NEW ORLEANS — The old-school approaches of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State have brought a new look to the Sun Belt Conference.
Relying on their ability to run the ball and play defense, the newest teams in the league quickly rose to the top of the standings last year, their first as full Division I Football Bowl Subdivision members.
Georgia Southern wound up conference champs in 2014, and they were the favorite to repeat in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll. Appalachian State wound up third last season. Both teams’ styles are a departure from the pass-heavy spread offenses that have characterized the conference for most of its 14-year existence.
“A formula for winning, for like maybe ever in football, is if you can run the football and play good defense,” Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield said. “Georgia Southern obviously won it playing great defense and was No. 1 in rushing. We were a running team.”
Satterfield also noted that Louisiana-Lafayette, which was second in the Sun Belt last season and the preseason pick to finish second again, is “more of a running team” as well.
While several Sun Belt’s contenders now appear to be running teams, Satterfield doesn’t necessarily expect the rest of the conference to follow suit.
“Coaches, they do what they want to do. They do what they feel comfortable doing,” Satterfield said. “Fans want to win. Teams want to win. That’s the bottom line, no matter how you get to it.”
New Mexico State coach Doug Martin agrees to some extent, but asserts that winning in the Sun Belt consistently will still require an ability to put a lot of points on the board, no matter how a team choses to do it.
“When you look at it, it’s really an offensive league,” Martin said. “The only way you’re going to win in this league is if you can score points. There’s not many teams that are dominant defensively. There are teams that are exceptional on offense.”
Some story lines to watch in the Sun Belt this season:
SCHEDULING BREAK: Not only is Georgia Southern favored to repeat, but with the way the eight-game conference schedule works out in the 11-team league, the Eagles won’t have to face Louisiana-Lafayette, which was picked second in the Sun Belt preseason coaches’ poll, or Arkansas State, which was picked third. Georgia State coach Willie Fritz said it was up to him, “We’d love to be able to play everybody. I think that would be good for everybody in the conference.”
TRANSFERS: South Alabama benefited from UAB’s decision to disband football last December. By the time UAB changed course and reversed that decision, some key players had already committed to transfer elsewhere, and coaches had found new jobs. Former Blazers who’ll be with South Alabama this season include quarterback Cody Clements and Offensive Coordinator Bryant Vincent.
LAFAYETTE STRONG: The Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns will wear “Lafayette Strong” stickers this season to honor victims of a movie theater shooting in July. The Cajuns also look like a formidable program, having reached nine victories in each of the past four seasons. They key to matching or improving on that is whether they find a solid replacement for three-year starting quarterback Terrance Broadway. Brooks Haack, Jalen Nixon and Jordan Davis all have worked with the first-team during August camp.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Louisiana-Lafayette running back Elijah McGuire has been named the Sun Belt’s preseason offensive player of the year after racking up 1,848 total yards last season, including 1,264 rushing. The preseason defensive player of the year honor went to Texas State senior defensive back David Mims, who had five interceptions last season — and whose father by the same name played in the NFL. Meanwhile, Georgia Southern QB Kevin Ellison has been named to the Manning Award watch List.
BOWLING: The Sun Belt has added fourth bowl tie-in this season. The Cure Bowl in Orlando will match the Sun Belt and American Athletic.
Predicted order of finish: Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Texas State, South Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe, Troy, Georgia State, New Mexico State, Idaho.