USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken reveals the preseason poll, which includes four Big Ten teams in the top 10.
USA TODAY Sports
Don’t be surprised to see Troy, Appalachian State and Arkansas State atop the Sun Belt Conference preseason polls: these are the three best teams in the conference.
It’s no coincidence that these teams are led by the league’s best quarterbacks. Taylor Lamb is back at Appalachian State. Brandon Silvers returns at Troy. Justice Hansen is set to crack open his potential at Arkansas State.
Each team boasts individual units that rank atop the conference. The Mountaineers have the quarterback, running back and offensive line. Troy touts the top receiver corps, secondary and special teams. Arkansas State has the front seven.
And each team is led by a head coach with clear Power Five potential.
Neal Brown’s rebuilding project with the Trojans will inevitably draw the attention of a program in the Southeast. Blake Anderson’s consistency during his first three years with the Red Wolves has him in line to follow the path blazed by Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn. Scott Satterfield is not long for Appalachian State.
So it’s a three-team race in the Sun Belt, which in 2017 resembles the SEC in one regard: it’s hard to envision any team but the clear preseason favorites wearing the conference crown in December.
QB: Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State
RB: Jalin Moore, Appalachian State
RB: Larry Rose, New Mexico State
WR: Emanuel Thompson, Troy
WR: Shaedon Meadors, Appalachian State
TE: Blake Mack, Arkansas State
OL: Jordan Rose, Idaho
OL: Colby Gossett, Appalachian State
OL: Aaron Brewer, Texas State
OL: Frank Sutton, Louisiana-Monroe
OL: Beau Nunn, Appalachian State
DL: Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, Arkansas State
DL: Dee Liner, Arkansas State
DL: Jamal Stadom, Troy
DL: Antonious Sims, Appalachian State
LB: Kyle Wilson, Arkansas State
LB: Eric Boggs, Appalachian State
LB: Kaden Elliss, Idaho
CB: Clifton Duck, Appalachian State
CB: Chandon Sullivan, Georgia State
S: Jeremy Reaves, South Alabama
S: Jaden Wright, New Mexico State
K: Stevie Artigue, Louisiana-Lafayette
P: Payton Theisler, New Mexico State
RET: Jabir Daughtry-Frye, Troy
Quarterback: Appalachian State. You can’t go wrong with Troy’s Brandon Silvers, but I give Lamb a slight edge in the all-conference race.
Running back: Appalachian State. Larry Rose of New Mexico State might be the league’s top back, but the Aggies can’t match the Mountaineers’ depth.
Wide receivers and tight ends: Troy. The Trojans have the quarterback and the depth at wide receiver to give defensive backs fits.
Offensive line: Appalachian State. With the potential for three all-conference picks, this line will set the tone for what should be an imposing running game.
Defensive line: Arkansas State. The combination of Ja’Von Rolland-Jones on the edge and former Alabama transfer Dee Liner in the middle is the Sun Belt’s best.
Linebacker: Arkansas State. The Red Wolves lose an all-conference starter but return enough depth and production to form a pretty impressive front seven.
Secondary: Troy. A group that put together a terrific 2016 season will be even more experienced this fall.
Special teams: Troy. There’s very little separating Troy from Arkansas State or Georgia Southern, but the Trojans have the edge thanks to return man Jabir Daughtry-Frye.
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RANKING THE STARTING QUARTERBACKS
1. Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State. The Mountaineers take deep comfort in the knowledge that Lamb will make the right decisions for this offense.
2. Brandon Silvers, Troy. The reigning first-team all-conference pick is building a case for being one of the finest quarterbacks in program history.
3. Matt Linehan, Idaho. Linehan probably is the most underrated quarterback in the conference, though that tends to happen at Idaho.
4. Justice Hansen, Arkansas State. It’s no coincidence that Arkansas State’s 2016 season didn’t take off until Hansen ascended to the starting role.
5. Tyler Rogers, New Mexico State. Rogers will put up big numbers, but NMSU won’t go anywhere should he miss any significant time due to injury.
6. Garrett Smith, Louisiana-Monroe. He flashed enough ability in his six starts a year ago for head coach Matt Viator to have confidence in the position heading into 2017.
7. Dallas Davis, South Alabama. He needs to prove he’s healthy after offseason surgery, but Davis has the arm strength to succeed in the Jaguars’ scheme.
8. Conner Manning, Georgia State. The hope is Manning improves his completion percentage and turnover rate under the new coaching staff.
9. Shai Werts, Georgia Southern. There will be growing pains for the redshirt freshman as he takes the reins in the Eagles’ offense.
10. Jordan Davis, Louisiana-Lafayette. Davis brings little experience into his junior season, but he can only be an improvement over his predecessor at the position.
11. Austin Wilson, Coastal Carolina. The graduate transfer from Syracuse seems in line to start ahead of senior Tyler Keane.
12. Jaylen Gipson, Texas State. With Mississippi State transfer Damian Williams’ eligibility in doubt, the Bobcats may be forced to turn to one of four freshmen — with Gipson seemingly the favorite but no single option worthy of optimism.
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Arkansas State WR Kendrick Edwards. The former Arkansas transfer has the potential to be the Sun Belt’s breakout star at receiver.
Louisiana-Lafayette RB Trey Ragas. The 220-pound redshirt freshman is under heavy consideration for the role of primary running back.
Georgia Southern OL Jake Edwards. Formerly of Georgia, Edwards is expected to help Georgia Southern’s run game rebound from a disastrous 2016 season.
Louisiana-Monroe RB Derrick Gore. After struggling to crack the rotation at Alabama, Gore joins a pretty crowded backfield with the Warhawks.
New Mexico State OT Isaac McClain. McClain is one of two JUCO transfer set to hold down the fort for the Aggies’ front, joining fellow tackle Kris’Sean Edwards.
GAMES OF THE YEAR
Appalachian State at Georgia, Sept. 2. You know the Mountaineers are going to put a scare into Georgia, right?
Troy at Boise State, Sept. 2. It’s an early-season barometer for Troy and the conference at large.
Arkansas State at SMU, Sept. 23. Can a top-three team from the Sun Belt defeat a bottom-six team from the American?
Georgia Southern at Appalachian State, Nov. 9. Due to the vagaries of the Sun Belt schedule, the Mountaineers miss both Troy and Arkansas State during the regular season — making this matchup with Georgia Southern the team’s toughest test on paper.
Troy at Arkansas State, Dec. 2. At worst, it’s likely that this game will have a shared conference title on the line.
BEST CHANCE AT THE PLAYOFF
The odds aren’t good for the Sun Belt champion, which would very likely need to run the table to gain serious consideration for a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. But let’s map out the path for each of the top three teams.
In each case, the road to a January bowl demands no more than a single loss — and the loss itself matters — and a perfect record in league play, meaning no shared conference title. That Appalachian State avoids Arkansas State and Troy during the regular season does complicate matters.
The Mountaineers can lose to Georgia but can’t get their doors blown off; early impressions tend to linger through November. If they do lose to the Bulldogs, the Mountaineers must rebound three weeks later and defeat Wake Forest at home. Not a tall order. At 11-1 with an understandable and competitive loss to Georgia, Appalachian State would have a case.
Troy can lose at LSU on Sept. 30, but under the same qualifier as above: LSU can’t win by 28 points, to cite an arbitrary number. The Trojans would need to win at Boise State to open the year and run the table in style during league play.
Arkansas State’s road is harder to picture while also holding a higher degree of potential. The bad news? Games against Nebraska and Miami (Fla.) to open the year. The good news? Those same games, which give the Red Wolves the opportunity to make some noise on a national level. And the Hurricanes travel to Jonesboro. But I doubt either matchup stays within 17 points.
So it’s really a two-team race for the Playoff. Appalachian State and Troy can’t depend on the Sun Belt’s reputation, obviously, but each has a road to access-bowl contention.