Leave the upheaval and uncertainty for other conferences. The Sun Belt talks up its stability and momentum, a combo league coaches and players believe has it poised to lead the way among Group of Five college football programs.
While the American Athletic Conference lost several signature schools including Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to the Big 12, the Sun Belt has plenty of consistency to build on. And perhaps none more important than the return of three-time defending player of the year, Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall.
“It’s not arguably any more, it’s factually, the best Group of Five conference in America,” Arkansas State coach Butch Jones said this summer.
The league is coming off a stellar 2022 season where Sun Belt teams posted wins over Nebraska (Georgia Southern), Notre Dame (Marshall),Texas A&M (Appalachian State ) and Virginia Tech (Old Dominion), had five teams put up 10-win seasons and saw newcomer James Madison tie for the Eastern Division title with powerhouse Coastal Carolina.
“As we celebrate football," conference Commissioner Keith Gill told reporters, "it’s obvious that the Sun Belt Conference has never been better.”
A big reason once again is McCall, the fifth-year passer whose thrown for 8,061 yards and 77 touchdowns against eight interceptions the past three seasons.
McCall's time with the Chanticleers appeared done last December when coach Jamey Chadwell for Liberty and the quarterback entered the transfer portal. But McCall decided it was best to stick with his old program and new coach Tim Beck, the former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at North Carolina State the previous three seasons.
McCall acknowledged the difficulty of losing Chadwell, who led the Chants to a 31-7 mark including two 11-win seasons the past three seasons. But McCall saw Beck as someone who could continue the progress he and the team have made.
“It was the first time a lot of us have gone through this,” said McCall, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound passer from Indian Trail, North Carolina. “But my message to the team was to be optimistic and welcome coach with open arms.”
Beck's biggest concern might be a defense that gave up more than 48 points a game in closing the year with three straight defeats, including in the Sun Belt title game and the Birmingham Bowl. Beck's message since arriving has been on the finish. Stay healthy, stay engaged and be ready to push through anything.
“I think we're in a good spot,” McCall said.
James Madison, which tied for the division crown in its debut Sun Belt season, was picked to win the East outright this season. The Dukes, like last year, can't play in the title game as they transition from the FCS. Defending league champion Troy is the favorite to win the West Division over South Alabama.
Along with Beck at Coastal, Texas State hired an offensively minded coach in G.J. Kinne to take over for Jake Spavital. Kinne led the highest-scoring, highest-producing offense in Division I, averaging 51.5 points and 581.2 yards per game at Incarnate Word. Kinne took to the transfer portal to find playmakers including ex-LSU and Auburn quarterback T.J. Finley, who might help transition Kinne's high-paced attack to the Sun Belt.
Linebacker Jason Henderson of Old Dominion was picked as the league's preseason defensive player of the year. Henderson led the country a year ago with 186 tackles, 39 more than second-place Shane Bulac of Buffalo. Henderson, a 6-1, 227-pound junior, had 11 games with double digit tackles and was the only player in the FBS last season with multiple games of 20-or-more stops.
APP STATE BOUNCE BACK
The Mountaineers will look to recover from uncharacteristic 6-6 season after winning three divisional titles the past five Sun Belt seasons. Coach Shawn Clark must replace two-year quarterback starter Chase Brice. There's been a three-way competition with Ryan Burger, Mason McHugh and Joey Aguilar, who like Brice, was a Duke transfer.
Sun Belt teams will have their usual chances to make a statement against Power Five programs. Arkansas State starts at No. 20 Oklahoma, South Alabama goes to No. 24 Tulane, Coastal Carolina opens the year at UCLA, Texas State starts at Baylor and Old Dominion attempts to win three straight over Virginia Tech. And that's just week one. The schedule has many more Sun Belt trap games for Power Five foes.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll