There are two kinds of teams in the Sun Belt Conference this year: the contenders and also-rans.
It’s just that simple.
A handful of teams will contend for the conference title and compete with the college football world. Another handful of teams will struggle to win games this year, unless they face each other.
Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette are in the contenders group. New Mexico State, Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Idaho are in the pretenders group.
Two teams haven’t been mentioned yet –I feel they don’t fit either category for the same reason. Both Troy and Georgia State have talented players and a lot of motivation to climb into the contenders group, but they also have young and inexperienced players that may hurt them in September and drop them into the pretenders group.
Entering 2016, Troy is expected to be the SBC’s most improved team. The Trojans lost eight games last year, but head coach Neal Brown is optimistic that his fast-paced, high-flying offense will be at full speed with junior quarterback Brandon Silvers running the show.
Silvers had some struggles last year adjusting to the new offense, but he still threw for 2,378 yards with a 61-percent completion average, good for 20 touchdowns with only seven interceptions.
The rest of the Troy offense is unproven. Most of the returning receivers did not have a lot of playing time last year. The starting running back, Brandon Chunn, missed most of last year due to injury. The offensive line should be okay with All-SBC preseason first-teamer Antonio Garcia guarding Silvers’ blindside at left tackle.
The Trojans’ defense is led by All-Sun Belt defensive end Rashad Dillon and senior linebacker William Lloyd. The former is a rock; the latter is expected to be strong against the run, but will try to be stronger on the pass rush.
Troy will open against Austin Peay and No. 2 Clemson, so the Trojans should be 1-1 going into a key game against Southern Miss that will test how good their defense will be this year. In SBC play, Troy could win its first five conference games and enter November with a chance to contend for the title.
Meanwhile, Georgia State tries to build on a historic season in 2015, in which the Panthers went 6-6 and played in their first-ever bowl game. Head coach Trent Miles’ young program made slow but steady progress — Miles hopes that pattern continues in 2016.
GSU will have to replace quarterback Nick Arbuckle, who threw for 4,368 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior in 2015. Three players – redshirt junior Connor Manning, redshirt freshman Aaron Winchester and redshirt sophomore Emiere Scaife – are battling to be the new starter.
Whoever wins the QB battle will have plenty of weapons to work with. Georgia State has a talented duo of receivers, sophomore Penny Hart and senior Robert Davis. Hart was named the SBC’s Freshman of the Year last year. He had 72 catches for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns. Davis had 61 catches and averaged 7.5 yards per catch with six scores.
The defense should be strong with nine returning starters, including preseason All-SBC picks in senior defensive tackle Shawanye Lawrence and senior safety Bobby Baker. However, this defense will get pounded to start the year.
After a winnable game at home against Ball State, GSU will face a tough early schedule with trips to Air Force, Wisconsin, and Appalachian State. The key games that will determine if the Panthers go bowling again are road games at South Alabama and Troy, along with home dates against Arkansas State and bitter rival Georgia Southern. GSU will likely need to pull an upset in one of those two home games.
Both Troy and Georgia State could play in bowls this year, and if Silvers and the Trojans’ offense are better than expected, Troy could find itself in the middle of the conversation for the Sun Belt title. However, if their offenses stall or key injuries happen, both Troy and GSU could become pretenders instead of contenders.