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2018 Sun Belt power rankings: 3 stand out again, but Arkansas State starts out on top

Of the conference’s three standout teams, only one returns its quarterback. Justice Hansen gives the Red Wolves the edge.

Arkansas State v Georgia Southern Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

At the end of each conference previews run-through, 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. This is just how I would rank the teams after writing thousands of words about each of them.

Last year saw the Sun Belt’s first tier lap the rest of the conference. Appalachian State, Troy, and Arkansas State finished in the S&P+ top 40, while the bottom eight teams ranked between 96th and 120th, and the only team in between — No. 72 NMSU — left the conference.

This year should regulate things a bit. I doubt the SBC has more than one top-40 team at most, and the top three should regress toward the mean. Meanwhile, most of the bottom teams return enough of last year’s production that they can expect to improve a bit.

But come on. When the gap starts out that wide, it’s going to remain, even with regression. You know what the top tier of this conference is probably going to be again.

Bill C’s Sun Belt power rankings

Here’s a link to every team’s data, and each team’s name below is linked to its preview.

Tier 1

1. Arkansas State
2. Troy
3. Appalachian State

It’s really hard to distinguish between these teams at the moment. All three lose key contributors, but all three did such a good job of maximizing depth and playing a lot of guys that we know who the key replacements are already, and we know they’re pretty good.

In the end, the team that returns its quarterback gets the edge. Arkansas State has Justice Hansen, and Troy and App State are replacing four-year starters. The Trojans and Mountaineers are still going to be good, but the Red Wolves start out ahead. (They also have the easiest conference schedule of the three, and they’re alone in the West Division with an easier path to the new conference title game.)

Tier 2

4. ULM
5. South Alabama

While I normally create about four tiers for these conference power rankings pieces, I was tempted to just create two here. But these two teams might step out from the pack a bit, and again it’s because of proven entities.

ULM had the best offense in the conference in 2017 and returns almost all of it. The Warhawks’ defense was wretched, but there’s some upside there. And USA had the best defense of the conference’s lower tier and returns a lot of it.

Tier 3

6. UL Lafayette
7. Georgia State
8. Georgia Southern
9. Coastal Carolina
10. Texas State

I’m betting one of these teams breaks out from the pack and ends up bowling. All of them except Georgia State could improve, and while Georgia State was a slight step ahead of the pack and could be intriguing in 2019, 2018 could see a backwards step.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the SBC laid out for 2018, with zero equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2018 S&P+ projections here.)

Last year saw strange parity in S&P+, more than in any year since 2007. The worst conferences didn’t grade out quite as poorly as normal, and the best didn’t grade out quite as well. Since S&P+ projections incorporate both multi-year history and recruiting rankings, they forecast things returning to normal a hair, which means that it projects almost all of the teams (all but Georgia Southern) in the worst conference to regress.

I don’t quite see it that way, but I do think the teams at the top will come back down to earth.

2018 projected standings (per S&P+)

Projected conference wins, with overall wins in parentheses.

West Division

  1. Arkansas State 5.9 (8.3)
  2. ULM 3.9 (5.3)
  3. South Alabama 3.6 (5.1)
  4. UL Lafayette 2.9 (4.1)
  5. Texas State 2.6 (4.4)

East Division

  1. Appalachian State 5.7 (8.4)
  2. Troy 5.4 (7.8)
  3. Georgia Southern 3.7 (5.7)
  4. Georgia State 3.3 (4.6)
  5. Coastal Carolina 3.0 (4.8)

Three teams projected within a half-game at the top and seven teams projected between 2.6 and 3.9 conference wins at the bottom? Yeah, that sounds about right.

How these teams looked in 2017

ULM and UL Lafayette were pretty good on offense, South Alabama and Georgia State were pretty good on defense, and the top three were good at both.

Sun Belt offenses heading into 2018

Georgia Southern skewed the explosiveness scale with its utter lack of big-play ability. I figure that will change a bit.

Sun Belt defenses heading into 2018

Actually, GS skewed the scale on both sides of the ball, while ULM turned “bend don’t break” into “bend and break.”

Best 2018 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

  • Appalachian State: RB Jalin Moore
  • Arkansas State: QB Justice Hansen
  • Coastal Carolina: WR Malcolm Williams
  • Georgia Southern: C Curtis Rainey
  • Georgia State: WR Penny Hart
  • South Alabama: LT Noah Fisher
  • Texas State: LT Aaron Brewer
  • Troy: C Deontae Crumitie
  • UL Lafayette: RB Trey Ragas
  • ULM: QB Caleb Evans

You can’t go wrong with either Evans or Hansen here. I might have simply chosen Evans because he gets less help from his supporting cast (mainly the defense).

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Florida State
Caleb Evans
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Best 2018 defensive players by team

  • Appalachian State: CB Clifton Duck
  • Arkansas State: NB Justin Clifton
  • Coastal Carolina: CB Anthony Chesley
  • Georgia Southern: NT Logan Hunt
  • Georgia State: OLB Michael Shaw
  • South Alabama: CB Darian Mills
  • Texas State: OLB Frankie Griffin
  • Troy: LB Tron Folsom
  • UL Lafayette: FS Corey Turner
  • ULM: WLB David Griffith

One thing that separated the top three from the rest was that they all had high-quality, experienced defensive fronts. All three lost some key pieces on the line, though, and Arkansas State and Troy lost a lot. As a result, the backs of Sun Belt defenses appear a lot more seasoned and talented than the fronts this year.

NCAA Football:  Camellia Bowl-Arkansas State vs Middle Tennessee
Justin Clifton (10)
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports