Appalachian State, Arkansas State, and Troy are favorites to claim the 2017 Sun Belt football championship. Our best bet: the Mountaineers. Read why here.
The Sun Belt conference is moving up in the world of college football, announcing in May the formation of two five-team divisions and a championship game starting in 2018. Which program will rise to the top this season? Appalachian State and Arkansas Stare shared the conference crown last year with 7-1 records, each moving on to win their respective bowl games. The Mountaineers edged out Toledo 31-28 in the Camellia Bowl, while the Red Wolves thumped Central Florida 31-13 in the Cure Bowl. Expect both programs to vie for the conference title in 2017.
Best Bet – Appalachian State (+75000 national title odds)
The Mountaineers retained head coach Scott Satterfield over the offseason with a contract extension through 2020. Great news for a program that has gone 11-2 and 10-3 with a pair of bowl wins the last two seasons.
Offensively, App State returns seven starters, including quarterback Taylor Lamb Jr. The all-important O-line sees four back, but gone is the program’s all-time leading rusher Marcus Cox. Although Satterfield works out of multiple schemes, the rushing attack will once again anchor the attack. Terrance Upshaw, Jalin Moore and Darryton Evans will carry the workload.
Defense is the Mountaineers’ strength year in and year out. In 2016, it allowed 11.8 points per game to conference foes. Satterfield runs a 3-4 look, relying on athletic linebackers to dictate play. This area is the one unknown headed into the season. Kennan Gilchrist, John Law, and Toronto Thomas are gone. The trio combined for more than 100 career starts. Satterfield has athletic youngsters to fill the void, but they will have to gain experience quickly in order for the unit to thrive.
The one factor making App State favorites to win the Sun Belt over their rivals is scheduling. It avoids Troy and Arkansas State, while hosting Georgia Southern in Boone. The Mountaineers are 10-2 SU at home in conference play over the last three seasons, but have dropped their last seven straight against the spread. They have kicked off -15.7-favorites on average in this situation. On the road versus Sun Belt foes in this stretch, App State is 10-2 SU and 9-3 ATS.
Competitive non-conference games make the Mountaineers a good bet to post double-digit wins for the third year in a row. They open the season at Georgia (14.5 in the College Football Odds) , host Savannah State and Wake Forest in Weeks 2 and 4, and travel to UMass in late October. It would not shock to see App State run the table after its SEC opener.
Best Value - Arkansas State (+75000 national title odds)
The Red Wolves own more conference championships than any other Sun Belt program with six. All but one of those has come in the last five years. Head coach Blake Anderson returns just 10 starters, tied for fewest in the conference with Georgia Southern, Idaho, and South Alabama. Those coming back are dynamite, however, including 2016 Sun Belt Player of the Year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones. Jones, who recorded 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss, leads a stingy defense that allowed 15.2 points to conference foes last year. Seven of eight opponents failed to reach their projected team total in the betting market by 7.9 points per game in 2016.
The offense is inexperienced up front, all five starting lineman gone. The unit returns Oklahoma transfer Justice Hansen at quarterback. The pass-heavy attack will need to keep the former four-star recruit on his feet to be successful.
The Red Wolves went 0-4 to begin last year before building momentum in conference play. A similar scenario may play out this year with games at Nebraska, at SMU and Miami FL in the first four weeks. The conference schedule is easier, hosting their toughest opponent Troy at home to close out the regular season. Tricky games include road tests at Georgia Southern and at Louisiana-Monroe.
Arkansas State is 20-4 SU and 15-7-2 ATS against Sun Belt foes since Anderson took over in 2014. It has kicked off favorites in all but three contests.Best Long Shot – Troy (+99999 national title odds)
Troy isn’t necessarily a long shot for many Sun Belt followers, but oddsmakers list them below App State and Arkansas State in price. There is a lot of optimism surrounding the program after a few down years. Head coach Neal Brown led the team to a 10-3 SU and 6-5-2 ATS record in 2016, even cracking the AP Top 25 Poll at one point.
The offense returns eight starters, including quarterback Brandon Silvers. This is great news for a unit that led the conference in scoring last season with 33.7 points per game. Defensively, the team will miss Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Rashad Dillard. The premier edge rusher graduated, but all others from the front seven returns. The unit led the conference in rushing defense and takeaways in 2016.
A tougher conference schedule than the Red Wolves and Mountaineers may haunt Troy’s title chances. Road tests at Georgia State, Arkansas State and newcomers Coastal Carolina will test the team. Moreover, a Week 5 out-of-conference date at powerhouse LSU could present injuries just before a stretch of important conference games. Moreover, as productive as the offense has been under Neal’s guidance, Troy is just 2-4 SU and ATS in his tenure versus Sun Belt defenses allowing fewer than 28 points on the season. The Trojans post 22.3 on average in these games.