The Sun Belt had a decent football season in 2016, punctuated by a strong 4-2 post season record and a bump in NFL draft picks. Will the Sun Belt turn up the heat in 2017? Unlike larger conferences who simply replace outgoing seniors and early draftees with more 4 and five star talent, the Sun Belt relies on cultivating talent through four or more years of hard-nosed pigskin apprenticeship. Sun Belt fans can watch a player’s entire career unfold. Guys like Elijah McGuire, Robert Davis and Austin Rehkow may not star for your team, but longevity made them familiar names to watch.
Who’s back for 2017? I can tell you that an assload of stud quarterbacks return. Significant talent makes a comeback on the defensive side of the ball as well; three players received premium post-season conference awards last year. Running backs took a hit with three of the conference’s most accomplished riding off into the sunset, but big playmakers remain. The Sun Belt appears to be a conference loaded with experience at key positions. Let’s take a peak.
This may be a special year for QB play in the Sun Belt. The conference’s top seven highest rated quarterbacks in 2016 return this season. Teams with returning talent behind center always seem to have a better chance for success. The Sun Belt one of the more experienced conferences on the offensive side of the ball in all of college football.
Justice Hanson, Arkansas State, Junior (Best QB Rating, 138.9)
Matt Linehan, Idaho, Senior (Most passing yards, 3,184)
Brandon Silvers, Troy, Senior (Most TDs, 23)
Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State, Senior (60.6% PCT)
Dallas Davis, South Alabama, Junior (2,706 passing yards)
Gone: Anthony Jennings, Tyler Jones
The Running Backs
The Sun Belt lost three of its most accomplished running backs, but the backs who remain are not without major skills. Led by 2016 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Jalin Moore, 2017’s class features some NFL talent (Chunn, Rose3) and unconventional playmakers (Wand and Moore).
Jalin Moore, Appalachian State, Junior (Leading rusher, 1,402 yards, SBC Offensive POY)
Jordan Chunn, Troy, Senior (Most TDs, 16)
Warren Wand, Arkansas State, Junior (1,158 yards from scrimmage)
Larry Rose III, New Mexico St, Senior (1,651 yards in 2015)
Gone: Elija McGuire, Marcus Cox, Matt Breida
The Wide Receivers
Troy features the most potent receiving tandem in the Sun Belt with Emmanuel Thompson and Deondre Douglas, but the conference’s best receiver might be a guy who didn’t play a down in 2016. Penny Hart was the Sun Belt’s leading receiver in 2015 and was named The SBC Freshman of the Year after hauling in 71 receptions for 1,099 yards. Hart redshirted is sophomore season after breaking his foot against Appalachian State in Week 4. The best thing for Georgia State is a healthy Hart.
Emmanuel Thompson, Troy, Senior (Most receptions, 80)
Deondre Douglas, Troy, Junior (740 yards, 6 TDs)
Keenan Barnes, Louisiana, Junior (6 TDs)
Shaedon Meadors, Appalachian State, Senior (716 yards)
Penny Hart, Georgia State, Sophomore (DNP 2016, 2015 FOY)
Chris Jones, Coastal Carolina, Senior
Gone: Robert Davis, Josh Magee, Kendall Sanders
Best of the Rest on Offense
One position in the Sun Belt that suffers a significant power drain is tight end. Gone are Idaho’s talented tandem of Trent Cowers and Deon Watson, Keith Rucker of Georgia State, and NFL bound Gerald Everett of South Alabama. But Arkansas State’s Blake Mack and his 34 receptions return, and so does Ari Werts of Georgia State who hauled in 3 TD passes last year.
Blake Mack, TE, Arkansas State, Senior
Ari Werts, TE, Georgia State, Junior
Colby Gossett, OL, Appalachian State, Senior
Xavier Johnson RB/PR, South Alabama, Senior
Tryston Mizerak, OL, Texas State, Senior
Gone: Gerald Everett, Parker Collins, Antonio Garcia
Look at the star power returning on defense. Then pick your eyeballs off the floor and look again. Three Sun Belt “Player of the Year” recipients return to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Will defense be the strength of the Sun Belt in 2017?