The intricacies of a long season will ultimately shape the Sun Belt standings, but here’s a rough guess of the best - and worst - that each team can expect.
Best Case: 12-0 - Georgia Southern fans will read that record like they would hear fingernails on a chalkboard, but there’s little arguing that the Mountaineers are set up for a perfect storm of a season. The defense is still stout, quarterback Taylor Lamb is back for a fourth year and there are no shortage of offensive weapons. f App can manage a first week upset over Georgia, it will instantly stir up hype about possibly running the table and getting to the access bowl.
Worst Case: 8-4 - It is no secret that notching victories over ‘Power 5’ teams isn’t all that routine for ‘Group of 5’ squads. The Mountaineers get two chances to pull off those upsets, but could just as easily fall short.
Best Case: 10-2 - Arkansas State has proven time and time again that - despite rarely being picked atop the preseason Sun Belt poll - it is a force to be reckoned with. That reputation only grew last season when the Red Wolves were just a few plays away from running the table in conference play. Non-conference dates against Nebraska and Miami are probably a bit too much to hope for, but Arkansas State doesn’t play Appalachian State and it’s toughest road game in league play is at Georgia Southern.
Worst Case: 5-7 - A five-win disparity between best and worst case scenarios is a huge swing, but the Red Wolves have earned it with their Jekyll and Hyde performances. T
Best Case: 6-6. Nothing comes easy for any team making the leap from FCS to FBS, but the Chanticleers have a chance to get off to a good start. Non-conference opponents Massachusetts and Alabama-Birmingham are both ranked near the bottom of most polls.
Worst Case: 2-10 - There is no doubt that the Chanticleers have their work cut out for them in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern was able to win the league in its first season three years ago, but the conference has grown better and deeper since then.
Best Case: 9-3 - As bad as 2016 was for Georgia Southern, hindsight - and some time to heal - reveals that the Eagles were still very close to making another bowl appearance despite all of the bumps in the road. They led Arkansas State for all but the final few seconds and outplayed Georgia State thoroughly after digging a deep hole early on. Throw in some healthier quarterbacks and things could have been even better. There are plenty of new faces on this year’s squad, but if the offense can return to its former dominant self and the defense holds, there is a case to be made that the P5 matchups and a date at Appalachian State are the only games where the Eagles won’t have a talent advantage on the field.
Worst Case: 5-7 - Hopes are high that a re-commitment to the option will quickly get the Eagles back on track. But the four-year reign of quarterback Kevin Ellison - and his three-year dual-QB partner Favian Upshaw - is over and the learning curve could be steep for the quartet of quarterbacks jockeying to take over. If there are no upsets to be found, Georgia Southern will have to avenge some of last year’s Sun Belt losses or it could be a second straight postseason spent in Statesboro.
Best Case: 7-5 - With a returning quarterback and one of the conference’s best receivers set to threaten defenses, Georgia State could have enough talent to overcome last year’s 3-9 pitfall and make it to a second bowl game in three seasons. Seven seniors also figure to start on an experienced defense that had its moments in 2016.
Worst Case: 3-9 - The Panthers made it to a bowl in 2015 by winning all of the close games. Last season, Georgia State found a way to lose its grip on potential wins when things were close in the second half. Enough talent returns to make an improvement on last year’s 3-9 mark, but that experience will have to adjust to any new schemes brought in by new head coach Shawn Elliott.
Best Case: 8-4 - A lot of the playmakers return from last year’s 9-4 bowl-winning Vandal squad, but a lot of talent has been lost on both the offensive and defensive fronts.
Worst Case: 5-7 - Idaho is in a weird place. The Vandals should have the biggest expectations for themselves in over a decade. On the other hand, there is no escaping the looming spectre of the program’s impending step down to the FCS level.
NEW MEXICO STATE
Best Case: 7-5 - The Aggies sing their Sun Belt swan song this season and so will a player who is arguably the most dangerous in the conference. Larry Rose has amassed over 4,200 yards of offense since earning immediate playing time as a freshman in 2014. The rest of the team hasn’t given him much support over the last three seasons, but with 16 total starters returning, Rose and the Aggies could be saving their best for last.
Worst Case: 3-9.
Best Case: 8-4 - The Jaguars had the Sun Belt’s signature win of last season when they stunned Mississippi State on the opening weekend of the season. Another upset could be in the works as they travel in Week 1 to Ole Miss, which is reeling from a trainwreck of an offseason.
Worst Case: 4-8 — Hopes are high for South Alabama, but there is no denying the abundance of blank spaces currently residing on the team’s depth chart. Just five starters return on offense, with none of its top four receivers and just one of its top three rushers.
Best Case: 5-7 - Try as you might, it’s tough to envision any path that ends in bowl eligibility for the Bobcats. The team split its first four games before dropping its final eight last season. Many key players return with another year of experience, but all-conference level talent is almost nowhere to be found on the roster.
Worst Case: 2-10 - It’s entirely possible that the Bobcats will be an improved team while not making any strides in the win column.
Best Case: 11-1 - Troy looked unbeatable at times last season and, with eight returning starters from its high-powered offense, could be even tougher to stop this time around. Brandon Silvers has his top seven receivers from last year all back in camp and running back Jordan Chunn should benefit from more help behind him on the depth chart.
Worst Case: 7-5 - The Trojans seem to be a lock to go to a second straight bowl game, but achieving last year’s feat of cracking the AP Top-25 poll could be a challenge. A season opener at Boise State presents a real threat of the Trojans starting the season off with a loss. Other non-conference games against Akron and LSU will also be a challenge and - for all its forward strides taken in the last two seasons - Troy still has yet to figure out a way to beat Georgia Southern.
Best Case: 9-3 - The Ragin’ Cajuns took a nosedive in 2015 after four consecutive 9-win seasons. They rebounded to make a bowl with six wins last year and have a solid defense that wants to push the win total higher this fall. UL Lafayette won’t be an overwhelming underdog in any of its non-conference games (at Tulsa, at Texas A&M and at Ole Miss).
Worst Case: 5-7.
Best Case: 6-6 - The Warhawks showed some signs of improvement last season and could have finished with a better mark than 4-8 had quarterback Garrett Smith remained healthy all season. Smith is back to 100 percent this season. The front half of the schedule is brutal, but if the defense can improve on some cringeworthy efforts from 2016, the Warhawks could enter November with their bowl hopes still afloat.
Worst Case: 3-9 - UL Monroe needs to be prepared to fight through adversity. Its season begins with trips to Memphis and Florida State before hosting a solid Southern Miss team. If the Warhawks can’t find an upset anywhere in the first month, it could be time to pump the brakes on postseason dreams and instead make sure that the wheels don’t come flying off in Sun Belt play.