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College football 2018: Sun Belt Conference preview

Sun Belt

Leading up to the kickoff of the 2018 college football season, The Game Haus has been previewing each FBS conference and those independent teams. Today, we conclude with the Sun Belt, which is down to 10 teams, but divided into two divisions and will hold a conference championship game for the first time.

Here we go.

Predictions

EAST DIVISION

1. Troy
The Trojans have won 21 games the last two seasons, with last year’s 11 their most since joining the FBS. They’ll have to replace record-holding quarterback Brandon Silvers and running back Jordan Chunn, but the defense is experienced after giving up 336.6 yards per game in 2017.

2. Appalachian State
With all-Sun Belt running back Jalin Moore and some talent on the offensive line returning, the Mountaineers should again challenge Troy for the top spot in the East even though four-year starting quarterback Taylor Lamb is gone. The defense will also see some new faces in the starting unit.

Sun Belt
Penny Hart (Photo by georgiastatesports.com)

3. Georgia State
There should be plenty of excitement surrounding the Panthers program after finishing 7-5 and winning the first bowl game in its five-year FBS history. Though quarterback is a question mark, receiver Penny Hart is back after leading the Sun Belt with 1,121 receiving yards on 74 catches plus eight touchdowns.

4. Georgia Southern
Chad Lunsford begins his first full season as head coach after replacing Tyson Summers following a 0-6 start last year. The Eagles strength could be on defense, where they will be experienced and showed promise by holding opponents to an average of 20 points in the final five games.

5. Coastal Carolina
Coastal blossomed into a perennially strong FCS program, but naturally, the transition to the FBS won’t be smooth. The Chanticleers won their final two games to finish 3-9 last year, but have some key holes to fill on both sides. Coach Joe Moglia is back after missing 2017 with a health issue.

WEST DIVISION

1. Arkansas State
Seven straight winning seasons have resulted in seven consecutive bowl appearances, and that should not change this year. Returning quarterback Justice Hansen (3,967 passing yards, 37 touchdowns) is the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. He has a good supporting cast around him, but defensively, the Red Wolves have some key pieces to replace.

Sun Belt
Caleb Evans (Photo by the newsstar.com)

2. Louisiana-Monroe
With versatile quarterback Caleb Evans (17 passing touchdowns, 13 rushing in ’17), the Warhawks should again have no trouble scoring (33.9 points per game last year). However, they must figure out a way to keep opponents from doing the same (41.0 allowed).

3. Louisiana
Three straight losing seasons cost Mark Hudspeth his job after seven years. Billy Napier, who has ACC, SEC and Pac-12 ties, takes over and has some potential playmakers on offense. The defense, which allowed 50 or more points four times last season, obviously needs some work.

4. South Alabama
Joey Jones, the only coach in the program’s brief history of football, resigned late during a 2017 season where the Jaguars finished 4-8. Steve Campbell, who enjoyed success at FCS Central Arkansas, inherits a squad with some solid experience on defense and questions on offense.

5. Texas State
In his third year, coach Everett Withers will be under the microscope following back-to-back 2-10 seasons. The Bobcats need to stockpile wins early because their final three games are against Appalachian State, Troy and Arkansas State.

Players to watch

Sun Belt
Jalin Moore (Photo by gettyimages.com)

OFFENSE
Jalin Moore, RB, Appalachian State: In three seasons, Moore has rushed for 3,170 yards (6.1 per carry) and 27 touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if he also has success at the next level.

DEFENSE
Hunter Reese, DL, Troy: Reese enjoyed a break out 2017 season while recording 6 1/2 sacks and 14 tackles for loss en route to receiving all-Sun Belt honors.

 

Key Games

Sept. 1: Boise State at Troy. The Trojans won at LSU last year and gave Clemson all it could handle in 2016. Getting the Broncos at home to open the season should be fun.

Sept. 22: UNLV at Arkansas State. The Rebels aren’t exactly a national power, but this is still a respectable name and a decent-size program coming to Jonesboro.

Nov. 24: Troy at Appalachian State. The winner of the East Division could be determined with this result. Troy snapped a three-game slide in the series with a home victory last season.

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