NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette have given the Sun Belt Conference a top-heavy look in recent seasons.
The rest of the 10-team league could be hard-pressed to change that in 2020.
While the Mountaineers are on their third head coach in three years, they’re also coming off arguably the best season in program history, capping off their 13-1 2019 campaign with a convincing New Orleans Bowl triumph and No. 19 ranking in the final AP Top 25 poll last season.
Appalachian State also has quarterback Zac Thomas returning to lead a senior-laden squad that has won 33 games since 2017 and both East Division crowns since the Sun Belt went to five-team divisions in 2018.
That should ease the transition for new head coach for Shawn Clark, who took over after his predecessor, Eliah Drinkwitz, took the Missouri job.
Clark said he is fortunate as first year head coach “to have this much talent around that’s played a lot of football.”
He already has one victory, having taken over before last season's bowl game, and said he doesn’t feel pressure to uphold the program’s high standards.
“I’m very prepared for this opportunity,” Clark said. “We’re going to play a very aggressive style of offense and defense and let the cards fall where they fall.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns, meanwhile, are two-time Sun Belt West Division champs under returning coach Billy Napier.
The only team that could stop them from winning the conference outright was Appalachian State, and the two again look to be on a collision course in the Sun Belt championship game.
Louisiana-Lafayette’s returning players include QB Levi Lewis, who eclipsed 3,000 yards passing last season, along with their top two rushers, Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, who combined for more than 2,000 yards and 29 touchdowns from scrimmage.
The Sun Belt preseason poll indicated that the league’s coaches see Georgia Southern and Troy as Appalachian State’s biggest challengers in the East and Arkansas State as a threat to the Cajuns in the West.
Georgia Southern has been to two straight bowl games and returning QB Shai Werts will run an option offense that averaged better than 250 yards rushing last season.
Troy lost starting QB Kaleb Barker, but his replacement this season should benefit from an experienced and prolific receiving corps, along with the return of standout running back B.J. Smith from an injury that sidelined him much of 2019.
If Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson can short up a shaky defense, the Red Wolves should be competitive. They have several proven contributors — namely, receiver Jonathan Adams and running back Marcel Murray — returning to an offense that averaged nearly 34 points last season. And their whole offensive line came back.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Appalachian State’s Thomas was named the Sun Belt’s preseason offensive player of the year. He’s already led the Mountaineers to back-to-back conference titles and last season passed for 2,718 yards and 28 TDs while also rushing for 440 yards and seven scores.
Troy linebacker Carlton Martial was named the Sun Belt preseason defensive player of the year. Last season, Martial made 127 tackles, including 18 ½ tackles for loss and four sacks to go with three interceptions, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Making the jump from the junior college to the Sun Belt hasn’t gone smoothly for South Alabama coach Steve Campbell. The Jaguars have won just five games in two seasons and won only one league game last season.
Troy coach Chip Lindsey inherited a 10-win team and an experienced quarterback when Neal Brown left for West Virginia at the end of the 2018 season. But Lindsey’s debut campaign fell short of expectations. The Trojans’ win total dropped to five.
The conference’s preseason poll shows most coaches believe Troy has the talent to bounce back – all the more reason why failing to do so could make Lindsey’s tenure more tenuous.
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