Will a team not named Appalachian State win the Sun Belt in 2020?
The Mountaineers have been at least co-champions of the conference since 2016. And App State has won each of the last two conference titles outright.
Those titles have come with different coaches too. In 2018, App State went 11-2 with coach Scott Satterfield and he was hired at Louisville to replace Bobby Petrino. The Mountaineers then hired NC State assistant Eli Drinkwitz to replace Satterfield.
App State was even better under Drinkwitz. The Mountaineers were 13-1 a season ago on the way to a fourth-straight conference title, and Drinkwitz was one-and-done. He’s now at Missouri.
Shawn Clark now takes over for Drinkwitz and is aiming to be the third App State coach to win the Sun Belt in the last three seasons.
Here’s a look at the conference’s two divisions, listed in predicted order of finish.
The Mountaineers are the Sun Belt favorites once again. After a one-loss season under Drinkwitz, App State returns a bunch of talent on offense including QB Zac Thomas and three of the team’s top four receivers after Corey Sutton opted out. RB Darrynton Evans is off to the NFL — 1,480 yards and 18 TDs in 2019 — but Marcus Williams and Daetrich Harrington are well-positioned to replace him.
If you’re an option football fan you’re already looking forward to Georgia Southern’s Nov. 21 game against Army. That game came together late as both teams were scrambling to find opponents. Everyone is back from Georgia Southern’s prolific rushing attack, including QB Shai Werts and RB Wesley Kennedy. Kennedy led the team in rushing with 824 yards and 11 TDs despite being third on the team in carries by a wide margin.
Gunnar Watson has been named the team’s starting QB after backing up senior Kaleb Barker in 2019. He’ll have plenty of receiving options at his disposal; seven Troy players had more than 20 catches in 2019 and they all return in 2020. That includes Reggie Todd, who averaged 17.5 yards per catch and had five TDs. Troy plays Middle Tennessee State in a home-and-home series this season in an attempt to play a full 12-game schedule.
Will the Panthers get to back-to-back bowl games for the first time? Assuming, of course, that the season goes the distance and there are bowl games that are played in December and January. Georgia State returns 16 starters but one of the six new faces will be at QB. Redshirt freshman Cornelious Brown is the favorite to start.
The Chanticleers open the season at Kansas. Can they get a repeat of their 12-7 win from 2019? Senior RB CJ Marable is back after rushing for 1,085 yards and 11 TDs in 2019. There’s an open competition at QB, where Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter both threw over 140 passes in 2019. A defense that allowed over 30 points per game for a third-straight season must improve if CCU wants to finish above .500.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are West favorites once again. QB Levi Lewis and RB Elijah Mitchell are back for an offense that averaged nearly 500 yards and 38 points per game in 2019. Four of the team’s five leading tacklers are back too on a defense that made a huge leap from 2018 to 2019 and held six opponents to 20 or fewer points. A November home game against Arkansas State could end up deciding the division.
The Red Wolves are going to be prominent players in the first two weeks of the college football season. ASU plays at Memphis on Saturday and then heads to Kansas State on Sept. 12. ASU, somehow, has four non-conference games lined up for September before diving into conference play. Both Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher are back at QB, and leading rusher Marcel Murray returns too, though there are questions at receiver. Omar Bayless and Kirk Merritt need to be replaced. They combined to catch 29 of the 37 TD passes thrown by Bonner and Hatcher last season.
ULM was supposed to open the season on Saturday against Troy but that game got moved to December because of a coronavirus outbreak among the team. ULM needs to replace QB Caleb Evans, who had 33 total TDs in 2019 and was also the team’s second-leading rusher. Defensively, LB Rashaad Harding will be asked to step up even more in place of Cortez Sisco, who led the team with 114 tackles.
South Alabama has won a combined nine games in the past three seasons. Can the Jaguars get to half of that number in a truncated season? Desmond Trotter was 56-of-97 passing for 820 yards and eight TDs and just two interceptions in limited action in 2019. While those stats may not wow you, Cephus Johnson threw 161 passes and threw for 900 yards a season ago.
The good news is that Texas State brings back eight offensive starters. The bad news is that the unit averaged just over 18 points per game in 2019. After scoring 20 or more points in just two of its first eight games, Texas State scored at least 21 in three of its final four, so there was some late season improvement. But improving a rushing attack that averaged less than three yards a carry is a must if Texas State wants to think of winning more than three games.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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