Sports

I’ve long advocated for college football to move beyond divisional play. It’s hard for huge conferences to feel like conferences when teams are only playing some of their cohorts twice every 12 years or so, right? And it’s frustrating when we end up with conference title games — sometimes with CFP implications — that pit the best team in the conference against, say, the fifth best.

My anti-divisions stance is on the record, and I’m slowly getting my way. The Pac-12, ACC and Mountain West have all ditched their divisions in favor of more sensible scheduling and potentially stronger title games, and only four of 10 FBS conferences still use divisional structures. It’s great when sense occasionally takes over this sport.

I don’t want change to ever touch the Sun Belt East, however. It’s perfect. It’s geographically sensible — as far as my Google Maps skills can take me, only one matchup is more than an eight-hour drive away (and Marshall vs. Georgia Southern is still less than nine) — and competitive: At least three of its current members have finished in the SP+ top 75 for five straight years.

In 2022, the East gave us Appalachian State’s all-time run of September drama — a 63-61 loss to North Carolina, followed by an upset of Texas A&M, followed by a Hail Mary win over Troy with College GameDay in attendance. It gave us another year of Coastal Carolina’s mullet-acious quarterback, Grayson McCall. It gave us one of the greatest FBS debuts we’ll ever see, with James Madison hopping up and immediately playing top-50 ball. It gave us a Georgia Southern upset of Nebraska. It gave us loads of close games and wild finishes.

What will it give us in 2023? We’ll see. Let’s preview the Sun Belt East!

Earlier previews: Conference USA, part 1 | Conference USA, part 2 | MAC East | MAC West | MWC Mountain | MWC West | Sun Belt West

2022 recap

Coastal Carolina‘s season basically ended Nov. 12. Despite an injury to McCall, the Chanticleers outlasted Southern Miss to move to 9-1 overall and 6-1 in Sun Belt play. With James Madison ineligible for the division title in its first season, Coastal clinched the East with a game to play. That game was against JMU … and the Chants lost by 40. Then they lost to Troy by 19 in the Sun Belt championship game, lost head coach Jamey Chadwell to Liberty and lost to East Carolina by 24 in the Birmingham Bowl. It was an unceremonious collapse, and it at least temporarily colored what Chadwell had accomplished there.

Elsewhere, JMU indeed wrapped up its first FBS season at 8-3, 6-2 in the Sun Belt and 50th in SP+. Marshall finished a game back in the standings, but won nine games for the first time since 2018. An exhausted Appalachian State lost three of four at the end of the most dramatic 6-6 season you’ll ever see. Georgia Southern completely flipped its offensive identity and doubled its win total (from three to six) in Clay Helton’s first season, and on the flipside, thanks in part to a terrible 3-8 record in one-score finishes, Old Dominion and Georgia State stumbled from a combined 14-12 in 2021 to 7-17.

Impressively, only Coastal changed coaches, and it was involuntary. With Chadwell off to Liberty, the Chants brought in NC State offensive coordinator Tim Beck to replace him.


2023 projections

JMU has what is projected to be the best team — and might be eligible for the title this year if the NCAA grants a waiver (judging by the random, “Spin the wheel of destiny!” feel to the NCAA’s judgments, I have no idea whether JMU should be optimistic there) — but Coastal has the best schedule. The Chants get both JMU and Marshall at home, and from the West they drew Arkansas State (No. 114) and Texas State (No. 116). JMU plays at both Coastal and Marshall and drew West favorites Troy (No. 54) and South Alabama (No. 66). That erases the Dukes’ advantage over the field and puts Marshall and App State within reach of the top as well.

We could potentially end up with a four-team title race, in other words. The other three teams are scrapping among themselves for a bowl bid. SP+ gives Georgia Southern a 32% chance at 6-6 or better, Old Dominion 6% and Georgia State 3%. I don’t think the talent differences are big enough to warrant odds that low, but both ODU and GSU have a lot to prove after last year.


Burning questions

How does James Madison top that? “You can’t play your C+ game now and get the [win]. You’ve got to play your A game every week.” That’s what JMU coach Curt Cignetti told me when preparing for his team’s first FBS campaign. Even while noting how well-run a program JMU had, I felt I was being optimistic in thinking that the Dukes might be able to win five or six games in their first season. The jump in competition was stout, and they had lost a couple of stars to the transfer portal in the preceding months.

They plowed right past five or six wins. Their 5-0 start, which included a massive comeback win at App State, got them ranked for the first time barely a month into FBS membership. And after a midseason funk, they won their last three, pummeling ODU and Coastal and outlasting Georgia State, 42-40. They were about as balanced as a team can be — 53rd in offensive SP+, 46th on defense — and had they been eligible, they’d have won the East.

They could be eligible in 2023 if the NCAA’s random whims smile on Harrisonburg. Either way, if they get what they need from the quarterback position, they could again be the division’s best team.

The bar is high. Last year Todd Centeio threw for 2,697 yards and rushed for 493 more (not including 15 sacks) in 10 games. A transfer from Temple and Colorado State, Centeio’s breakout was immense but brief; he’s gone after one year, and JMU entered spring with a four-way QB fight among sophomore Billy Atkins, redshirt freshman Alonza Barnett III and two transfers, Arizona’s (and USF’s) Jordan McCloud and Wake Forest’s Brett Griffis. Atkins was 19-for-43 passing as Centeio’s backup in 2022, and recent reports suggest Barnett and McCloud were a nose ahead.

The skill corps is facing turnover too. Last year’s leading rusher and four of the top five receivers are gone; senior wideout Reggie Brown is a keeper, but the Dukes will potentially need some high-level, smaller-school transfers — Stony Brook 1,000-yard rusher Ty Son Lawton, Saint Francis receivers (and FCS freshman All-American) Elijah Sarratt, big-play North Dakota State receiver Phoenix Sproles — to shine quickly.

Elsewhere, there is excellent continuity. JMU’s immediate success was due in part to line play — the Dukes were among the few FCS schools to boast solid depth there, and it showed immediately. Right tackle Nick Kidwell earned all-conference honors, left guard Tyler Stephens probably should have, and seven defensive linemen recorded at least 4.5 tackles for loss. Nearly everyone on both lines returns, including Kidwell, Stephens, defensive tackle James Carpenter and end Isaac Ukwu. In all, the defense returns 13 of the 16 players who saw at least 200 snaps. It’s going to be awesome again, even if offensive regression and the aforementioned brutal schedule — plus second-year adjustments from East foes — make repeating as the division’s top team difficult.

Coaches love Tim Beck. Will head coaching love him too? Tim Beck is a coach’s coach. The 57-year-old has worked with Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Mark Mangino at Kansas, Bo Pelini at Nebraska, Tom Herman at Texas and Dave Doeren at NC State. He’s been an FBS offensive coordinator or co-coordinator for 12 years and, per SP+, has produced eight top-40 offenses. He keeps his offense simple — he calls as many rushing and simple, short passing plays as he can possibly get away with — which has never really impressed fans. But successful coaches love him, and when he’s got the requisite quarterback talent and matchup advantages, he can move the ball well.

In theory, he inherits such advantages at Coastal Carolina, where he embarks on his first season as a collegiate head coach. First and foremost, he and offensive coordinator Travis Trickett kept Grayson McCall in town. Coastal has won 31 games since McCall took over Jamey Chadwell’s unique attack, and history suggests that Beck will utilize a quarterback’s mobility when it’s an option — it certainly is in McCall’s case.

McCall’s supporting cast is experienced too: Two all-conference linemen are gone, but the line could still start as many as four seniors, and the skill corps is loaded. CJ Beasley and Reese White combined to rush for 1,261 yards last season, and sophomore Braydon Bennett returns from injury after averaging 8.6 yards per carry in 2021. Even with last year’s late collapse, Coastal has finished in the offensive SP+ top 40 for three straight years, and it will be disappointing if the Chants don’t do it again in 2023.

The defense in particular is where things collapsed last season. After climbing as high as 52nd in defensive SP+ in 2020, the Chants ranked just 108th last season. They were still disruptive against the run, and linebackers JT Killen and Shane Bruce could assure that remains the case (though losing tackle Jerrod Clark and his 21 run stops hurts). The secondary, however, was a disaster. Despite a strong pass rush, Coastal ranked 114th in passing success rate allowed, 127th in yards allowed per dropback and 128th in first downs allowed per completion. Horrific. Beck brought in a small-school cornerback transfer (Abraham Temoney III from Division II’s Erskine) and a pair of jucos, but there’s no clear talent upgrade for veteran coordinator Craig Naivar to work with. That could be an issue.

With JMU’s uncertain eligibility and a manageable schedule, Coastal is in decent position to secure a return trip to the Sun Belt championship game if Beck is worth his salt as head coach. But the pass defense and the uncertainty involved with the only coaching change in the division loom overhead.

There’s room for another East contender. Is it Marshall or App State? (Or both?) Coastal’s collapse overshadowed another one. Despite an exhausting early slate and an upset loss to Texas State, App State was still 5-3 and 40th in SP+ heading into November before road losses to Coastal, Marshall and ODU (the first two more forgivable than the last) knocked the Mountaineers to 6-6. They were one of college football’s brightest early-season stories, but because they had two wins over FCS foes, they finished short of bowl eligibility and spent December at home.

Marshall’s trajectory was the direct opposite. Charles Huff’s Thundering Herd started just 4-4 due to a dismal offense and frustrating losses to Bowling Green and Louisiana, but the offense improved just enough behind freshman quarterback Cam Fancher to get out of the dominant defense’s way. They won their last five games, averaging just 23.8 points per game in that span but allowing a paltry 13.6. SP+ ranked the Herd 122nd on offense (and 121st in special teams) and eighth on defense.

SP+ likes Marshall a bit more than App this season, but I can’t decide. Fancher had a run of strong November performances, but the offense still must replace last year’s three best players in running back Khalan Laborn, receiver Corey Gammage and left guard Cedrice Paillant. The return of Rasheen Ali from injury will help; he rushed for 1,401 yards in 2021, then knocked out 273 in the last three games of last season. The line should still have solid experience, but there are no proven big-play threats in the receiving corps. Scoring some easy points via chunk plays could be important if or when the defense regresses. Of the 14 defenders who logged 300-plus snaps, eight are gone. So is coordinator Lance Guidry, who was promoted to the same job at Miami.

New coordinator Jason Semore will inherit some excellent pieces in each unit, from ace pass rusher Owen Porter to linebacker Eli Neal to corner Micah Abraham, but Huff felt the need to bring in eight transfers — including App State linebacker KeSean Brown and former Texas A&M four-star corner Josh Moten — to keep standards high. After ranking eighth, the defense has almost nowhere to go but down, so the offense will need to lurch forward a good amount.

Shawn Clark doesn’t have quite as many outright stars to replace at App State, but he’s got to replace an excellent quarterback (Chase Brice) and two all-conference offensive tackles. Every unit was hit by attrition to some degree, and Clark brought in two new coordinators as well.

Every unit still seems to have potential too. Running back Nate Noel averaged 6.9 yards per carry and should see more touches this fall, and each of three leading receivers averaged more than 2.0 yards per route run, which is solid. The interior offensive line should be good, and outside linebacker Brendan Harrington‘s return from injury (he had 11 TFLs in 2021) can help offset attrition there. To me, the two biggest question marks are at cornerback (Steven Jones and Dexter Lawson Jr. are gone after combining for three interceptions and 24 breakups) and, of course, quarterback. Redshirt freshman Ryan Burger (4-for-6 last season) and juco transfer Joey Aguilar battled for the top spot this spring.

The bar is high in Boone. Last year marked the first time the Mountaineers didn’t finish over .500 since joining FBS (and immediately going 7-5) in 2014; the September heights were incredible, but it was jarring to see them so comprehensively run out of gas, and depth could be an issue again in 2023. Still, it would surprise no one to see App State charge back to the top of the East; with the right answers at QB and CB, that’s in play, just as it is for Marshall. The Herd have both upside and a friendly schedule: SP+ projects five likely wins to just one likely loss and six relative tossups. If the offense improves more than the defense regresses, a few of those tossups could land Marshall’s way.

Georgia Southern was that, and now it’s this. What’s the Eagles’ new ceiling? TCU was 2022’s portal-era poster child; the Horned Frogs reached the national title game with defensive starters from Navy, New Mexico and Louisiana Monroe, among others, and proved the value of using the transfer portal to plump up experience levels.

Clay Helton and Georgia Southern, meanwhile, used the portal to flip identities in record time. After decades as an option team — with one misguided and unsuccessful sojourn during Brian VanGorder’s single season as head coach in 2006 — Georgia Southern raised a few eyebrows by hiring Helton, who has long championed a rather pass-happy attack. Transitioning from option to modernism can take a while (just ask Georgia Tech), but Helton brought in Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease and Houston receiver Jeremy Singleton, and poof, Georgia Southern had a passing game. Vantrease threw for 4,253 yards and 27 touchdowns and torched Nebraska for 409 yards and 45 points, the Eagles leaped from 121st to 40th in offensive SP+, and after slumping to 3-9 in Chad Lunsford’s last year in charge, they bowled in 2022.

Helton is doubling down on the portal this year. With Vantrease a one-year rental, he brought in Tulsa veteran Davis Brin, Memphis redshirt freshman JC French and Tarleton State’s Beau Allen (2,836 yards in FCS last season) to battle it out at quarterback. He also got commits from three power-conference receivers, Georgia State left tackle Bryson Broadway and, most importantly, six transfer defenders — and new coordinator Brandon Bailey — to help with a dreadful defense. The Eagles were 124th in defensive SP+ and lost three games in which the offense scored 30-plus points.

If Bailey can help to create any disruption whatsoever, it could spur improvement. The only havoc creators the Eagles had were end Justin Ellis and defensive backs Derrick Canteen and NaJee Thompson; they’re all gone, as are nine of 12 defenders (and all six defensive backs) who saw 300-plus snaps last year. Barring quite a few unexpected star turns, Georgia Southern will play in quite a few track meets in 2023. That’s good for entertainment value, at least!

Both Georgia State and Old Dominion stumbled, then lost a lot of production. Who bounces back first? The problem with living in a division that is super fun and high quality is someone still has to lose games. After both Shawn Elliott’s GSU and Ricky Rahne’s ODU went bowling in 2021, neither regressed all that much; the Panthers fell only from 80th to 82nd in SP+ while the Monarchs fell from 95th to 108th. But that was enough to flip lots of close games.

Their problems were different: Georgia State ranked a dismal 118th in defensive SP+ while ODU came in 113th on offense. In losses, GSU allowed 37 points per game, and ODU scored only 15 per game. Both of those units will see massive turnover this fall — GSU is replacing seven defensive starters, ODU six offensive.

Elliott has been aggressive in attempting to regain ground on D. He brought in former Coastal defensive coordinator Chad Staggs, who had a nice run there until last year’s issues, and he’s gotten commitments from six transfers and two jucos to date, including former four-star Clemson linebacker Kevin Swint.

He’ll also still have the services of quarterback Darren Grainger (2,443 passing yards, 908 pre-sack rushing yards) and big-play weapons in receiver Robert Lewis, running back Marcus Carroll and UMass transfer receiver Rico Arnold. The offensive line has some holes to fill — three starters are gone (including two who earned second-team all-conference honors), and three transfers are in — but there’s reason to believe the offense will still be exciting. There just might not be reason to believe the defense will rebound. Elliott has seen some swings in fortune during his six seasons in Atlanta, and rebounds have followed downturns in the past, but it might take him another year to produce a rebound this time.

Things might be trickier for Rahne, who seems to have gone out of his way not to use the transfer portal for quick fixes. Not only will he be leaning on new starters to fix the offense — a problem compounded by quarterback Hayden Wolff‘s recently announced transfer — but about half his defensive two-deep is gone, including last year’s top four defensive backs. Tackle Alonzo Ford Jr. and linebacker Jason Henderson should assure that the Monarchs remain strong against the run, but turnover in the secondary is particularly impactful to a team’s defensive SP+ rating, and while safety Terry Jones is a potential star, corner LaMareon James is the only corner with any noteworthy experience.

Wolff announced his transfer near the end of spring practice, which, among other things, might indicate he was getting a pretty good push from Fordham transfer Grant Wilson and/or three-star sophomore Jack Shields. Regardless, a new starting quarterback will have to craft strong drives without two of last year’s three primary skill corps weapons. Junior Javon Harvey (18.6 yards per catch) is a keeper, but in attempting to piece together a strong, developmental, mostly transfer-free program, Rahne and new offensive coordinator Kevin Decker (Wilson’s coordinator at Fordham last season) will have to hope that a lot of last year’s backups have developed nicely. Otherwise this will be a rebuilding season in Norfolk.


My 10 favorite players

QB Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina. After flirting with a transfer, McCall returns to the blue turf for one last season; considering he’s already thrown for 8,086 career yards and 78 touchdowns (with only eight interceptions!), his final tally is going to be pretty gaudy.

QB Darren Grainger, Georgia State. In two years as GSU’s starter, Grainger has combined 4,158 passing yards with 1,393 rushing yards and 46 combined touchdowns. His scramble-heavy style makes the Panthers offense a bit inefficient but massively explosive.

RB Nate Noel, Appalachian State. Noel rushed for 1,126 yards as the feature back in 2021, and he’s averaged 6.1 yards per carry over three seasons. If he can stay healthy with a heavy load in 2023, the Mountaineers offense could be just fine.

WR Sam Pinckney, Coastal Carolina. A star for Georgia State in 2020 and Coastal last year, the 6-foot-4 Pinckney has amassed 2,664 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns over part of five seasons. Let’s see what he does in his bonus year.

RT Nick Kidwell, James Madison. A three-year starter with 47 games of experience, the 6-foot-5, 314-pound Kidwell allowed just two sacks and earned second-team all-Sun Belt honors despite missing two games.

RG Khalil Crowder, Georgia Southern. A holdover from the Eagles’ option days, Crowder translated perfectly to Clay Helton’s attack, producing just a 1.0% blown block rate and earning second-team All-Sun Belt status in 2022.

DE Owen Porter, Marshall. Marshall’s defense has been good for a while (average defensive SP+ ranking over the last six years: 30.8), but they’ve rarely had someone as disruptive as Porter, who amassed 16.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks and 17 run stops in 2022.

DT James Carpenter, James Madison. It was difficult to choose between Carpenter and his D-line mate, Isaac Ukwu. The two combined for 24.5 TFLs, 13 sacks and 23 run stops last year, and they are the engine of what should be another dynamite Dukes defense.

LB Jason Henderson, Old Dominion. He led the nation with an astounding 164 tackles — only one other player had more than even 143 — and he was sixth nationally in run stops at 24. The junior from Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania, is a one-man run defense.

CB Micah Abraham, Marshall. The Herd have some strong defensive backs to replace, but in Abraham they still boast a downright intrusive cover man. The senior from Tampa picked off six passes, broke up 10 more and allowed a miserly 36.8 QBR in 2022.


Anniversaries

In 1988, 35 years ago, Georgia Southern actually lost a national title game. There’s a first time for everything! After storming to FCS (then 1-AA) national titles in 1985 and 1986 under Erk Russell, the young Georgia Southern program took a brief step backward. They lost 19-0 to Appalachian State in the 1987 quarterfinals, then rebounded to reach the finals in 1988. Somewhat hilariously, the Eagles and future Southern Conference rivals Furman had to travel to Pocatello, Idaho, for the title game, and the Paladins won, 17-12.

End of an era? Nope. Georgia Southern surged back to win titles in 1989 (Russell’s last season) and 1990 (Tim Stowers’ first). They added two more under Paul Johnson a decade later.

In 1998, 25 years ago, Marshall lost Randy Moss … and got better? Marshall is one of the few schools that might have topped James Madison’s FBS debut. In 1997, the Herd’s first year back up, they rode the Chad Pennington-to-Randy Moss connection to 10 wins and countless highlight reels.

With Moss dominating with the Minnesota Vikings in 1998, Marshall just kept right on rolling. The defense improved, Pennington threw for another 3,830 yards, and the Herd lost only to Bowling Green while storming to a MAC championship game win over Toledo and a Motor City Bowl win over Louisville. In all, they would win double-digit games in five of their first six years under Bob Pruett. That’s the bar JMU will now try to clear.

In 2008, 15 years ago, Mickey Matthews’ JMU team won its first CAA title. FCS success came out of order for JMU. The Dukes were 2-5 all-time in the FCS playoffs before ripping off an unlikely national title run in 2004 — they beat Lehigh and Furman by matching 14-13 scores in the first two rounds before picking up steam — and then they became a national power. They moved from the Atlantic 10 to the ultra-tough Colonial in 2007, won their first of seven CAA titles in 2008, then faded for a bit. With first Mike Houston and then Curt Cignetti as head coach, they made their second big run, winning six CAA titles in seven years, claiming their second national title in 2016 and reaching two more title games before taking the FBS plunge last fall.

In 2013, 10 years ago, Coastal Carolina made the FCS playoff quarterfinals. This is a division for the upwardly mobile, and Coastal’s rise has been unique. The 20-year-old program saw a bit of success under its first coach, David Bennett, but began to truly take off under former TD Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia, who took over in 2012 and engineered back-to-back quarterfinal runs and top-10 finishes in 2013 and ’14. Within three more years, they were in FBS.

Also in 2013, Georgia State played its first FBS game. Granted, it took another year to win its first FBS game. This Atlanta startup has developed in fits and starts. Veteran Bill Curry led them through their first few years as an FCS independent, but the Panthers went 1-10 in their final season before jumping to FBS. It was the ultimate “ready, fire, aim” jump. Trent Miles took over an overwhelmed program and went 0-12 in 2013, then just 1-11 the next fall. The Panthers rode a four-game winning streak to a shocking bowl bid in 2015, but Miles was let go during a 3-9 campaign in 2016.

The growth has been just as bumpy under Shawn Elliott: 7-5 in 2017, then 2-10 in 2018; three straight winning seasons from 2019-21, then 4-8 last fall.

In 2018, five years ago, App State won the Sun Belt. It looked as if the Mountaineers, three-time FCS national champions, had also mistimed their FBS jump; after a slight downturn in legendary coach Jerry Moore’s last two seasons, they went just 4-8 under Scott Satterfield in their final FCS campaign. They began FBS life with five losses in six games, but then the switch got flipped. They rallied to finish 7-5 in 2014, then won 73 games in seven seasons before last year’s stumble. The bar is high in Boone, and they usually clear it.

Also in 2018, Oshane Ximines played his way into the third round. The wonderfully named ODU defensive end racked up 18 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks to zoom up the draft boards and land with the New York Giants. Receiver Travis Fulham went in the sixth round, too. They are the only two ODU products to hear their names called at the NFL draft since the school resumed playing football in 2009, but two undrafted ODU products, Zach Pascal and Rick Lovato, played in this past February’s Super Bowl.

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