Predictions for the Sun Belt’s 2020 season start with two familiar names atop the conference. Appalachian State and Louisiana have won their respective divisions and met in the league title game in back-to-back years, and both programs find themselves in the same position in the projections for 2020. The Mountaineers are on their third coach in three years, but there’s a strong foundation in place for Shawn Clark’s debut. The Ragin’ Cajuns bring back 14 starters, with coach Billy Napier’s squad eager to close the gap to the Mountaineers.
Arkansas State and Georgia Southern headline the next tier of teams, with Troy, Coastal Carolina, and Georgia State likely battling to get bowl eligible. The bottom tier of the conference features South Alabama, ULM, and Texas State. Replacing quarterback Caleb Evans won't be easy for the Warhawks, while the Bobcats hope to take a big step forward in coach Jake Spavital's second year.
Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2020, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for the Sun Belt in 2020:
Sun Belt 2020 Predictions
1. Appalachian State*
The Mountaineers have a new coach (Shawn Clark), but don’t expect many things to change in Boone. Clark – the program’s third coach in three years – has a strong foundation in place on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Zac Thomas is back, along with standout receivers Corey Sutton and Thomas Hennigan, the Sun Belt’s top offensive line, and a couple of options to fill the void left by running back Darrynton Evans. Appalachian State’s defense held offenses to just 20 points a game in 2019 and is anchored by standouts Demetrius Taylor (DL), D’Marco Jackson (LB), and Shaun Jolly (CB). Games against Wake Forest and Wisconsin are huge opportunities, but the Mountaineers’ toughest matchups in league play – Louisiana and Arkansas State – take place in Boone.
2. Georgia Southern*
The gap between Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in the projected 130 for 2020 is significant, but coach Chad Lunsford’s squad should earn its third straight bowl trip. Quarterback Shai Werts directs an option attack that averaged 253.2 rushing yards a game in 2019, with running backs Wesley Kennedy and J.D. King providing support. Some retooling is needed up front, and the Eagles could use more big plays (only two of 40 yards or more) in the passing game. There’s room to improve on defense after giving up 6.1 yards a play in Sun Belt contests last fall. Raymond Johnson III is back to anchor the line, and the linebacker unit should be among the best in the conference. Big concerns remain in the secondary following the departure of cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson and safety Donald Rutledge.
Chip Lindsey’s second year at Troy begins with a big question mark at quarterback. Kaleb Barker (3,628 yards and 30 TDs) finished his eligibility at the end of the 2019 season, leaving Parker McNeil, Gunnar Watson and Jacob Free to battle for the job. Whichever quarterback gets the nod under center inherits one of the Sun Belt’s top receiving corps, along with the return of running back B.J. Smith after missing most of 2019 due to a knee injury. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem, but Troy has to improve on defense after giving up 34.8 points a contest and 6.2 yards a snap last year. Linebacker Carlton Martial is an All-America candidate after racking up 126 tackles (18.5 for a loss) in 2019. With a handful of swing games at home – Georgia State, Coastal Carolina and ULM – some improvement on defense, combined with a quarterback emerging provides a path to bowl eligibility for the Trojans.
4. Georgia State
If the Panthers find a quarterback to replace Dan Ellington, coach Shawn Elliott’s squad should make its third bowl trip in four years. Freshman Cornelious Brown gained valuable experience last season and will compete with fellow freshmen Kierston Harvey, Mikele Colasurdo, and Vanderbilt transfer Jamil Muhammad for the starting nod. The rest of the offense is in good shape, as four starters are back to anchor the line, four of the top five receiver return, and the one-two punch of Destin Coates and Seth Paige will fill the void left behind by Tra Barnett at running back. Georgia State’s defense has plenty of room to improve after allowing 36.2 points a game and 6.7 yards a snap. The good news: The returning group is experienced. The Panthers bring back nine starters and add a couple of Power 5 transfers to add more depth and talent. A schedule that features road trips to Troy, Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Charlotte and Alabama won't be easy to navigate.
5. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers finished 5-7 in Jamey Chadwell’s first year as the full-time head coach, but this program was on the cusp of something better with four losses coming by seven points or less. A run to a bowl game is within reach for 2020. Chadwell has two experienced quarterbacks to choose from in Fred Payton or Bryce Carpenter, with four starters back along a solid offensive line. Running back CJ Marable averaged 118.2 all-purpose yards a game last season and is one of the top returning playmakers in the Sun Belt for 2020. Six starters return from a defense that allowed 30.5 points a game last fall, but the secondary is under construction. End Tarron Jackson (10 sacks) is one of the league’s top linemen, and the return of linebacker Silas Kelly from injury is a boost to the run defense.
The Ragin’ Cajuns posted the best season in school history last fall by winning 11 games, claiming their second Sun Belt West Division title in a row, and defeated Miami (Ohio) for the program’s first bowl victory since 2014. With 18 wins and back-to-back division titles, the only missing piece in coach Billy Napier’s successful two-year stint in Lafayette is a Sun Belt title. Louisiana has the necessary pieces in place to do just that in 2020. An offense that averaged 37.9 points a game last fall is led by quarterback Levi Lewis (3,050 yards and 26 TDs) and the dynamic one-two punch at running back of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas. Go-to receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley has to be replaced, but there’s talent waiting to step up, and the line is among the best in the conference. The defense showed marked improvement last fall, holding teams to just 19.7 points a contest after allowing 34.2 a game in ’18. New coordinator Patrick Toney should be able to build on that success with seven starters back. The Ragin’ Cajuns catch Appalachian State in the regular season once again in Boone. That game could be crucial for home-field advantage in the conference title game and should be the first of two meetings between these programs.
Related: Sun Belt 2020 All-Conference Team
2. Arkansas State*
High-scoring and entertaining back-and-forth games could be a staple of the 2020 season for Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have significant concerns on a defense that allowed 34.2 points a game last year, and only three starters are back this fall. A healthy season out of lineman Forrest Merrill should help, and the addition of UConn transfer Tahj Herring-Wilson is a boost for a rebuilding secondary. While the defense has its share of question marks, scoring points won’t be a problem for coach Blake Anderson’s squad. The Red Wolves have two capable quarterbacks – Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher – ready to direct an offense that averaged 33.7 points a game last season and scored at least 30 points in 10 contests. Jonathan Adams will slide into the No. 1 receiving role to replace Omar Bayless, with Marcel Murray (820 yards) anchoring the ground attack. The offensive line allowed 40 sacks last fall but all five starters are set to return. Road trips to Michigan, Memphis, Appalachian State, and Louisiana dot the schedule, but Arkansas State’s high-powered offense should be enough for the program to go bowling for the 10th consecutive year.
3. South Alabama
The Jaguars are hoping for a breakthrough in coach Steve Campbell’s third year at the helm. Finding a spark for an offense that managed only 18.4 points a game in 2019 is the top priority this offseason. Desmond Trotter showed late-season promise at quarterback, and there are big-play weapons on the outside in the form of Kawaan Baker and Jalen Tolbert. Four starters are back up front, but there’s a significant vacancy at running back with Tra Minter out of eligibility. South Alabama’s defense cut its yards per play allowed by a full yard last season, but a rebuilt line is a concern for 2020. The situation is better at linebacker and in the secondary. The Jaguars host key swing contests versus Texas State, ULM and Georgia State in new Hancock Whitney Stadium. If Trotter picks up where he left off at the end of 2019, Campbell’s team should show improvement in the win column.
ULM is a tough job, but Matt Viator guided the program to six wins in 2018 and just missed a bowl last fall with a 5-7 mark. Getting to the postseason in 2020 will require a quarterback to emerge to replace Caleb Evans, who ranked second in the Sun Belt by averaging 311.1 total yards a game last fall. Sophomore Colby Suits is the early favorite to replace Evans, but junior college recruit Jeremy Hunt will also get a look. Running back Josh Johnson (1,298 yards) is back after a breakout year, and most of the receiving corps returns, including All-Sun Belt tight end Josh Pederson. Defense has been an issue for ULM over the last couple of seasons, and there’s a lot of work ahead for Viator and coordinator Mike Collins after surrendering 38.7 points a game and 6.7 yards a snap in 2019. Cornerback Corey Straughter is one of the top Group of 5 defenders, and with seven other starters back, there’s hope for improvement.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
5. Texas State
The Bobcats have won three or fewer games in each of the last five seasons, and with nine returning starters back for 2020, second-year coach Jake Spavital has his work cut out for him once again. The former West Virginia offensive coordinator could turn to Memphis transfer Brady McBride over Tyler Vitt at quarterback to spark an offense that managed only 18.4 points a game in 2019. Junior college transfer Brock Sturges was a key pickup at running back, and four of the team’s top six statistical receivers from last year are back. Spavital has only two starters returning up front, but there’s hope for improvement if McBride is an upgrade at quarterback. The Bobcats ranked third in conference-only games by holding teams to 5.6 yards a snap last fall. Repeating or improving on those numbers will require some retooling, especially at linebacker following the departure of Bryan London, Nikolas Daniels and Frankie Griffin. Exceeding last year’s three wins would be a good 2020 for Spavital in his rebuilding effort in San Marcos.
Sun Belt Championship
Louisiana over Appalachian State
* Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
Sun Belt 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
Sun Belt 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Zac Thomas, QB, Appalachian State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Zac Thomas, QB, Appalachian State
Pick by Mark Ross: Zac Thomas, QB, Appalachian State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Carlton Martial, LB, Troy
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Carlton Martial, LB, Troy
Pick by Mark Ross: Carlton Martial, LB, Troy
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Billy Napier, Louisiana
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Billy Napier, Louisiana
Pick by Mark Ross: Billy Napier, Louisiana
Coach on the Hot Seat
Pick by Steven Lassan: Steve Campbell, South Alabama
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Steve Campbell, South Alabama
Pick by Mark Ross: Steve Campbell, South Alabama
Pick by Steven Lassan: Reginald Johnson, WR, Louisiana
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Christian Wells, WR, Appalachian State
Pick by Mark Ross: Corbet Mims, DL, Arkansas State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Brady McBride, QB, Texas State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Toryque Bateman, OT, Troy
Pick by Mark Ross: Parker McNeil, QB, Troy
Pick by Steven Lassan: Georgia State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Troy
Pick by Mark Ross: Troy
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: Arkansas State DL
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Louisiana WR
Pick by Mark Ross: Arkansas State DL
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Patrick Toney, DC, Louisiana
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Dale Jones, DC, Appalachian State
Pick by Mark Ross: Tony Petersen, OC, Appalachian State
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: Troy
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Georgia State
Pick by Mark Ross: Texas State
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Billy Napier, HC, Louisiana
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Matt Viator, HC, ULM
Pick by Mark Ross: Billy Napier, HC, Louisiana
Pick by Steven Lassan: Louisiana at Appalachian State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Louisiana at Appalachian State
Pick by Mark Ross: Louisiana at Appalachian State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Jalen Tolbert, WR, South Alabama
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Trajan Stephens-McQueen, LB, Georgia State
Pick by Mark Ross: Marcus Williams, RB, Appalachian State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Forrest Merrill, DL, Arkansas State
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Silas Kelly, LB, Coastal Carolina
Pick by Mark Ross: B.J. Smith, RB, Troy