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Darrynton Evans
AP
Team Previews

Sun Belt Preview

by Mark Lindquist
Updated On: June 29, 2019, 2:31 pm ET

Welcome to the start of the Rotoworld college football preview series! Leading up to the start of the season, we will be pumping out previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of RW analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios.

First up in our series, the Sun Belt. Conference USA and the Mountain West conference to follow next week.


Sun Belt Fantasy Projections

QuarterbackPaYDPaTDRuYDFPPG
Zac Thomas (Appalachian State, JR)25582342222
Fred Payton (Coastal Carolina, SO)17471120511
Shai Werts (Georgia Southern, JR)901579917
Dan Ellington (Georgia State, SR)26171558920
Kaleb Barker (Troy, SR)27471632817
Logan Bonner (Arkansas State, JR)30022333922
Levi Lewis (Louisiana, JR)18251212512
Cephus Johnson (South Alabama, SO)21781721415
Gresch Jensen (Texas State, JR)21081226215
Caleb Evans (Louisiana-Monroe, SR)31401859624

 

 

Running BackRuYDRuTDReYDFPPG
Elijah Mitchell (Louisiana, JR)9211020918
Marcel Murray (Arkansas State, SO)885820818
Trey Ragas (Louisiana, JR)980819118
B.J. Smith (Troy, SR)1065109517
Darrynton Evans (Appalachian State, JR)100769115
Tra Minter (South Alabama, SR)723519214
Torrance Marable (Coastal Carolina, JR)671516613
Logan Wright (Georgia Southern, SO)77871411
Tra Barnett (Georgia State, SR)52278111
Raymond Calais (Louisiana, SR)5165608
Wesley Kennedy III (Georgia Southern, JR)42731728
Jabir Daughtry-Frye (Troy, JR)33422128
Austin Vaughn (Louisiana-Monroe, SR)4544748
Marcus Williams (Appalachian State, JR)30731328
Matt LaRoche (Georgia Southern, SO)519567
Anthony D. Taylor (Texas State, SR)4914197
Seth Paige (Georgia State, SO)3324586
Terrion Avery (South Alabama, JR)3173185
Jacqez Hairston (Coastal Carolina, SO)329355
Camerun Peoples (Appalachian State, rFR)3073185

 

ReceiverRecReYDReTDFPPG
Kawaan Baker (South Alabama, JR)53780415
Kirk Merritt (Arkansas State, SR)69781515
Corey Sutton (Appalachian State, JR)48803716
Cornelius McCoy (Georgia State, SO)54718312
Ja'Marcus Bradley (Louisiana, SR)48654512
Reggie Todd (Troy, JR)49666412
Tray Eafford (Troy, JR)46561310
Dahu Green (Arkansas State, SR)4151549
Hutch White (Texas State, SR)5245039
Omar Bayless (Arkansas State, SR)4351539
Ky'Jon Tyler (Coastal Carolina, SR)4152229
Xavier Brown (Louisiana-Monroe, SR)3949539
Jeremiah Haydel (Texas State, JR)3356339
Markis McCray (Louisiana-Monroe, SR)4045029
Jarrod Jackson (Louisiana, SR)3248328
Davyn Flenord (South Alabama, SO)3442038
Jalen Tolbert (South Alabama, SO)3239727
Devin Gentry (Georgia State, SR)3037427
Calif Gossett (Louisiana, JR)2837927
Malik Williams (Appalachian State, JR)2831036
Thomas Hennigan (Appalachian State, JR)2729936
Eugene Minter (Arkansas State, JR)2632226
Khalil McClain (Troy, JR)2533326
Luke Whittemore (Troy, SO)2332125
Zachari Jackson (Louisiana-Monroe, SO)2331725
Jeremiah Miller (Coastal Carolina, SO)2430915

 

Projected Standings

East 

West 

Appalachian State 10-2 (7-1 in conference)

Arkansas State 9-3 (6-2 in conference)

Troy 9-3 (6-2 in conference)

Louisiana 8-4 (5-3 in conference)

Georgia Southern 8-4 (6-2 in conference)

UL-Monroe 5-7 (4-4 in conference)

Coastal Carolina 4-8 (2-6 in conference)

Texas State 3-10 (1-7 in conference)

Georgia State 3-9 (2-6 in conference)

South Alabama 1-11 (0-8 in conference)


Sun Belt East

Appalachian State

2018 record: 11-2 (7-1 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: RB Darrynton Evans. Evans is a versatile, dynamic back with plus speed and receiving chops who exploded after Jalin Moore went down injured last October.

 

The case for: This shouldn’t be too difficult. The Mountaineers are as stable a program as there is in the FBS and there is a bedrock foundation, here, for another dash to the Sun Belt. If only they had, say, Scott Satterfield at head coach. Instead, Satterfield is off recruiting Brock Purdy’s brother at Louisville.

Even without Satterfield, though, this team might well be the Group of 5’s answer to Alabama or Clemson, a perpetual winning machine that has pipelines of talent in the wings. Just look at what happened when Jalin Moore went down with a dislocated ankle last October.

Darrynton Evans came on without missing a beat, ultimately finishing with 1,187 yards (6.6 YPC) and seven touchdowns. A credit to Scott Satterfield for playing roster war games while just about everybody else in the conference plays CHUTES AND LADDERS.

But we’ll put away our Satterfield poster until it’s time for the ACC preview. It’s Eliah Drinkwitz, formerly of NC State and prior to that, Boise State, who will inherit this gold mine. Beyond Evans, there’s the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year in QB Zac Thomas and budding star WR Corey Sutton, who rocked a 44-773-10 receiving line in his first active year with the Mountaineers after transferring over from Kansas State (you’ll recall, Bill Snyder tried to block that transfer initially). Thomas isn’t a game-breaker of a quarterback, but fits Drinkwitz’s efficient spread concepts to a “T.”

And we have not even touched on the defense, which ranked fourth nationally on a per-game basis, allowing just 15.5 points per contest. The three teams ahead of them were Fresno State, Mississippi State and Clemson. Drinkwitz’s crew might be out CB Clifton Duck, but there is still enough wattage on this unit to power a small town for a year. Take a gander at LB Akeem Davis-Gaither, who rocked 96 tackles, nine of which went for loss last season, or star safety duo Desmond Franklin and Josh Thomas, who combined for eight (!) interceptions. 

Satterfield left Drinkwitz a bonanza. No excuses.

The case against: There is one sharp, sharp double-edge in Drinkwitz’s new job. Yes, he takes over a supremely-talented, experienced contender for the Sun Belt. But in the same breath, he receives no first year mulligan like so many other new coaches who take over bad teams.

There is built-in expectation with the Mountaineers, rightfully so given what they have on roster. An eight-win season would be a letdown. A nine-win season would be a vague step back. These are problems that Les Miles would kill to have. 

We trust this roster implicitly, but simply don’t know what we are going to get from Drinkwitz at the helm quite yet. We certainly know his offenses -- he and Zac Thomas should mesh well -- but there is an inherent, obvious difference, here, between this job and his previous stops.  

He takes over as a head coach for a program which not only expects success, but has been built to the point that they could spring an upset at any given opportunity (on that front, North Carolina and South Carolina should start feeling nervous now, we can already see a sad Mack Brown juxtaposed with a euphoric Drinkwitz).

 

Vegas over/under win total: 9

Prediction: OVER


Troy Trojans

2018 record: 10-3 (7-1 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: DE Jarvis Hayes. Hayes earned third-team All-Sun Belt recognition last season. Raw technically and all motor, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder will need a strong season, plus testing success, to land in the draft.

 

The case for: In life, in death, in all things, it would appear that Troy and Appalachian State mirror each other. It wouldn’t just do for one of the Sun Belt behemoths to lose their head coach. They had to both go out and do it. Unlike Appalachian State, the Trojans, who ultimately settled on briefly-lived Kansas OC Chip Lindsey, are going through a little more of a facelift.

While both Troy and App State bring back stud running backs in B.J. Smith and Darrynton Evans, respectively, and bring back elite G5 defenses, the Mountaineers face none of the quarterback questions which Troy faces with Kaleb Barker's recovery from a torn ACL.

Step into the spin room, though, because we think Troy has The Guy. Zac Thomas is Steady Eddie reliable, but we’ll wager on the upside of one Mr. Barker. Barker tore his ACL in one of the more brilliant individual games this author watched last season, with the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder hitting on 9-of-10 passes while rushing for 111 yards on just five carries against Georgia State on Oct. 4. That was all in the first half. 


Sawyer Smith finished the season out just fine in Barker’s absence, but with Smith transferring to Kentucky, this will be Barker's show in the fall. While that kind of performance against Georgia State won’t be an every-week kind of thing, it offered a tantalizing glimpse of what Barker is capable of when he gets hot. 

A fully weaponized Barker coupled with an all-conference standout running back in B.J. Smith, behind a line returning four of five starters and backed by a dare-you-to-run-on-us defense should make the entire conference feel uneasy.

The case against: We need to see just what stage Barker’s knee is actually at in August camp. On a “normal” timetable of six months, Barker should be able to hit the ground running in a month. The stark reality is that these things vary, though. 

And if Barker’s not ready, we are talking trouble. Troy's options beyond Barker are exceedingly unproven now that Smith has hit the door, and even if healthy, he will be tasked with working in a whole new receiving corps. He gives the Trojans a high ceiling, but the floor is low for comfort.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER


Georgia Southern Eagles

2018 record: 10-3 (6-2 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: CB Kindle Vildor. A physical, irritating corner who loves to thump and get under the skin of opposing wideouts, Vildor is the definition of a ballhawk, recording three interceptions and seven pass breakups last season.

 

The case for: The Eagles might just have had the most impressive turnaround in college football last season. It’s just that nobody noticed. Inheriting a 2-10 team, HC Chad Lunsford flipped the record on its head and entered November with an 8-0 record -- including a 20-point win against App State -- and a real shot at the Fun Belt.

Then they lost to Louisiana-Monroe. Then, even more crucially, they lost to Troy. Bye bye division, bye bye conference. Those would be the only two losses Lunsford’s boys suffered all season. 

The Eagles run a spicy triple-option with all kinds of wrinkles, and providing most of the heat would be QB Shai Werts. If MASTERCHEF’s Gordon Ramsey was judging Shai Werts’ performance last season, he would sigh, close his eyes for dramatic effect and then exclaim, “Bloody delicious.” 

Werts rushed for 908 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, but even more exciting, he garnished his season with a 10/0 TD/INT ratio. A competent triple-option quarterback throwing the ball is murder to contain. Bloody delicious, indeed. He even added a 40-yard punt just for good measure. 

Werts will need to keep a steady hand on the wheel this fall, as the lot around him -- especially at running back -- is one which has yet to spark. Expected starters Logan Wright and Matt LaRoche have combined for a total of 73 carries. Although, there’s a kicker with that: All 73 of those carries came last season. We are talking about recent experience, even if not volume.

If this team can survive a horror movie schedule (more on that in a moment), if Werts takes even another step forward, the Eagles are a legitimate contender to win the Sun Belt. Remember, conference titans Appalachian State and Troy both just lost brilliant coaches.

The case against: Landmines galore in this schedule. Georgia Southern opens against LSU, faces Minnesota and has the unenviable Appalachian State-Troy road two-step to overcome. That Mountaineers contest will take place on a Halloween Thursday. A ghoulish good time to pull an upset, but that is going to be a brutal environment. 

It’s difficult to see the Eagles coming out of the fall without at least three losses. No shade on Georgia Southern, though. This is absolutely a conference champion-caliber of team. They just happen to have a near-impossible gauntlet to navigate through. And we aren’t expecting another 10/0 TD/INT ratio from Werts, fun as that would be.

We should probably put the Gophs on upset alert, now, though.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER


Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

2018 record: 5-7 (2-6 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: EDGE Tarron Jackson. Jackson has yet to blossom as a true pass rusher, but is an active defender against the run. He will help his draft case if he shows more oomph against the pass this fall. Just 6.5 career sacks.

 

The case for: Sitting at 5-3 with four games remaining last season, the Chanticleers needed to win just one against a slate of App State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and South Alabama to go bowling. They lost all four. Ouch.

Still, it was a brush with respectability while still in FBS infancy. And a dose of reality in the same breath, as three of those four outfits are part of the cream of this conference crop. At season’s end, HC Joe Moglia ceded the post to OC Jamey Chadwell

Chadwell will have some toys to play with on offense. The shiniest of those is RB Torrance Marable, who should have no issue taking over for Marcus Outlow. Heck, he outplayed Outlow last season despite receiving 15 fewer carries, finishing the campaign with 719 yards at a 6.1 YPC clip on just 118 totes of the rock (contrast that to Outlow’s 661 yards).

The real question with Marable is how many carries he can handle. Outlow was a stocky 5-foot-10, 215 pounds. Marable in at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds. 

Marable also caught 15 balls and should grow into his receiving chops all the more this season, adding to a crew looking to make up for the departure of Malcolm Williams. But Williams is the only real loss from the receiving corp. From Marable to Virginia Tech transfer WR Stephen Denmark to deep-play threat Ky’Jon Tyler, all kinds of toys if Chadwell can find himself a quarterback.

At quarterback, potential starters Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter both proved capable of moving the offense last season -- Payton completed a smidge over 65% of his passes, Carpenter a smidge over 67%, both over 8.0 YPA with positive TD/INT ratios. Carpenter will give you a little shake ‘n’ bake as a runner, too.

It would probably be a stretch to call the Chanticleers one of the better offenses in the conference. But one of the more intriguing ones? Absolutely. They are not lacking for pieces on that side of the ball. Making matters all the easier for a potential Sun Belt push, CCU will not be punched in the mouth with the non-conference schedule -- they’re getting EMU, Kansas, Norfolk State and UMass. 

The case against: Even should it click for Chadwell’s offense, even if Marable comes out and does all kinds of fun things, this defensive crew might just negate their efforts. Coastal ranked an even 100th in the country in scoring defense last season. And they could be run on at will, allowing 244 yards per game, ranking 121st in the FBS on that front (still one spot better than Illinois, sorry Illinois). 

Most of the talent which let that mess happen returns. Looking at it charitably, the Chanticleers gained valuable experience last season, when things crumbled on them. Looking at it less charitably, there is a reason that the collapse occurred in the first place.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 4.5 

Prediction: UNDER


Georgia State Panthers

2018 record: 2-10 (1-7 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: T Hunter Atkinson. At 6-foot-5, 295 pounds, Atkinson is a little bit on the spindly side in terms of tackle prospects and could stand to add bulk (that frame can carry more). He will need to test very well in Indianapolis, as he is not the most polished of prospects and plays in a conference that rarely tests him athletically.

 

The case for: While it’s impossible to write a Georgia State preview without mentioning Penny Hart, his loss might sting a little less than it would outwardly seem. This is a team geared to run, with a quarterback at his best with lanes at his disposal, under a new offensive coordinator in Brad Glenn (formerly of West Carolina), who has experience coaching up dual-threat options.

Yes, pour one out for Penny Hart, but then raise a glass to QB Dan Ellington, Georgia State’s best chance at leveling up this season. The JUCO transfer totaled 17 touchdowns a year ago. Hart’s loss certainly stings, but there’s a balm for that. 

Consider us smitten kittens for Cornelius McCoy, who went 35-495-1 as a three-star true freshman in 2018. If Ellington can threaten 1,000 yards rushing -- we think he can after he went for 625 yards a year ago -- and if sophomore RB Seth Paige can turn flash into polaroid after teasing with a 145-yard effort midseason against Louisiana-Monroe, this is not a program so far removed from success that they have forgotten what it tastes like.

The case against: Well they lost Penny Hart, if you had not heard. That will change the offense, even if GSU does manage to come out the other side playing up more to their strengths on the ground while breaking in a new batch of receivers. 

No longer will Ellington have a quicker-than-quick baby blanket with bear trap hands when he is feeling the pressure. For now, until a McCoy or Tamir Jones or pick-unestablished-GSU-wideout proves it, Ellington is going to have to carry that much more of the weight. 

Of course, Hart was on this team last season, and they finished 2-10 anyway. That’s because...drumroll...they had a horrible defense. The Panthers sludged their way to the November finish line the owners of the No. 122 scoring defense in the country. They were even worse by Bill Connelly’s S&P+, which placed them at No. 127. Yikes. 

Strengths in an experienced front progressively meld into a soft middle and a downright porous secondary. While the Jaguars can handle opposing running games, their secondary was more green than the guy on the Lucky Charms box last season. So it will be again. Outside of leading secondary tackler in S Remy Lazarus, entering his senior year, every single member of the prospective starting batch this fall will be a sophomore.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 4.5

Prediction: UNDER

Mark Lindquist
Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.