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Five Predictions For The Sun Belt Conference In 2016

Marcus Cox leads a powerful Appalachian State offense. How are the Mountaineers predicted to do in 2016? (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)
Marcus Cox leads a powerful Appalachian State offense. How are the Mountaineers predicted to do in 2016? (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)

Five Predictions For The Sun Belt Conference In 2016

The 2016 College Football season is right around the corner and that means prediction time. Below are five predictions for the Sun Belt Conference for the 2016 season. Some predictions will be right, some predictions will be wrong, and some will be spectacularly awful by the end of the season.

There are no changes to the teams in 2016 as all eleven teams will be the same from 2015. Those 11 teams are Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Idaho, Louisiana Lafayette, Louisiana Monroe, New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State, and Troy.

Here are five predictions for the Sun Belt Conference in 2016:

1. Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida will lead the Sun Belt in rushing – This is going out on a bit of a limb as there are some very good running backs in the Sun Belt. Breida was the #2 rusher in the SBC last year (#10 in the FBS) with 1,608 yards. He still has to contend with the Larry Rose III of New Mexico State who was top rusher in the SBC as well as #8 in the FBS with 1,651 yards. Outside of Breida and Rose, Marcus Cox of Appalachian State (1,423 yards) and Elijah McGuire of Louisiana Lafayette (1,058 yards) are capable of leading the conference in rushing. Breida and Georgia Southern are switching coaches, but the offensive scheme is staying the same with the triple option. This will be a fun race to watch as to who will end up with the most rushing yards in the Sun Belt for 2016.

2. Arkansas State or Appalachian State will win the Conference – Alright, this is not going out on a limb at all. When looking at this conference, it is hard to envision that one of these teams will not capture the crown. Arkansas State loses the duo of quarterback Fredi Knighten and running back Michael Gordon but Pittsburgh graduate transfer Chad Voytik comes in to give the Red Wolves a very good replacement. Overall, Arkansas State has 13 starters back with six on offense and seven on defense.

For Appalachian State, they went 11-2 last year and return 15 total starters with 6 on offense and 9 on defense. They have Cox at running back returning (see above) as well as quarterback Tyler Lamb, who threw for 2,387 yards with 31 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. The defense gave up only 19.1 points and 314 yards per contest in 2015 and may approach those numbers again this year.

There is also the convenient scheduling quirk that Arkansas State and Appalachian State do not face each other in 2016. The other logical Sun Belt contender is Georgia Southern, but they have to face both Arkansas State (away) and App State (home).

3. Texas State will not win more than 3 games in 2016 –  The Bobcats look to have a rough 2016 season ahead of them. They have a new head coach in Everett Withers after five seasons of Dennis Franchione (2011 through 2015). Franchione led the Bobcats to a 26-34 record as they went from the FCS in 2011 to full time FBS members. It was a respectable job done by him, but both sides of the ball regressed in 2015 and he resigned after the season. For 2016, Texas State has 10 total starters returning with four on offense (26.9 points and 414 yards per game) and six on defense (39.2 points and 522 yards per game allowed). Their non-conference schedule has what appears to be just one winnable game against FCS Incarnate Word while also facing Ohio (away), Arkansas (away), and Houston. They do face fellow SBC dwellers Louisiana Monroe, New Mexico State, and Georgia State, but all three of those games are on the road.

4. New Mexico State’s bowl drought will extend to 56 years – This seems like a no-brainer, but at least one person thinks otherwise. The Aggies do have some talent like the aforementioned Larry Rose and also add in the very talented Tyler Matthews (was previously at TCU and Southern Miss). The defense will be coached by former Boston College Head Coach Frank Spaziani, but he has a lot of work to do. The 2015 defense gave up 45 points and 522 yards per game with 8 starters back. Now seven return in 2016 and it is not always a good thing to have that many back from a defense that poor. Yes, Spaziani will make strides, but to get a group like this to be competitive enough off the 2015 season is asking a lot.

New Mexico State also has a tough schedule in 2016 to reach a bowl game. They face UTEP (away), New Mexico, Kentucky (away), and Texas A&M (away). In conference, the Aggies will face Louisiana Lafayette, Georgia Southern, Arkansas State (away) and Appalachian State. Their winnable games are against Idaho, Texas State, and perhaps South Alabama. It is difficult to foresee both sides of the ball improving enough to get to 6 wins in 2016, especially on defense.

5. Idaho will make a bowl game – This is more of a sentimental/hope it happens prediction. Idaho is slated to leave the FBS after the 2017 season and join the Big Sky Conference of the FCS in 2018. That leaves Idaho two last chances to make their third bowl game in school history after playing in the Humanitarian Bowl twice in 1998 and 2009 (won both games). There are legitimate reasons to think Idaho can make a bowl game starting with the offense. Under Paul Petrino, Idaho has improved their points and yardage output per game each year with 2015 at 30.3 points and 428 yards per game. Quarterback Matt Linehan (2,972 yards on 63.1% completions with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions) will have three of his top four receivers back and four of the offensive linemen return as well. The offense will continue to move along.

The real issue is on defense for Idaho as their best season performance under Petrino was in 2014 when they surrendered 37.3 points and 463 yards per game. Those numbers only give opposing offenses more confidence. There are six starters back from 2015, but that is not always a good thing when they perform as poorly as they did last year. They are under the second year of Defensive Coordinator Mike Breske, which may explain some of the drop from 2014.

Idaho does have a solid chance to reach the six win plateau. The open with Montana State, Washington (away), Washington State (away), and UNLV (away). Their conference foes consist of winnable games versus Louisiana Monroe (away), New Mexico State, Texas State, (away) South Alabama, and Georgia State. They also face Troy, App State (away), and Louisiana Lafayette (away) in games that appear to be likely losses, but an upset could happen (that is why they play the games, right?). If Idaho can beat Montana State and UNLV out of conference, they should have a good chance at reaching 6-6 with their conference schedule.

The Prediction Schedule

With the Sun Belt Predictions above, there are now predictions for two conferences in the books. Below are the predictions completed and what is next.

July 17 – FBS Independents

July 17 – Sun Belt

July 23 – C-USA

July 24 – MAC

July 30 – American Athletic

July 31 – Mountain West

August 7 – Big 12

August 13 – Atlantic Coast

August 14 – Pac-12

August 20 – Big Ten

August 27 – SEC

2015 College Football Preview: C-USA West

Kenneth Dixon will be a huge part of Louisiana Tech's offense. Will he be able to lead them back to the C-USA Championship Game? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)
Kenneth Dixon will be a huge part of Louisiana Tech’s offense. Will he be able to lead them back to the C-USA Championship Game? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: C-USA West

Part six of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview will look at Conference USA’s West division as well as predicting the champion of the C-USA Championship Game. Below is the schedule for the 2015 College Football Preview.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is an in-depth look at each team in the Conference USA West Division.

1. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Louisiana Tech nearly won the 2014 C-USA Championship Game, but came up short against Marshall in 26-23 loss. 2014 was also the second year of Skip Holtz’s tenure and he led them to their first bowl game since 2011, beating Illinois 35-18.

The third year under Holtz will have seven starters back on offense, but one of them will not be at quarterback due to Cody Sokol graduating after a 3,436 passing yard season with 30 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Replacing Sokol is the inconsistent Jeff Driskel from Florida. When Driskel is good, he can play at the top level, but that is the wildcard to do that over the course of a season. He will have Kenneth Dixon to hand the ball off to. All Dixon has done in his first three years is rush for 3,410 yards and become the school’s all-time leading rusher. He ran for 1,299 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2014. The top three receivers also return for La Tech including Trent Taylor, who caught 64 passes for 834 yards and 9 touchdowns. If Driskel can be consistent (and healthy), the offense should do well once again in 2015.

On defense, six starters return including three apiece on the line and in the secondary. The line’s top playmaker will be Vernon Butler at tackle after he made 1st Team C-USA in 2014 with 56 tackles, 1 sack, and 12.5 tackles for loss. The linebacker unit sees all three starters depart, but the replacements are all seniors. The secondary is also senior laden, but the star is junior free safety Xavier Woods. Woods was 1st Team C-USA after making 71 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 6 interceptions in 2014. The defense should be good in the 2015 again.

La Tech opens with a home game against FCS Southern before a road trip to open conference play against Western Kentucky and then another road trip to Kansas State. Their non-conference schedule wraps up with a home game against Louisiana-Lafayette (Oct. 3) and a road game at Mississippi State (Oct. 17). In addition to WKU out of the East, they also get a tough game against Middle Tennessee (home) and a winnable game at home versus Florida International. Their toughest West opponents (Rice and UTEP) are both on the road, but Louisiana Tech is in a good spot to make it to a second straight C-USA Championship Game.

2. UTEP Miners

UTEP improved drastically in 2014 on both offense and defense, which culminated with a bowl game berth (New Mexico Bowl), but lost 21-6 to Utah State. Year three for Sean Kugler is expected to provide even more.

Six starters return on the offensive side led by running back Aaron Jones. Jones ran for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the team and he will shoulder the load early on in the season with a new quarterback set to take over. Mack Leftwich and Garrett Simpson are expected to battle it out for the starting QB spot, but they will surely top last year’s production of 1,858 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions by Jameill Showers. The top receiver is gone (27 catches for 579 yards and 2 touchdowns), but his production can easily be replaced with better quarterback play. The offensive line returns four starters so there should be plenty of time for the new QB to gel with the offense.

The defensive side of the ball returns five starters including three on the defensive line. The line will need to get after the opposing quarterbacks. In 2014, UTEP allowed 177 yards rushing per game and recorded 26 sacks. At linebacker, Alvin Jones returns to lead the group. He recorded 55 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Arkansas graduate transfer Kelvin Fisher will also be in the mix to start at one of the linebacker spots. The secondary returns Devin Cockrell as the lone starter from a unit that allowed 191 yards passing per game and 51.7% completions. The defense is likely to take a step back in 2015, but it may not be a big step back.

UTEP opens with three straight road games in 2015 against Arkansas, Texas Tech, and New Mexico State. They finish their non-conference slate with a home game against FCS Incarnate Word. In Conference USA play, they have winnable games from the East Division against Florida International (road), Florida Atlantic (home), and Old Dominion (road). They also get both Rice and Louisiana Tech at home, which makes them a threat to finish in the top spot as well. UTEP should be in a bowl game once more in 2015.

3. Rice Owls

Rice has been to three straight bowl games between 2012 and 2014. In 2013, the Owls won the C-USA Championship Game by defeating Marshall 41-24. 2015 is a chance to reach the title game again and a fourth straight bowl game.

The offense has six starters returning including quarterback Driphus Jackson and running back Jowan Davis. Jackson threw for 2,842 yards with 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while also rushing for 401 yards and 1 touchdown as the third leading rusher. Davis ran for 956 yards and 6 touchdowns while the second leading rusher, Darik Dillard, ran for 652 yards and 11 touchdowns. Dillard also returns this season to give Rice a 1-2 punch in the running game. The top two receivers are gone, but the third, fourth, and fifth leading receivers return. In addition, only two starters return on the offensive line. Rice may have some early season struggles, but should be able to reach their 28.8 points and 399 yards per game they recorded last year.

Rice’s defense has been hit hard by losses with only three starters returning. Linebacker Alex Lyons was the top tackler in 2014 with 71 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss.  The next five leading tacklers depart while Nick Elder was the seventh leading tackler at 40 stops, but did not start any games and is expected to take over one of the remaining linebacker spots. The defensive line and secondary also return one starter. After giving up 28.5 points and 386 yards per game in 2014, this unit will take a step back with the lack of experience.

Rice opens their season against FCS Wagner at home before three straight road trips against Texas, North Texas, and Baylor. They also face Army at home on October 24. From the East Division, Rice will face Western Kentucky (home), Florida Atlantic (road), and Charlotte (home), which should provide a winning record against those teams. They also face Louisiana Tech at home and a road trip to UTEP. With their schedule, Rice should be making a fourth straight bowl appearance.

4. North Texas Mean Green

North Texas made a bowl game in 2013 after a nine year absence. They won that bowl game against UNLV, but fell to 4-8 in 2014 with only nine returning starters. Dan McCarney is entering his fifth year and hoping to return to a bowl game in 2015.

The offense returns six starters beginning with quarterback Andrew McNulty. McNulty started the final six games and finished the season with 1,295 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Antoine Jimmerson and Jeffrey Wilson also return at running back to provide some help to McNulty. McNulty will also have Carlos Harris back to throw to after he caught 70 passes for 863 yards and 3 touchdowns. The offensive line returns only one starter, which may hurt some of the numbers early in the season. North Texas put up 27.2 points and 326 yards per game in 2014 and this year should produce similar or better numbers.

The defense also returns six starters, but none of the top three tacklers return. The defensive line has three starters back, which easily makes this the strongest unit on defense. They gave up an average of 162 yards rushing per game and should be able to produce that kind of performance again. Linebacker has two starters returning, but lost their top guy in Derek Akunne. The secondary has only Kenny Buyers returning, but he should be able to lockdown one of the corner spots. After surrendering 29.8 points per game in 2014, the defense should be able to match that again in 2015.

North Texas does not play opening week and will face SMU on the road in their first game on September 12. They then face Rice at home before back-to-back road games at Iowa and Southern Miss. They also face Portland State (home) and Tennessee (road) as part of their non-conference schedule. Out of the East Division, NT will face the top trio of Western Kentucky (home), Marshall (road), and Middle Tennessee (road), which puts an upper limit on their finishing position in the West. North Texas will probably need an upset or two to reach a bowl game.

5. Southern Miss Golden Eagles

It is hard to believe how fast Southern Miss fell in College Football after 2011. In 2011, Southern Miss went 12-2 with an upset victory over Houston in the C-USA Championship Game, but fell to 0-12 in 2012. They went 1-11 in 2013 and 3-9 in 2014. 2015 will be the third year in charge for Todd Monken.

Monken will have plenty to work with on offense, as ten starters return from 2014 and some nice talent has transferred in. Nick Mullens threw for 2,470 yards with 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions last year, but may be challenged by former TCU player Tyler Matthews. Ito Smith was the top running back in 2014 with 536 yards and 2 touchdowns, but it could be Michigan transfer Justice Hayes who ends up as the number one running back. The top two receivers, Michael Thomas and Casey Martin, both return as does the entire offensive line. Southern Miss put up 17.1 points per game and 316 yards in 2013, 19 points per game and 365 yards per game in 2014, and will certainly obliterate those numbers this year.

The defense under Monken has struggled, but perhaps that is because there was not much in the cupboard. In 2013, eight starters returned and gave up an average of 41.9 points and 436 yards per game. 2014 was a a bit better as six starters returned and gave up 35.4 points and 451 yards per game. There will be five starters back in 2015. Michael Smith will be anchoring the defensive line at tackle, but perhaps the biggest addition is at defensive end with former Auburn player Ricky Parks. The linebacking unit has two starters back while only one returns in the secondary. Picasso Nelson is the returning starter in the secondary after starting 10 games as a freshman and recording 36 tackles, 7 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense will continue to make small steps forward in 2015.

Southern Miss will open the season with home games against Mississippi State and FCS Austin Peay before back-to-back road trips against Texas State and Nebraska. The fifth game against North Texas at home on October 3 could determine which team finishes fourth. From the East Division, Southern Miss draws Marshall (road), Charlotte (road), and Old Dominion (home) while having to face UTEP at home and Louisiana Tech on the road. Southern Miss could be pushing for bowl eligibility with an upset or two in C-USA play.

6. Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners

Texas-San Antonio is a relative new program entering their fifth season of play in 2015. Larry Coker has been in charge since the start and has led them from the FCS to C-USA. In 2013, UTSA went 7-5 in their first season of C-USA competition before falling off in 2014 with a 4-8 record. 2015 may not be any better.

Coker has only two returning starters on offense, but that may not be a bad thing. In 2014, UTSA had ten starters returning, but only put up 17.1 points and 298 yards of offense per game! 2015 will see Michigan graduate transfer Russell Bellomy vying for the starting quarterback spot. Jarveon Williams is likely to assume the running back spot after running for 325 yards and 3 touchdowns as the second leading rusher last year. The offensive line returns only one starter while the top receiver returning from 2014 is tight end David Morgan. Despite the dearth of experience, it is hard to imagine UTSA doing much worse of offense than they did in 2014.

The defense has only four returning starters from a unit that was respectable in 2014. The defense gave up 25.9 points and 370 yards per game with ten returning starters last year. Middle linebacker Drew Douglas is the top returning tackler after recording 71 stops, 1 sack, and 6 tackles for loss. The defensive line has zero returning starters while the secondary has the other two starters returning in Bennett Okotcha and Mauricio Sanchez. The defense has been consistent under Coker, but with the lack of experience, there is a strong possibility of a step back.

UTSA has a brutal non-conference schedule with games against Arizona (road), Kansas State (home), Oklahoma State (road), and Colorado State (home) in their first four weeks. In conference, UTSA draws Old Dominion (home), Charlotte (road), and Middle Tennessee (home) from the East Division. It will be a long season for UTSA if both sides of the ball struggle. It is a rebuilding year for UTSA in 2015.

Overview

The Conference USA West Division is a three horse race with one team slightly better than the competition. Louisiana Tech looks like the best team in the division, but the duo of UTEP and Rice could win the division as well and it would not be a surprise. North Texas and Southern Miss will be battling it out under those three and will both need at least one or two upsets to get back to a bowl game. UTSA is in rebuilding mode with only six starters returning. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Louisiana Tech

2. UTEP

3. Rice

4. North Texas

5. Southern Miss

6. Texas-San Antonio

C-USA Championship Game

The previous part of the 2015 College Football Preview looked at the C-USA East Division and predicted Western Kentucky to win the division. That will set up a C-USA Championship Game between Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech. In that game, Western Kentucky is predicted to defeat Louisiana Tech for the Conference USA Championship.

The next part of the 2015 College Football Preview will look at the American Athletic Conference’s East Division. That can be found on Tuesday, July 21 here at Sports Enthusiasts.