Welcome to Rotoworld's annual conference-by-conference preview of the upcoming college football season. We've never quite had an offseason like this one, as the coronavirus has not only prevented teams from going through normal spring practices and the like, it could well end up wreaking havoc on the season itself. But that remains to be seen.
In these team previews, we'll touch on the ramifications of the pandemic (relating specifically to depth charts) when needed, but by-and-large, we'll be approaching these capsules as though (fingers crossed) there will actually be a season in the fall. If there are any crucial COVID-19 updates pertaining to individual teams or conferences, we'll be sure to keep you in the loop as we go.
Projected Sun Belt Standings
Louisiana 11-1 (8-0 in conference)
Appalachian State 9-3 (7-1 in conference)
Arkansas State 9-3 (6-2 in conference)
Georgia Southern 8-4 (5-3 in conference)
South Alabama 4-8 (2-6 in conference)
Troy 7-5 (5-3 in conference)
Louisiana-Monroe 4-8 (2-6 in conference)
Coastal Carolina 6-6 (4-4 in conference)
Texas State 3-9 (1-7 in conference)
Georgia State 3-9 (2-6 in conference)
Sun Belt East
Appalachian State Mountaineers
2019 record: 13-1
NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Corey Sutton
The case for: One of the big questions heading into last season for the Mountaineers was whether the program scaffolding put in place by Scott Satterfield would hold under new HC Eliah Drinkwitz. Not an issue. App State would lose just one game in 2019, a narrow Halloween defeat at the hands of Georgia Southern. That was not enough to derail Drinkwitz’s bunch from conference-title glory.
Once again this coming season, the program is breaking in a new head coach in Shawn Clark -- promoting him up from OL coach -- in advance of the presumed fall campaign. As Drinkwitz inherited an experienced squad from Satterfield so Clark does from Drinkwitz. Like, say, an offensive line which posted three starters (C Noah Hannon, T Cooper Hodges and RG Baer Hunter) to Athlon’s preseason first-team All-Sun Belt squad. That’s more than enough beef to keep QB Zac Thomas -- who posted a career-best year in 2019 -- clean while he looks to lock onto big-play wideouts Corey Sutton and Jalen Virgil.
App State’s most-notable loss on offense this offseason came with Darrynton Evans declaring for the draft, but it’s very possible the team doesn’t miss a beat in his absence. Marcus Williams has been a backup rock at running back throughout his time in the program, rushing for at least 500 yards each of his first three years on campus. His patience should pay off in a starting role this fall.
And the defense remains one of the most dependable in the Group of Five, especially on the defensive line and in the secondary. On the latter front, App State went through the fire with a pair of first-year starting cornerbacks in 2019 in Shemar Jean-Charles and Shaun Jolly, who now return as seasoned upper-classmen on a ball-hawking defense which posted a top-25 interceptions mark. Everything is in place for another run to the conference title game.
The case against: The darkest timeline for Appalachian State -- other than a global pandemic shutting the sport down completely -- would involve their attrition at key positions. We touched on Evans and while Williams should ably step up, he’s not Darrynton Evans. He’s not Jalin Moore. Should production drop off at running back, that shaves the margins just a little for the offense. That limits Clark’s playbook just a little. And little wobbles can lead to larger wobbles.
Then there’s the other side of the ball. While App State essentially only has to replace Evans on offense, their Sun Belt-best defense from a year ago is out a pair of star linebackers in Akeem Davis-Gaither and Jordan Fehr. We’re not talking mass losses across the board, but we are talking important ones. And if this defense ends up sagging, it’s going to be at the second level.
The schedule, especially early, is also problematic. Clark and crew will have just essentially one warmup game -- hosting Morgan State on Labor Day weekend -- before hitting the road to take on Wake Forest. And then onward to Wisconsin. If there’s any saving grace to their schedule, it’s that they’ll receive home cooking for their contest against fellow title-game combatant Louisiana on Oct. 7. They’d best not eat too heartily, though, as they’ll be traveling to Georgia Southern (who, remember, gave them their only loss last season) the following weekend.
Vegas over/under win total: 10.5
Georgia Southern Eagles
2019 record: 7-6
NFL Draft prospect to watch: EDGE Raymond Johnson
The case for: We’ll openly admit to being smitten with Georgia Southern, the triple-option weirdo of the Sun Belt, the guy at the party who just showed up without invitation while Appalachian State and Troy were off in teh corner talking about the New York music scene circa the early 2000’s. In a conference where there’s a whole lot average-to-mediocre, Georgia Southern is something different and more interesting.
And oh boy, they return a lot in that weirdo option. There’s QB Shai Werts, sure, but that’s just the tip of this multi-faceted, mobile iceberg. The team returns a plethora of rushing cogs along with Werts, led by Wesley Kennedy III and J.D. King, who combined to rush for 1,628 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. It’s the kind offense which can (by its mere existence) cause good teams to crumble by simply attrition. We saw Georgia Southern pull off the upset on App State last season, for instance.
Georgia Southern boasts a solid -- if unspectacular -- defense, too, led by a pair of rock-solid linebackers in Raymond Johnson III and Rashad Byrd. It’s slightly more creaky than the offense, allowing along the lines of 28 points last season, but not creaky enough to cause the floor to collapse on this team. A relatively untested secondary is going to take its lumps this fall, but the defensive line, here, is deep and sturdy, with Raymond Johnson and CJ Wright both potential first-team conference performers up front.
The case against: Our question -- can Georgia Southern really truly hit another gear? Is there another gear to this thing? Because for as fun as the upset potential might be, as experienced as the offense might be, this is a team that almost lost to Coastal Carolina last season, that was blown out by Troy. Playing in the same division as Appalachian makes things that much more difficult.
At least on the Mountaineer front, we know that Georgia Southern has it in them to slay dragons. But they have little margin for error given their competition. A repeat of last season’s atrocious red-zone defense (almost 90 percent of opponents scored when they hit the red zone), for example, would probably spell disaster.
And this year’s schedule contains all kinds of tough corners and turns. That starts with a road season-opener against Boise State before winding its way into a three-out-of-four stretch against FAU (home), Louisiana (road) and Appalachian State (home) from the end of September into mid-October. Just to complicate matters, the Eagles also have a road game against Ole Miss in the penultimate game of the campaign.
There’s nothing wrong with being a fun second-tier team in your conference. We don’t know if Georgia Southern has it in them to rise above that. Lovable weirdos that they might be.
Vegas over/under win total: 5.5
2019 record: 5-7
NFL Draft prospect to watch: RB B.J. Smith
The case for: Just two years ago, Troy posted a brilliant 10-3 season under HC Neal Brown. Who then made his way to Morgantown with West Virginia? The bottom proceeded to drop out under Brown-replacement Chip Lindsey as the Trojans ground their way to a bowl-less campaign last fall. For all of QB Kaleb Barker’s pyrotechnics leading an offense which averaged 33.8 points per game, 25th best in the country, Troy proved incapable of hanging with the behemoths of the conference, losing their final two contests of the regular season to Louisiana and Appalachian State by a combined score of 101-16. Yikes.
Barker be gone, now, leaving a gaping hole at quarterback to be filled. Gunnar Watson and Jacob Free are the names to know among established Troy quarterbacks, while Parker McNeil gives them a three-star JUCO signee to keep everybody on their toes. Entering his redshirt sophomore year this fall, Watson should be viewed as the likely frontrunner in this race, especially considering that the coronavirus has prevented any sort of real offseason. That hurts a kid like McNeil, who could have had a spring practice to jump or at least push Watson on the depth chart.
If Troy can just get a little competency out of quarterback, they’re going to have an all-conference back to hand it off to in B.J. Smith. Smith was undone by a tough season-ending knee injury one carry into the 2019 campaign, this after rushing for 1,186 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018. If you’re going to suffer a serious knee injury, Smith did it at the right time (unwittingly to him and all of us), as he had a full season to rehab in Troy’s facilities, plus the winter into the spring before the coronavirus hit American shores. And he won’t be tasked with doing it all on the ground this fall, not with DK Billingsley, who rushed for 901 yards and 10 touchdowns in Smith’s stead, spelling him on the depth chart.
If Smith and Billingsley act as the sledgehammer on the offensive side, LB Carlton Martial does that on the defensive side. And then some. Last season, Martial led the Sun Belt with 127 tackles 18.5 for loss). He also picked off three passes and forced three fumbles. Troy has that kind of talent, talent like Martial and Smith, here and there. That makes them a potentially scary team. Whether that makes them a good team is another question altogether.
The case against: Even if Troy is able to get something out of Watson et al, even if Smith and Billingsley combine for 1,800 yards rushing, even if Martial does his HULK SMASH thing, Troy still must contend with the mountain range that is Appalachian State within their division. And we saw no evidence they were ready for that last year, falling 48-13 to a dominant Mountaineers team.
They got that one at home. They’ll be closing out the 2020 season against App. State, too. But that’s on the road. One week after they travel to Tennessee. Looking past that daunting two-step, four of Troy’s final five games come on the road. Now, Lindsey and company do have a manageable first half, with conference matters not truly ramping up until the end of October, when they head to Arkansas State to begin that long aforementioned road trip. But the end of the season is going to be brutal.
If Troy is to again miss bowl eligibility, it’s going to be because they simply didn’t have the horses to weather the late stretch. This isn’t a bad team. But it’s not a finely-tuned shark like Appalachian State, or a Killer Whale like Louisiana. Troy is not an apex predator at this point.
Vegas over/under win total: 7.5
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
2019 record: 5-7
NFL Draft prospect to watch: EDGE Tarron Jackson
The case for: Bowling, baby. If everything goes right, the Chanticleers will be able to strut their stuff in bowl action this winter. Coastal Carolina has posted 5-7 records in each of their first two years in the FBS. They have the pieces to take a step forward. Our favorite might be monster DE Tarron Jackson, who led the conference with 10 sacks last season while playing on a meh (but crucially, not horrible) defense in 2019.
Where Jackson brings the thunder on the defensive side, it’s 1,000-yard rusher CJ Marable who plays Mr. Dependable on offense. Marable and Jackson are both upperclassmen who bring a wealth of experience on top of the talent, and as we’ve touched on elsewhere in this conference preview, experience is going to matter that much more without a real offseason.
There’s not a ton of oomph in this passing game, but both Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter -- who each saw starts last season -- are relatively accurate, dependable game managers. There’s not much “there” there with the receiving corps. Even without that extra gear through the air, CCU’s offense ranked 55th in the country in scoring last season, same as TCU’s, better than Texas A&M’s.
It’s not going to take a huge step forward to make a bowl. We think the Chanticleers get there.
The case against: We’ll agree with our more optimistic half that it’s not going to take a lot more to make a bowl. But it’s also a little more tricky than that. Eight of Coastal’s games last season were played within two possessions. That’ll happen when your offense scores almost exactly what the defense gives up. 30.3 points per game, 30.5 allowed. And that makes Coastal Carolina difficult to truly get a gauge on in terms of a projection.
You also have things like last season's 12-7 road win over Kansas factoring into that record -- we expect a much, much stronger showing from the Jayhawks in Week 2 this coming season, as the teams complete their home-and-home. And elsewhere in the non-con schedule, rather than a road trip to UMass as in 2019 (CCU won 62-28), this time around, it’ll be a road trip to South Carolina to open the season.
We won’t deny that there’s a potentially solid team, here -- it’s stacked on experience and returns 68% of its productive talent per ESPN’s Bill Connelly -- but 5-7 or even 4-8 is very much going to be in play, here. We’re talking about thin margins on this one. A common theme within the Sun Belt, where the talent tends to be more isolated than widespread on roster -- outside of Appalachian State and Louisiana.
Vegas over/under win total: 4.5
Georgia State Panthers
2019 record: 7-6
NFL Draft prospect to watch: LB Trajan Stephens-McQueen
The case for: If the Panthers are to hit bowl eligibility this fall, they’re going to have to capture lightning in the bottle at quarterback. Gone is serviceable two-year starter Dan Ellington, who threw for a 34/13 TD/INT ratio during his playing career at Georgia State. He’s now on staff as an offensive assistant, where he’ll aid the search for his on-field replacement. Whoever takes over for Ellington will be doing so essentially from scratch.
The contenders -- Cornelious Brown (redshirt freshman), Jamil Muhammad (redshirt freshman, originally transferred over from Vanderbilt), Mikele Colasurdo (three-star true freshman). Brown went 11-of-28 passing last season while backing up Ellington. And that’s all she wrote for games played in this lot. Like we said, gotta capture lightning in the bottle, here. There’s respectable three-star talent across the board, but more raw than a hamburger just thrown on the griddle
Making the job significantly easier for whoever wins that starting gig is budding star wideout Cornelius McCoy, who rocked a 70-757-5 receiving line as a true sophomore last season. And Athlon third-team All-Sun Belt preseason LB Trajan Stephens-McQueen, who led Georgia State in tackles last season with 110, gives the Panthers a defensive rock in a sea of pebbles (Georgia State ranked 121st in scoring defense last season).
There’s a narrow path to bowl eligibility. But it’s going to require a quick-to-polish gem in that quarterback room and it’s going to require McCoy to out-and-out excel.
The case against: Ellington’s departure is amplified to an exponential degree because of the coronavirus. It’s a nightmare. No real experience on roster. No spring practice to even see how these kids compare against each other. And that’s right now. Matters become even more complicated if COVID-19 were to hit the position room in August, forcing quarantines on more than one signal-caller.
It’s not just Ellington absent, though. So is RB Tra Minter. So is four-year starting left tackle Hunter Atkinson (the rest of Georgia State’s starting offensive line, at least, should remain intact). The returning defense, which was among the worst in the country last season, doesn’t come close to be able to hold the fort while the offense figures things out. It’s not realistic to expect miracles.
Vegas over/under win total: 5.5