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Appalachian State overwhelming favorite in Sun Belt Conference

App State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire)

Some new head coaches have all the luck.  That’s certainly the case with first-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz, who inherited an embarrassment of riches at Appalachian State (11-2) when predecessor Scott Satterfield accepted the head coaching job at Louisville last December.

The 36-year-old Drinkwitz, a former offensive coordinator at North Carolina State whose record-setting teams ranked among the top twenty nationally in pass attempts and among the country’s ten best in completions over the past two seasons, inherits a veteran roster that includes seventeen returning starters from a team that lost only two games last year, including a heart-stopping overtime setback at Penn State in the season opener, and went on to defeat upstart Louisiana in the Sun Belt’s first-ever championship game before mauling Middle Tennessee 45-13 in the New Orleans Bowl.

Along with former Auburn, Arizona State and Southern Miss offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who took over the reins at Troy, Jamey Chadwell at Coastal Carolina and ex-West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital at Texas State, Drinkwitz is one of four new head coaches in the Sun Belt Conference.

Drinkwitz’s Mountaineers are loaded.  In addition to returning quarterback Zac Thomas, the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Year who completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 2,039 yards and 21 touchdowns in his inaugural season last year, Appalachian State returns nine starters on offense, including seven All-Sun Belt players.

Returning six starters on a defensive unit that ranked sixth nationally in total defense in 2018, yielding a paltry 15.5 points per game, the Mountaineers are experienced up front and boast three of the league’s top linebackers in senior Akeem Davis-Gaither, who recorded a team-high 105 tackles, including ten for a loss, Jordan Fehr, who had 86 tackles and 5.5 sacks, and Noel Cook, who amassed 75 tackles last year.

Appalachian State, which briefly broke into the national Top 25 last year before Thomas was injured in a 34-14 loss to Georgia Southern, is also expected to be strong on its special teams, with kicker Chandler Staton, who went 12-16 in field goal attempts, and punter Clayton Howell, who punted for an average of 43.6 yards in 2018, leading the charge in the kicking game.  Kick returner Darrynton Evans, who has two career kick returns for touchdowns, will be a constant threat to take it the distance again in 2019.

This will be an exciting team to watch, both offensively and defensively.  Nonconference tilts at North Carolina on Sept. 21 and against the SEC’s South Carolina Gamecocks on Nov. 9th will give the Mountaineers an opportunity to showcase precisely what they’re capable of doing. 

This is a Top 25-caliber team and, barring some unforeseen injuries, a fifth straight bowl appearance seems almost certain.

While Appalachian State is obviously favored to win a fourth straight Sun Belt title, it would be a mistake to write off division rivals Troy and Georgia Southern, both of whom are coming off impressive ten-win seasons.

(Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire)

The only Sun Belt team to defeat Appalachian State last year, Georgia Southern (10-3) returns a talent-laden roster, including one of the best defensive units in the conference, and would like nothing more than to win the division and conference title this year. 

“I know everybody was happy about 10 wins and winning a bowl game,” coach Chad Lunsford told Lindy’s college football preseason magazine, “but we left a lot of things on the table.  We finished third in the Sun Belt East.  We need to be trying to win the thing.”

A grueling schedule, which includes nonconference games at LSU and Minnesota and conference road contests at Appalachian State and Troy, will severely test Lunsford’s Eagles.

Sharing the division title with Appalachian State last year at 7-1, but failing to appear in the conference championship game by virtue of a 21-10 loss to the Mountaineers, Troy (10-3) faces something of a transition year, but should still be in the thick of things when the Trojans host Georgia Southern on Nov. 9 and Appalachian State in the season finale three weeks later.

With a young and inexperienced starting quarterback, Coastal Carolina (5-7) and Georgia State (2-10), which allowed a staggering 489.5 yards per game and ranked last in the conference in total defense in 2018, most likely won’t be contending for the division title, but could see some modest progress.

Prediction – Sun Belt East

  1. Appalachian State (11-2, 7-1 Sun Belt)
  2. Georgia Southern (10-3, 6-2 Sun Belt)
  3. Troy (10-3, 7-1 Sun Belt)
  4. Coastal Carolina (5-7, 2-6 Sun Belt)
  5. Georgia State (2-10, 1-7 Sun Belt)

The race in the Sun Belt West will likely be a battle between the conference’s two Louisiana schools and the division title could come down to the final game of the season when Louisiana hosts UL-Monroe in Lafayette. 

The surprising Ragin’ Cajuns defeated UL-Monroe in a 31-28 cliffhanger last season and the Warhawks would like nothing more than to return the favor this year.

One of only four bowl-eligible FBS teams to be passed over for a bowl game last season, UL-Monroe (6-6) has a lot to prove in 2019. 

If the Warhawks, led by senior quarterback Caleb Evans, can survive a brutal nonconference schedule which includes games against Florida State, Iowa State and Memphis, and score more consistently in the red zone while improving defensively against the pass, there’s no reason they can’t win the Sun Belt’s West Division.

Having reached last year’s championship game, Louisiana (7-7) will also likely be in the hunt again.  The Ragin’ Cajuns return fifteen starters from a team that was widely predicted to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt West in what was expected to be a rebuilding year, but ended up winning the division and going to the Cure Bowl.

(Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire)

With the departures of quarterback Justice Hansen, the 2018 Sun Belt Player of the Year, and a big gap on the offensive line, which loses three starters, including standout Lanard Bonner, presents some serious challenges for Arkansas State (8-5), but the Red Wolves could surprise and make a run at the division title.

With a questionable offensive line and difficult nonconference games against Nebraska, UAB and Memphis, South Alabama (3-9) isn’t likely to improve on its overall record while Texas State (3-9), which scored only 21 points in its final three games a year ago, will need to find some offensive spark if it hopes to make any significant improvement this season.

Prediction – Sun Belt West

  1. UL-Monroe (6-6, 4-4 Sun Belt)
  2. Louisiana (7-7, 5-3 Sun Belt)
  3. Arkansas State (8-5, 5-3 Sun Belt)
  4. South Alabama (3-9, 2-6 Sun Belt)
  5. Texas State (3-9, 1-7 Sun Belt)

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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