2024 projection: 134th in SP+, 2.1 average wins (1.3 in Sun Belt)

Say this much for ULM: Hiring Bryant Vincent made a hell of a lot of sense. The longtime Bill Clark assistant was with Clark for most of his UAB stint, in which the Blazers first charged from 2-10 to 6-6, then reached two Conference USA championship games, winning one, following a silly and self-imposed death penalty. Vincent helped Clark pull off something semi-miraculous. When Clark retired, I thought Vincent was a no-brainer to replace him. The school went with Trent Dilfer instead (and fell to 4-8).

That kind of hard-job building experience could come in handy at one of FBS’ hardest jobs. Then again, the last two hires, Matt Viator (who had loads of Louisiana college coaching experience) and Terry Bowden (who crafted two bowl teams and a division winner at Akron, another brutally hard job), made a lot of sense too. Viator went 0-10 in his final season in charge, Bowden 2-10.

This hard job has potentially never been harder than it is right now. ULM ranks 133rd out of 134 teams in returning production, and after ranking 131st in SP+ in 2023, the Warhawks are projected 134th in 2024. Of the 31 players who saw at least 200 snaps on offense or defense last year, 10 are back, including just two on offense. Sure, they didn’t leave a high bar, but someone still needs to clear that bar, and Vincent will lean heavily on 15 transfers — including four quarterbacks: General Booty (Oklahoma) and redshirt freshmen from Liberty (Reese Mooney), South Alabama (Cash Turner) and New Mexico (Aidan Armenta) — and an incredible 27 JUCO transfers, 18 on defense alone. This team will have plenty of size and plenty of juniors and seniors. But they might not know each other’s names till midseason.

My favorite player: LG Elijah Fisher. Only 10 players (a) blocked on more than 700 plays, (b) committed zero penalties and (c) were credited with fewer than 15 blown blocks in 2023. Fisher was one of them. The 303-pounder from Allen, Texas, is an absolute rock for a team that needs quite a few more of them.

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