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Sun Belt Football 2022 Predictions

Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers Football

The Sun Belt is bigger and better than ever in 2022. The additions of Marshall, Southern Miss, Old Dominion and James Madison bring the conference to 14 members and boost the overall profile of the league now and into the future. The Thundering Herd are one of four teams poised to challenge for the East Division crown, as Appalachian State, Georgia State and Coastal Carolina all have a case as the preseason favorite on that side. The Monarchs should build off a strong finish to '21 under coach Ricky Rahne, and the Dukes will push for a winning record in their first season at the FBS level. Georgia Southern is a team in transition under new coach Clay Helton.

The league's top teams reside in the East this year, but there's no shortage of intrigue in the West. Louisiana has won the West Division four seasons in a row and is likely to be favored to do so once again under new coach Michael Desormeaux. However, Desormeaux has big shoes to fill in replacing Billy Napier, and the Ragin' Cajuns lost quarterback Levi Levis and must restock up front. South Alabama and Troy could push for the division title with improvement on offense in '22. Look for Southern Miss to take a step forward in coach Will Hall's second year, with Texas State, Arkansas State and ULM in the next tier to round out the West.

How does Athlon Sports project the Sun Belt Conference for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the SBC for this fall:

Sun Belt Football 2022 Predictions

East Division

1. Appalachian State
Any of the projected top four teams – Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State and Marshall – could win the Sun Belt East in ’22. The Mountaineers get a slight edge here thanks to coach Shawn Clark’s team returning 13 starters from a squad that won the division and a total of 10 games last fall. Quarterback Chase Brice (3,337 yards and 27 TDs) is one of the Sun Belt’s top returning signal-callers after directing a productive group (34.5 points a game and 6.3 yards per snap) last fall. The backfield is deep once again with Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples back after combining for 2,052 yards and 18 touchdowns in ’21. New play-caller Kevin Barbay also inherits a strong offensive line but needs to identify new playmakers at receiver after Corey Sutton, Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams departed. The ’21 season marked the eighth consecutive year Appalachian State ranked inside of the top four of the Sun Belt in yards per play allowed, and this group gave up just 22.1 points a game over 14 contests. A strong track record on defense suggests the transition time will be minimal on this side of the ball. However, a couple of key stalwarts – linebackers D’Marco Jackson and T.D. Roof, linemen Caleb Spurlin and Demetrius Taylor and defensive backs Shaun Jolly and Kaiden Smith – have departed. Linebackers Nick Hampton, Brendan Harrington and Trey Cobb lead the next wave of stars on defense, and cornerback Steven Jones Jr. leads the way for a secondary that led the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense in ’21.

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2. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers have been one of the top Group of 5 programs over the last two seasons with a 22-3 overall mark and just two losses in Sun Belt play in that span. Another year of double-digit wins won’t be easy, as coach Jamey Chadwell will be busy this offseason with just six returning starters. Of course, the transition on both sides of the ball is eased with quarterback Grayson McCall (287.5 total yards a game) returning. Helping McCall pilot an offense that averaged 40.9 points a game and 7.7 yards per play in ’21 is the one-two punch of Braydon Bennett and Reese White at running back, and the losses in the receiving corps – Jaivon Heiligh and tight end Isaiah Likely – are eased by the arrival of Georgia State transfer Sam Pinckney. Only two starters are back in the trenches, but both are among the Sun Belt’s top returning linemen – center Willie Lampkin and right tackle Anwine Loper. The effort to reload is greater on defense. The Chanticleers bring back only two starters from a group that held teams to 21.6 points a game, 5.2 yards per play and ranked fourth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense last fall. Jarrod Clark is one of the two returning starters and Josaiah Stewart (15.5 TFL) is a rising star after playing in all 13 games last fall. Transfers have eased some of the concerns at linebacker and in the secondary – along with the return of standout corner D’Jordan Strong – but this unit may take a few games to jell. Despite all of the turnover, McCall’s return is more than enough for Coastal Carolina to win the Sun Belt again, especially if this team can navigate road dates at Georgia State and Marshall with Appalachian State coming to Conway.

3. Georgia State
The Panthers surged at the end of the ’21 season by winning seven out of their last eight games. In that stretch, coach Shawn Elliott’s squad beat Coastal Carolina and crushed Ball State 51-20 in the Camellia Bowl, while the only defeat came at Louisiana (21-17). With 15 starters back, Elliott has a team capable of winning the Sun Belt. Darren Grainger’s emergence at quarterback was a driving force behind the in-season improvement, totaling 2,361 overall yards and 22 scores. Tucker Gregg (953 yards) and Jamyest Williams (859) lead a ground attack that averaged 226.4 rushing yards a game in ’21. Four returning starters anchor a strong offensive line. After showing signs of improvement on defense last season, the Panthers hope to take another step forward thanks to the return of seven starters, including safety Antavious Lane, linebacker Blake Carroll and lineman Thomas Gore. This unit generated 38 sacks but gave up 27.1 points a game and struggled to get stops on third down (ninth in Sun Belt). There’s room to grow on this side of the ball to complement an emerging offense. Road treks to Marshall, Appalachian State and James Madison won’t be easy in league play, and the non-conference slate features Army, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Related: Sun Belt 2022 All-Conference Team

4. Marshall
The Thundering Herd return only seven starters for second-year coach Charles Huff, but there’s enough talent on the roster to push for the Sun Belt East Division title. Until Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi settles at quarterback under new play-caller Clint Trickett, the offense can lean on running back Rasheen Ali (1,401 yards and 23 TDs). A revamped line with four new starters might hinder Ali’s production early in the ’22 campaign. Marshall also has a good set of receivers on the outside, including Corey Gammage (78 catches) and Jayden Harrison. The Thundering Herd return four starters from a defense that held teams to 23.8 points a game and 5.1 yards per play last season. Led by cornerbacks Steven Gilmore and Micah Abraham, this defense paced Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only 54.2 percent of their throws. Upgrading the run defense (10th in Conference USA) is a priority, which is why Huff sought help through the transfer portal in the form of Isaiah Gibson (Kentucky), Quentin Williams (Miami), and Anthony Watts (Purdue). The linebacker unit should also rank among the best in the Sun Belt thanks to the return of Abraham Beauplan and Eli Neal. With Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State all coming to Huntington, the Thundering Herd has a favorable path to the top spot in the East.

5. Old Dominion
After not playing in the 2020 season, it was no surprise Old Dominion started slow under first-year coach Ricky Rahne last fall. However, the Monarchs found their footing by midseason and reeled off five consecutive victories in the regular season to earn a bowl trip. This team also lost three games by one score, so Rahne and his staff clearly have this program trending up going into ’22. The move to the Sun Belt, along with a tough non-conference schedule, won’t make life any easier for ODU this fall. Despite those challenges, Rahne has the pieces in place to improve offensively (27.6 points a game in ’21) with four starters returning up front, running back Blake Watson (1,112 yards), receiver Ali Jennings III and tight end Zack Kuntz. Hayden Wolff is back at quarterback, but Brendon Clark and D.J. Mack will push him for the starting job. Old Dominion’s defense was tough against the run (third in C-USA) but has room to improve after giving up 27.3 points a game last fall. Safety R’Tarriun Johnson (91 tackles) leads the way in a secondary aiming to improve after finishing eighth in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense in ’21.

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6. James Madison
The Dukes are the newest program at the FBS level, and while they won’t be eligible for a bowl or the Sun Belt title in ’22, this team will be a tough out in conference play. Coach Curt Cignetti has guided JMU to a 33-5 mark over the last three years and an appearance in the ’19 FCS Championship Game. Replacing quarterback Cole Johnson is the biggest question mark on an offense that averaged 38.3 points a game last fall. Colorado State transfer Todd Centeio is the name to watch under center, but the strength of the offense rests with a deep backfield. Pitt transfer A.J. Davis joins a group that includes Percy Agyei-Obese (missed ’21 due to injury) and Latrele Palmer. Receiver Kris Thornton (1,097 yards) is among the top playmakers on the outside in the Sun Belt. Three starters are back up front, but there’s some turnover on the left side of the line. Five starters return from a dominant defense (15.4 points a game and 275.2 yards a game), but this unit suffered a late setback in the summer when linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey transferred to Texas. Lineman Isaac Ukwu should push for All-Sun Belt honors this fall. Transitioning and developing the depth and talent to compete for conference titles at the FBS level will take some time. However, James Madison should be competitive right away and a winning record is within reach in ’22.

7. Georgia Southern
The hire of former USC coach Clay Helton and subsequent scheme shift away from the option has added a layer of intrigue to Georgia Southern this fall. Also, reloading or transitioning in a deep division (Sun Belt East) is not going to be easy. However, the Eagles have an experienced roster (12 returning starters) and added a few impact transfers, including former Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease. The backfield is deep with J.D. King, Gerald Green and Jalen White, and Vantrease has capable weapons at receiver with Khaleb Hood, Amare Jones and Jeremy Singleton out wide. Four starters are back along a line that allowed 28 sacks last fall and this group as a whole must adjust to a new offensive scheme and philosophy. New coordinator Will Harris has work to do on a defense that allowed 31.4 points a game, 6.4 yards per play and struggled mightily against the pass. A healthy Derrick Canteen will help at cornerback, and the line features a couple of all-conference candidates in Justin Ellis and Dillon Springer, along with North Carolina transfer Kristian Varner. How fast Helton can put the pieces into place on offense and find improvement on defense will determine just how high this team will climb in ’22.

West Division

1. Louisiana
Despite a significant amount of turnover in personnel and on the coaching staff, the Ragin’ Cajuns are still the team to beat in the Sun Belt’s West Division. Louisiana won the West all four years under Billy Napier and got over the hump for the conference title in ’21 with a 24-16 victory over Appalachian State. The program hopes to maintain that success under former quarterback and new coach Michael Desormeaux, who started his tenure with a win over Marshall in the New Orleans Bowl. Desormeaux’s first priority is to find a replacement for Levi Lewis under center – likely sophomore Chandler Fields – and restock a standout line that returns only one starter. Although turnover at those spots won’t be easy to navigate, Desormeaux has a solid collection of skill talent returning, including running back Chris Smith (844 yards) and receivers Peter LeBlanc and Michael Jefferson. The Ragin’ Cajuns lost a chunk of talent on defense as well, but this unit can lean on some of its established depth stepping into bigger roles to ease the transition. Standout Zi’Yon Hill returns up front, while cornerback Eric Garror and safeties Bralen Trahan and Kam Pedescleaux anchor the secondary. The schedule also breaks in Louisiana’s favor. Both Troy and South Alabama come to Lafayette, and Desormeaux’s squad misses Georgia State, Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina in crossover play.

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2. South Alabama
Louisiana is vulnerable at the top of the Sun Belt West, so with small improvement on offense (24.9 points a game last year), South Alabama could push for a division title in coach Kane Wommack’s second season. The Jaguars averaged 5.2 yards per play last fall and struggled to convert third downs, largely a result of an inconsistent offensive line and sluggish ground game (111.4 rushing yards a game). The quarterback battle between Carter Bradley and Desmond Trotter will extend into the fall. Replacing No. 1 receiver Jalen Tolbert won’t be easy, but Jalen Wayne (53 catches in ’21) is primed for a huge year. While the list of concerns on offense is lengthy, it’s a different story on defense. South Alabama held teams to 26.4 points a game and 5.4 yards per snap, while also ranking third in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. Cornerback Darrell Luther Jr. is a lockdown coverman on the outside, and Wommack has a deep front to attack opposing Sun Belt offensive lines. Also, South Alabama won’t have to play any of the projected top four teams from the Sun Belt East in the regular season.

Related: Sun Belt 2022 All-Conference Team

3. Troy
The Trojans made a strong hire in bringing Kentucky assistant and Alabama native Jon Sumrall back to Troy. Sumrall worked on Neal Brown’s staff from 2015-17 before spending the last four seasons as an assistant in the SEC. Although Troy hasn’t had a winning record since ’18, the cupboard isn’t bare here. Linebacker Carlton Martial leads a loaded defense that led the Sun Belt in fewest yards per play allowed (5.1) and features the top line in the conference thanks to the return of Will Choloh, Javon Solomon and Richard Jibunor. The Trojans will need to lean on their defense until the offense works things out behind new play-caller Joe Craddock. Nine starters are back on this side of the ball, but this unit averaged only 22.8 points a game and 5.1 yards per play in ’21. Quarterback Gunnar Watson will be pushed by Utah transfer Peter Costelli and Quayde Hawkins for the starting nod. There’s good skill talent returning, including running back Kimani Vidal and receiver Tez Johnson. Also, four starters are back up front.

4. Southern Miss
Injuries to the quarterback position wreaked havoc on Will Hall’s first season in Hattiesburg. To illustrate how dire the situation was: Eleven players attempted a pass, four different players started under center and no signal-caller threw for more than 843 yards. By the end of ’21, Hall shifted to a Wildcat look with running back Farnk Gore Jr. for the final weeks of the season, which resulted in the team winning two in a row. With better luck and a healthy quarterback room, don’t be surprised if the Golden Eagles show marked improvement in Hall’s second year. Gore returns to anchor the ground game, receiver Jason Brownlee (46 catches for 643 yards) is back, and quarterback Ty Keyes is a promising player for the offense to build around. Despite the offensive struggles and bad field position by lost turnovers (31), Southern Miss’ defense more than held its own. This group limited teams to 27.9 points a game and led Conference USA in red zone defense. Rebuilding the front is the top priority for coordinator Austin Armstrong, but the linebacker and secondary units should be a strength. Also, Hall and the staff have added reinforcements to this group through the portal.

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5. Texas State
With a 9-27 mark through three years, coach Jake Spavital heads into ’22 facing an important season and needing to show progress. The good news: The Bobcats won four games last fall – the highest mark since ’14 – and lost three games by one score. Spavital hopes the addition of Arkansas State transfer Layne Hatcher at quarterback sparks an offense that averaged only 23.1 points a game and 4.9 yards per play last season. Marcell Barbee and Javen Banks lead a talented receiving corps, and the Bobcats won’t lack for options at running back with Calvin Hill and Jahmyl Jeter returning. Depth up front is a concern, but the starters are solid, especially left tackle Dalton Cooper and center Russell Baker. Spavital needs a big jump in performance from his defense after surrendering more than 30 points in each of the last three years. Stopping the run (183.6 yards a game) and the pass (eighth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense) was a problem in 2021. Additions through the portal should help improve the depth, but even if the offense improves with Hatcher at the controls, getting to a bowl will require some improvement out of this group.

6. Arkansas State
The Red Wolves bottomed out in Butch Jones’ debut last year, as the 2-10 record was the program’s lowest mark since ’01. But the news in Jonesboro wasn’t all bad, as Arkansas State inked one of the top recruiting hauls in the Sun Belt to provide hope for the future. With the program in rebuilding mode, small signs of progress will be welcomed in ’22. The roster isn’t completely bare either. An offense that ranked fifth in the Sun Belt in scoring (25.2 points a game) and yards per play (5.5) has a good starting point with the return of quarterback James Blackman and receivers Jeff Foreman and Te'Vailance Hunt. However, just one starter returns along a line that allowed 48 sacks and averaged 2.8 yards per carry. The Red Wolves also need marked improvement on defense after a porous ’21 season. This group surrendered 38.6 points a game, ranked last in the Sun Belt against the run (260.9 yards allowed) and in yards per play (7.2). There’s major turnover at all three levels, but linebacker Kivon Bennett (eight sacks) returns, and Jones has sought immediate improvement through the portal.

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7. ULM
There was considerable progress in Monroe last year under new coach Terry Bowden. ULM finished 2010 with a disastrous 0-10 record but improved to 4-8 with two wins in Sun Belt play last fall. Exceeding preseason expectations once again wouldn’t be a surprise with Bowden’s ability to get the most out of the roster. But the Warhawks will have to overcome new (but experienced) play-callers on both sides of the ball (Matt Kubik and Vic Koenning) and plenty of roster concerns. Quarterback Chandler Rogers (1,674 total yards) showed promise last year and top target Boogie Knight (44 catches) is back on the outside. Better play along the line of scrimmage (38 sacks allowed) and ground game (3.1 yards per carry) is a must. ULM’s defense surrendered 33.5 points a game, ranked last in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense, and finished eighth against the run last year. Koenning has some heavy lifting to do in order to get this group to the middle of the conference, but there are building blocks in the front thanks to the return of lineman Caleb Thomas and linebacker Zack Woodard. The post-spring departure of cornerback Josh Newton was a setback for the secondary.

Sun Belt Championship: Appalachian State over Louisiana

Podcast: Previewing and a Deep Dive + Predictions on the Group of 5 Conferences for 2022