2022 Division I Conference Preview: Sun Belt Conference

co-authored by Jamie Williams & Kent Schmidt

For the first time in the short history of the Sun Belt Conference, a West Division team won the crown with Louisiana picking up the crown a season ago.  But much has changed since the Ragin’ Cajans defeated Appalachian State in the SBC title game a year ago. 

What was once a Sun Belt that consisted of 10 teams in two divisions, it has ballooned by four to give the conference a total of 14 football playing members divided into two divisions. Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi all come over from Conference USA and perennial FCS power James Madison has made the leap to the FBS starting in 2022. Southern Mississippi goes to the West division and the other three teams go to the East with Troy sliding from East to West.

With these additions, the Sun Belt Conference as a whole is blossoming into the conversation as one of the top Group of Five leagues in the country.  This will likely be true even after much of the movement of teams continues into next season as the AAC loses its top members in Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston to the Power Five ranks. 

Sun Belt East Division Preview 

The Sun Belt East may now be the best single division in the Group of 5; no disrespect meant to the Mountain West. This division alone brings 13 FCS champions. The Sun Belt has done a great job identifying the right teams, fan bases and cultures to elevate from that level. 

The East looks to be extremely competitive with defending division champion Appalachian State entering as the presumptive favorite to represent the East in the title game for the fourth time in five years.

Coastal Carolina boasts the best quarterback in the conference and potential in all the Group of Five. Georgia State has been steadily improving over the last few years.

Marshall and Old Dominion both made bowl games last year. Georgia Southern had a losing record last year, but that is a rarity for that program.

The wild card is James Madison. They have won 33 of their 38 games over the last four seasons, but how will they translate to the FBS?  

Top Returning Offensive Players 

Grayson McCall, Quarterback, Coastal Carolina – McCall could have entered the NFL draft this past year or transferred to a power five school. Instead, he decided to return to Conway because he “pisses teal.” His talent is undeniable. Last year McCall completed an amazing 73% of his passes for 2873 yards and 27 touchdowns and only three interceptions. His numbers basically mirrored his 2020 season. And he can run when he needs to with 870 career rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. McCall is a threat to get the Chanticleers in the end zone on any play, from any part of the field. And by the way, he is only a Junior so he could terrorize Sun Belt defenses for two more years. 

Rasheen Ali, Running Back, Marshall – Ali is on the Maxwell Award watch list this season and for good reason. In his freshman year, Ali ran for 1401 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. If that wasn’t enough, he also was the second leading receiver on the team with 46 catches 342 yards and a touchdown. There’s no reason to think Ali will slow down against the Sun Belt competition this year. Ali had six 100 yard rushing games and five games with at least three touchdown runs (and three other with two touchdown runs.). 

Kris Thornton, Wide Receiver, James Madison – In his first season with James Madison, Thornton torched opposing defenses. He had 83 catches, 1097 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was a go to receiver in a high powered FCS offense. With Antwane Wells transferring to South Carolina, Thornton should be the clear #1 receiver on a solid offense, although the Dukes did bring in Kobay White from Boston College and Terrence Greene from Monmouth. We all know the numbers came against lesser competition, but Thorntons speed and ability will transfer well to the FBS level. 

Top Returning Defensive Players 

Josiah Stewart, Defensive Line, Coastal Carolina – Stewart was named the Sun Belt preseason player of the year after his impactful freshman season. Stewart had 43 total tackles from his defensive line spot with 15.5 of those for loss and 12.5 sacks, both of which led the team by a large margin. At 6’2”, 245lbs Stewart has the frame to add a little more weight and still be extremely effective. He will be terrorizing Sun Belt quarterbacks and running backs for the next three seasons. 

Antavious Lane, Safety, Georgia State – The best way to describe Lane is ball hawk. He is always around to ball whether that be making the tackle or taking the ball away. Lane led the team in unassisted tackles with 60 and had 82 total. When not making the tackle, Lane had five interceptions to lead the team and 6 pass breakups and one forced fumble. Georgia State should have a strong defense this year and Lane will be the leader of that group.  

Nick Hampton, Linebacker, Appalachian State – Hampton was named to the Sun Belt preseason second team at linebacker. At 6’3”, 225lbs he is the prototypical linebacker size and plays like it. Last season, Hampton had 68 tackles with a team leading 17.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. The only more effective player on the Mountaineer defense last year was D’Marco Jackson who was a fifth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints. With two more solid seasons, Hampton will join Jackson playing on Sundays. 

Projected Order of Finish 

1 – Appalachian State Mountaineers. The Mountaineers have represented the East in every Sun Belt Championship game play to this point (minus the COVID season when the game was not played). There is no reason to think that streak ends this year, although the battle will be much closer. 

2 – Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. With both the preseason offensive and defensive player of the year, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to think Coastal Carolina could upend App State to win the east. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Grayson McCall is the best quarterback in the G5. They also get App State at home on Thursday November 3. That will be their chance to change the guard. 

3 – Georgia State Panthers. Georgia State will win with defense. That’s not to say the offense is bad, but the Panthers will have one of the better defenses in the conference and should wind up in a bowl game. 

4 – Marshall Thundering Herd. I am just going to come out and say it. Marshall is being overrated entering the year. Yes they have talent like Rasheen Ali. But it’s a step up from Conference USA to the Sun Belt these days. I think the Herd will struggle a bit.  

5 – James Madison Dukes. We don’t really know what to expect from the Dukes in their first year as an FBS team. But they will be competitive. They should be in the 5-6 win range. Seven wins would make the fan base ecstatic. Less than five may leave the fans questioning. But there is a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and James Madison will surprise some people in their first year. 

6 – Georgia Southern Eagles. Clay Helton is the new head coach, so this team could easily outperform this projection. But they’re coming off a down year after being good for a long time.  

7 – Old Dominion Monarchs. Another team coming from Conference USA. With Ricky Rahne in his second year, this team could take a leap. Them being projected here shows the true depth of the Sun Belt East. 

Sun Belt West Division Preview

While the strength of the Sun Belt looks to be in the East Division, the West Division has the reigning champion in the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns.  Last year, Louisiana had a relatively easy way to get to the SBC championship as it was the only SBC West Division team to finish the season with a winning record. 

Louisiana will have Troy, who comes over from the East Division to make this what looks like a two-team race to win this division.  Troy only had a 5–7-mark last year but should be in the running for the West crown with an easier schedule. 

Louisiana will be headed by new head coach Michael Desormeaux, a former Ragin’ Cajun star quarterback who’s been part of the program’s coaching staff for the last six years before moving up into the head man role.  He is replacing Billy Napier, who left Lafayette to become the head man at the SEC’s Florida.

Troy also welcomes a new coach in Jon Sumrall, who was previously a Trojan assistant from 2015 to 2017 but comes back to Alabama from Kentucky, where he was most recently the defensive coordinator for the Wildcats.  His team will have a wealth of experience that will challenge Louisiana this year.

Louisiana needs to replace several stars from last year’s championship squad including conference player of the year in QB Levi Lewis so the Cajuns likely will see a bit of downturn, but that downturn likely still be enough to overcome Troy and will result in Louisiana winning the West Division for a fifth straight season. 

Top Returning Offensive Players 

Jason Brownlee, Wide Receiver, Southern Miss – Brownlee started in all 12 games and led the Golden Eagles in receiving in catches (46), yards (643) and touchdown catches (8).  He showed down the stretch for USM to be the main ball target for QB Ty Keyes and their chemistry was showing at the end of the season that will likely carryover to this season. 

Chris Smith, Running Back, Louisiana – Smith was the leading rusher for the Cajuns last year and will be the key member of the offense coming into this season.  But running back is not the only position he has shined as he has been an electric kick and punt returner in his career.  The return game left him last year as he focused more on the running attack, but he has shown he can carry Louisiana and will likely be the key for their success this season offensively. 

Tez Johnson, Wide Receiver, Troy – Johnson had over 700 yards of all purpose yardage last year.  He was a kick and punt returner but with him being the only one of the top four receivers back for the Trojans this year, he should put up some amazing numbers this season as he has the athletic ability to get yards after making catches. 

Top Returning Defensive Players 

Carlton Martial, Linebacker, Troy – Martial is the nation’s leading tackler since the start of the 2018 season, 66 more than the next closest player. He only needs 104 tackles to break Northwestern’s Tim McGarigle career FBS record of 545 tackles and should do just that as he  has averaged 122 tackles each of the last three seasons.

Javon Solomon, Defensive End, Troy – Solomon led the Sun Belt with 1.42 tackles for loss; he ranked 12th nationally in tackles for loss and eight in sacks (0.92/game) last season. He set the Troy single-game record with five tackles for loss in the Trojans’ victory at Southern Miss and added the second-most sacks in school history with 3.5 in the game.

Kam Pedescleaux, Safety, Louisiana – Pedescleaux has shown his best when the lights are shining the brightest.  He tied for the team high with seven tackles, including 1.0 tackle-for-loss in the SBC title game last year.  He will be counted on to be team leader this season and be a mentor for the younger members of the team.

Projected Order of Finish 

1 – Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns – The Cajuns have been the best team in the West Division since the SBC title game started in 2018.  This team is under new leadership and needs a new QB but still will have enough to fend off Troy for the title.

2 – Troy Trojans – The Trojans will see a jump in their win count and the game in early November at Louisiana will be the key to the West Division title.  Troy will come up just a bit short but will still see a bowl bid for the first time since 2018.

3 – Southern Miss Golden Eagles – The lone newcomer in the West Division will challenge the bottom half of the division but the Golden Eagles will not have quite enough to overcome Louisiana and Troy.

4 – South Alabama Jaguars – The USA defense should not be a problem as it might be one of the best in the SBC but the Jaguars offense will not be able to produce enough to quite get to six wins. 

5 – Texas State Bobcats – QB Layne Hatcher comes over from Arkansas State to be the Bobcats signal caller and just might be the best in the SBC West.  The Bobcats defense is an issue and Texas State will likely be in a lot of shootouts this year.

6 – Arkansas State Red Wolves – The running game has been the issue for the Red Wolves the last couple of seasons.  This probably won’t change this year with just one starter back on the offensive line. 

7 – Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks – Coach Terry Bowden’s first season in 2021 for the Warhawks was a vast improvement over the couple of seasons before it with four wins.  Can the momentum continue or will be more like the season’s end that saw five straight losses to end the season?  Unfortunately for ULM, it likely is the later.