At the end of each conference run-through (previously: Conference USA), I take a look at how I perceive the conference's balance of power heading into the season. This is in no way based on schedules, so they are not predictions. They're just how I would rank the teams after writing thousands of words about each of them.
Last year's Sun Belt race featured a plot twist we didn't expect. On a Thursday night in October, Appalachian State pulled away from Georgia Southern in a battle of what had been easily the two best teams in the conference. It was the Mountaineers' race to lose ... and they lost it two weeks later, getting pummeled by a late-peaking Arkansas State at home.
The Red Wolves swept through Boone, didn't have to face Georgia Southern, and took home the crown. After all the talk about the conference newcomers, an old hand secured the title.
It's likely that the 2016 winner will again be one of those three, and damned if I'm having trouble deciding between them.
So we're going to go with this. My temptation was to rank them 1a, 1b, and 1c, but that's lame, even for me.
I went with a Goldilocks approach. I think Arkansas State has the highest floor, and I think Georgia Southern has the highest ceiling. But the Red Wolves are breaking in a new starting quarterback, and Georgia Southern is both breaking in a new secondary and making tweaks to its brilliant offensive system. That has me nervous.
Appalachian State is just right. The Mountaineers feel like the safest pick, but make no mistake: any separation here is by millimeters.
The numbers don't like Arkansas State very much, but pay only so much heed, because transfers don't count toward recruiting rankings. If transfers were included, ASU's projected talent would be a little bit higher.
The dates you need to pay attention to: on October 5, Georgia Southern visits Arkansas State, and on October 27, Appalachian State heads to Statesboro.
It would be surprising if anyone besides the top three made a serious run at the conference title, but if it happens, it will almost certainly be one of these three.
Troy was a numbers favorite last year and was unlucky not to win more. Georgia State got smoking hot in November and returns a few of the reasons why (sans the QB). And UL-Lafayette was both young and banged up in 2015; the Cajuns are a rebound candidate.
Granted, the conference's decision not to extend Idaho's and NMSU's conference membership past 2017 makes this awkward and adds a significant plot line to each team's season. But if their heads are on straight, either or both could threaten to make a run to six wins.
Meanwhile, USA is still juggling some pieces around, and Texas State is athletic and raw.
Any of these teams could make a bowl run but probably not a conference title run.
It's probably going to take Matt Viator a year or two to get the pieces in place.
Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.
|Team||2015 Record (Conf.)||2015 S&P+ Rk||Proj. 2016 S&P+ Rk||Proj. 2016 Wins (Conf.)||5-Yr Rec. Rk||Ret. Experience (Off. / Def.)|
|App St.||11-2 (7-1)||43||59||8.2 (6.1)||113||75% (72%, 78%)|
|Ga. S'ern||9-4 (6-2)||39||52||8.1 (6.1)||106||69% (89%, 48%)|
|Ark. St.||9-4 (8-0)||79||89||6.8 (5.1)||85||53% (37%, 69%)|
|Troy||4-8 (3-5)||90||101||5.8 (3.8)||110||55% (57%, 52%)|
|Georgia St.||6-7 (5-3)||91||105||5.4 (3.7)||129||56% (45%, 68%)|
|UL||4-8 (3-5)||107||106||5.1 (3.6)||99||65% (54%, 75%)|
|Idaho||4-8 (3-5)||109||108||5.2 (3.9)||128||79% (82%, 76%)|
|USA||5-7 (3-5)||103||115||4.5 (3.3)||103||49% (34%, 64%)|
|NMSU||3-9 (3-5)||116||117||4.1 (2.8)||118||79% (88%, 71%)|
|TXST||3-9 (2-6)||112||120||4.5 (3.0)||92||57% (52%, 62%)|
|ULM||2-11 (1-7)||122||125||3.7 (2.6)||123||65% (78%, 51%)|