Conference USA raided the Sun Belt during the last round of conference realignment, but in recent years, the "raidee" has either matched or topped the raider in both average quality and upside. Losing members allowed the SBC to pick up former FCS powers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, and four of five East division teams have beaten a Power 5 team in the past two years.
The 2019 season was particularly impressive in this regard: Appalachian State beat UNC and South Carolina, Georgia State beat Tennessee and Coastal Carolina beat Kansas (which technically counts as a P5 win).
The East division is full of obvious upside, but that doesn't mean it boasts much parity: App State has handily won the division in each of the past two years and is a healthy favorite to make it three in a row. Can someone spring a surprise?
Head coach: Jamey Chadwell (8-16, third year)
2019: 5-7 (2-6 in Sun Belt), 113th in SP+
2020 projection: 5-7 (3-5), 111th
Five best returning players: RG Trey Carter, RB CJ Marable, DE Tarron Jackson, TE Isaiah Likely, SS Alex Spillum
Jamey Chadwell officially took over for CEO/coach Joe Moglia as Coastal Carolina's head coach a year ago, having already spent a season as interim in 2017. Moglia remains on the masthead as executive director for football, which is a wonderfully odd arrangement, but hey, it almost produced a bowl in 2019. The Chants beat Kansas on the way to a 3-1 start and crafted enough of a ball-control identity -- run the ball, slow the tempo, create third-and-shorts and field a defense with strong bend-don't-break tendencies -- to give themselves a shot at bowl eligibility despite deficiencies.
They needed one more close win. They upset Troy with a last-minute CJ Marable touchdown run, but they lost three Sun Belt games by a combined seven points and finished 5-7. With another year to make this program fully his, Chadwell brings back Marable (a 1,000-yard rusher), their top three receiving targets (WR Jaivon Heiligh, TE Isaiah Likely and Marable), an offensive line with more than 100 career starts, and a majority of last season's defensive two-deep, including star end Tarron Jackson and safeties Kameron Burton and Alex Spillum.
Now he just needs a quarterback.
Juniors Fred Payton and Bryce Carpenter basically split snaps last season and saw mixed results. Payton was a more efficient passer: his marginal efficiency was +8.9% to Carpenter's +1.1%, meaning his pass attempts produced a success rate 9% better than expected based on down and distance. He also ran less frequently (10% of snaps vs. Carpenter's 24%) and made more mistakes (3.7% INT rate to Carpenter's 1.4%).
Coastal's run game had a student-body-right feel to it, with lots of pulls and rushes to the perimeter. It worked, too -- Marable and sophomore Reese White both enjoyed success rates of 50% or higher. There weren't enough big plays, but this ball-control attack should still control the ball. With a few of last year's secondary receivers transferring, it's unclear whether the Chants will throw any better, however.
Defensive coordinator Chad Staggs' 3-4 attack had all the good and bad of a bend-don't-break D: Coastal ranked a decent 43rd in gains of 20+ yards allowed per game, but it was 130th in completion rate allowed, and 117th in the percentage of opponent rushes gaining 4+ yards. The return of Jackson, Burton and Spillum is good, but the Chants need more playmakers, and they have to replace both corners. Junior Derick Bush has potential, and sophomore Damari Kelly was a spring game star -- one interesting note: Coastal started spring ball absurdly early and was therefore one of the only teams to get a full set of practices -- but we'll see.
The strengths will still be strengths, and the weaknesses will still be weaknesses. The Chants pick right up where they left last year -- SP+ gives them a 43% chance of reaching bowl eligibility. A fast start will again be required, though, as tossups against EMU, Kansas and Arkansas State all pop up on the first half of the schedule.
Head coach: Shawn Elliott (17-26, fourth year)
2019: 7-6 (4-4), 107th in SP+
2020 projection: 6-6 (4-4), 103rd
Five best returning players: LG Shamarious Gilmore, LB Trajan Stephens-McQueen, NG Dontae Wilson, CB Quavian White, RB Destin Coates
First, you draw up the blueprint. Then you build the house. For Shawn Elliott and Georgia State, Aug. 31, 2019, was the blueprint. Against Tennessee in Knoxville, the Panthers fell behind 23-21 early in the fourth quarter but physically dominated down the stretch. Capped by a rugged 22-yard touchdown by quarterback Dan Ellington, they went on a 17-0 run and scored their most high-profile win ever. It was time to sell some T-shirts.
This was Elliott's platonic vision made real. The 46-year-old former Appalachian State and South Carolina offensive line coach wants a physical squad, one that can lean on the run when it needs to, and it had just pushed over an SEC team that, later in the season, turned out to be pretty good.
Getting the house built is a lot harder than drawing up the plans. GSU still has work to do there. Two weeks after the win in Knoxville, the Panthers lost 57-10 at Western Michigan, then suffered a wacky 37-34 loss at Texas State, too. They rebounded, winning four in a row and positioning themselves for their best FBS season ever, but quarterback Dan Ellington tore his ACL in a tie game at ULM. Granted, he showed utterly ridiculous leadership and toughness by continuing to play out the rest of the damn season, but his and GSU's production took an obvious hit, and the Panthers lost four of five to finish 7-6.
With Ellington and 1,400-yard rusher Tra Barnett now gone, it's hard to get a read on what GSU might be capable of in 2020. The Panthers are seasoned in the trenches, returning all-conference candidates in left guard Shamarious Gilmore and center Malik Sumter, and the skill corps is still exciting. Juniors Destin Coates and Seth Paige matched Barnett's per-carry productivity, and last year's top three receivers (Cornelius McCoy, Sam Pinckney and tight end Roger Carter) return. But the depth chart behind Ellington was destitute -- the starter in 2020 will likely be one of four freshmen (three redshirts and an incoming first-year) -- and the Panthers' defense is not nearly disruptive enough to be as small as it is. The average size of the top six returnees up front is 6-1, 253.
Elliott has, in glimpses, proved that Georgia State has the potential you would assume a G5 program based in Atlanta to have. But he's entering his fourth season, and if the quarterback situation is sketchy and the defense (which ranked 122nd in defensive SP+) doesn't improve quite a bit with experience, he could finish 2020 having had as many setback seasons (two) as breakthroughs.
There's still a chance at a big year, though. SP+ projects seven Panther games within a touchdown, including five in a row through the middle of the season. If the new QB -- be it Cornelious Brown (last year's backup), Vandy transfer Jamil Muhammad, Kierston Harvey or incoming Mikele Colasurdo -- exceeds expectations, this could be the breakthrough year we thought 2019 might become last season.
Head coach: Chad Lunsford (19-13, third full year)
2019: 7-6 (5-3), 87th in SP+
2020 projection: 6-6 (4-4), 88th
Five best returning players: QB Shai Werts, RB Wesley Kennedy III, LB Randy Wade Jr., FS Kenderick Duncan Jr., LB Reynard Ellis
If you're a believer in juju -- not Smith-Schuster or Hughes, but the spiritual/magical idea of good luck -- then you probably noticed that Georgia Southern's 2019 season didn't begin with much of it. A month before the Eagles' first game, starting quarterback Shai Werts was charged with drug possession when a cop noticed a white substance on the hood of his car.
Turns out, that substance was bird poop. The charges were quietly dropped, but that's a disorienting way to start fall camp.
The season didn't begin all that much better. The Eagles got destroyed by LSU (55-3) in Week 1, let an upset bid slip through their fingers against Minnesota (35-32), dropped a key conference battle against Louisiana (37-24) and narrowly survived games against FCS' Maine and South Alabama. Six weeks into the season, they were 2-3 and 108th in SP+; that's not what we expected from a team that had won 10 games the year before.
The Eagles rebounded, though, winning three games in a row and handing Appalachian State its only loss of the year in the process. They slipped up in road trips at Troy and Arkansas State and a bowl loss to Liberty, but overall they rallied to finish with seven wins and a No. 87 SP+ ranking. Their preseason projection: seven wins and 83rd.
This year's projection is about the same: six wins and 88th. An achievement higher than that will require both an upset or two (they play four projected top-50 opponents, three away from Statesboro) and better production from an offense that slid from 78th to 101st in offensive SP+. Werts will need a bounce-back year: he went from averaging 6.6 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) and a 48% rushing success rate in 2018 to 4.4 and 40%, respectively.
He'll have more experience around him this year, that's for sure. Last year's top five backs are all scheduled to return (including 800-yarders J.D. King and Wesley Kennedy III), as are six linemen with starting experience and the leaders in both receptions (Malik Murray) and yards per catch (Darion Anderson).
The iffy offensive performance dampened the effects of some serious defensive improvement. Southern rose from 92nd to 64th in defensive SP+, doing OK against the pass but defending the hell out of the run: 29th in stuff rate (stops at or behind the line), 11th in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining 4+ yards). The front seven returns 11 of 15 players who logged at least 100 snaps last year; that includes four players with at least 12 run stuffs and two (linebackers Reynard Ellis and Randy Wade Jr.) with at least 10 tackles for loss.
The front seven could get even better, and the secondary could get even worse; last year's top three cornerbacks are gone, which means safeties Kenderick Duncan Jr., Darrell Baker Jr., Java'n Singletary and Duke transfer Javon Jackson might have a lot of fires to put out.
Head coach: Chip Lindsey (5-7, second year)
2019: 5-7 (3-5), 85th in SP+
2020 projection: 7-5 (5-3), 84th
Five best returning players: LB Carlton Martial, WR Kaylon Geiger, RB DK Billingsley, WR Reggie Todd, DT Will Choloh, Jr.
If you ignore results, you could say Chip Lindsey had an excellent first season in charge at Troy. His first Trojans' two-deep had a lot to replace from Neal Brown's 10-win 2018 squad, but despite losing leading rusher B.J. Smith to a season-ending knee injury, his first offense ranked 40th in offensive SP+, Troy's best ranking since 2009. And while his team was projected 94th overall in SP+, it finished slightly better: 85th.
Not bad, right? Unfortunately, results matter. The Trojans let close games slip through their fingers against Southern Miss, Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina, and they had nothing to offer against better teams. They lost to three top-40 teams in SP+ by an average score of 48-9. On paper, things were encouraging. On the field, Troy went 5-7 and missed a bowl for the first time in four years.
The defense was extremely freshman- and sophomore-heavy last year. A problematic pass defense featured three freshmen among their six leading tacklers (safeties Dell Pettus and Jaquez Dunmore and corner O'shai Fletcher), which makes struggle understandable. The leading playmakers in each unit return -- nose guard Will Choloh Jr. (14 run stuffs, four sacks), middle linebacker Carlton Martial (18.5 tackles for loss!), nickelback TJ Harris (4.5 TFLs, six pass breakups) -- and they're all juniors.
Defensive coordinator Brandon Hall was part of Brown's staff when Troy ranked 48th in defensive SP+ in 2018, and even while tumbling to 112th last year, the Trojans were able to overwhelm lesser offenses, which is at least a sign of solid athleticism.
The defense will almost certainly improve, in other words. But it will have to because it might be hard for Troy to avoid slippage on offense. Regression-to-the-mean could strike -- when you do something abnormally well, it's hard to do it even better the next year -- and quarterback Kaleb Barker and three all-conference linemen are all gone.
It could be worse. The new starting quarterback, be it 2019 backup Gunnar Watson, Vanderbilt transfer Jacob Free, or juco transfer Parker McNeil, will still have two honorable mention all-Sun Belt guys up front in left tackle Austin Stidham and center Dylan Bradshaw, and every player from a dynamic receiving corps is scheduled to return, including big-play senior Reggie Todd (17.5 yards per catch) and four players with 25+ catches and at least a 55% success rate. Smith is back, too, but he won't have to carry too heavy a load after DK Billingsley's 2019 breakout: The junior rushed for 899 yards (5.8 per carry) in Smith's absence.
The schedule will offer every possibility of a quick start. SP+ projects the Trojans as at least a nine-point favorite in five of their first six games and also gives them a fighting shot at NC State in Week 3. This should allow them to wrap up bowl eligibility early, and that's good. Among the last five games are road trips to Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Tennessee and Appalachian State. Dang.
Head coach: Shawn Clark (first season)
2019: 13-1 (7-1), 27th in SP+
2020 projection: 9-3 (7-1), 39th
Five best returning players: QB Zac Thomas, C Noah Hannon, CB Shaun Jolly, WR Corey Sutton, DT Demetrius Taylor
After a run of FCS dominance, the Mountaineers slipped to 8-4 in the legendary Jerry Moore's last year in charge, and then successor Scott Satterfield went 4-8 in his debut season. At the time of its jump, the school renowned for its classic 2007 win over Michigan had lost its last three games against FBS competition by an average score of 50-12. Then they began their FBS tenure with a 52-14 loss to Michigan and, a month later, a loss to FCS' Liberty.
We had just witnessed another former FCS power (UMass) completely mistiming its jump to FBS and failing to recover. Had App State done the same?
Nope. The Mountaineers just needed some time to get their bearings. Since a 1-5 start in that first season, they've gone 60-12, 41-5 in the Sun Belt. They've won or shared four straight conference titles. They lost Satterfield to Louisville after 2018, replaced him with Eliah Drinkwitz, and proceeded to get even better, going 12-1 and finishing 27th in SP+.
It's a sign of a strong, Boise State-level culture when you can replace a great coach and continue at that high a level. Now the Mountaineers have to prove they can do it again. Drinkwitz left for Missouri, and Shawn Clark, an App State grad and offensive line coach for both Satterfield and Drinkwitz, took over. He's certainly leaning into the culture thing: six of his primary assistants, including defensive coordinator Dale Jones, have App State experience.
New offensive coordinator Tony Petersen isn't an App guy -- the 30-year veteran was OC or co-OC at Marshall, Minnesota, Louisiana Tech and ECU -- but he inherits some incredible pieces. Third-year starting quarterback Zac Thomas is a smart passer and timely rusher, and he gets last year's top four targets back: 2019's leader Thomas Hennigan, 2018's leader Corey Sutton, high-efficiency slot man Malik Williams and big-play wideout Jalen Virgil. They're all seniors.
Running back Darrynton Evans left after two seasons and over 2,600 rushing yards, but the top three returnees (Marcus Williams Jr., Daetrich Harrington and Raykwon Anderson) combined for 1,194 yards at 6.1 per carry, and they'll be running behind a line that returns four starters, all of whom garnered at least honorable mention all-conference honors last year.
The defense might have a bit more to prove. The Mountaineers ranked 37th in defensive SP+, tops in the Sun Belt and eighth in the Group of Five, but they lost five starters in the back eight, including true difference-makers in OLB Akeem Davis-Gaither and free safety Desmond Franklin. But the cupboard's not bare: sacks leader Demetrius Taylor, run-stuffing ILB D'Marco Jackson and a killer pair of corners (Shemar Jean-Charles and Shaun Jolly) are all back.
Even if the team regresses, the schedule will cushion the blow. App State plays only two teams projected higher than 81st in SP+ (Wisconsin, Louisiana) and is a double-digit projected favorite in nine games. Billy Napier's Ragin' Cajuns keep getting better, but until otherwise noted, the Sun Belt's standard bearer resides in Boone.