Sun Belt Conference Opens New Era in 2018
NEW ORLEANS — The Sun Belt Conference is entering its final football season under the leadership of commissioner Karl Benson, who took over at a time of major transition and uncertainty for the league.
Benson — who at 66 has decided to step down next summer — expects the action on the field this fall to show how far the Sun Belt has come since his arrival in 2012, when everything from membership, facilities, TV contracts and bowl affiliations were different.
“The Sun Belt for so long has been labeled as the bottom of the 10 conferences and that’s no longer the case,” Benson recently asserted. “We have established a brand. We’ve established credibility.”
This season will be a historic one for the 18-year-old league, which will have its first championship game between the winners of two newly formed, five-team divisions that were designed to foster geographic rivalries and make travel easier for fans.
The East Division consists of Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Troy. In the West, it’s Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama and Texas Southern.
“It’s a great thing,” third-year Louisiana-Monroe coach Matt Viator said. “The NCAA is about opportunity, and two teams in this league will get another opportunity when they play in the championship game.”
The Sun Belt also didn’t want to risk poor attendance at neutral site game. The team with the best league record, or which wins any necessary tie-breakers, will host the Sun Belt title tilt.
“When you think about the championship game being played on a home campus, and what that can mean to a team, that makes the regular season more valuable,” Benson said. “The conference season takes on added meaning.”
Some other Sun Belt story lines in 2018:
Appalachian State and Arkansas State are preseason favorites to win their respective divisions after being among the more dominant forces in the league the past several seasons.
Troy and Louisiana-Monroe were predicted second-place finishers in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll, marking a considerable increase in expectations for ULM. The Warhawks went 4-4 in league play last season and 3-5 the season before that. Troy is coming off a strong 2017 that included a victory in the New Orleans Bowl.
Appalachian State will field an unproven quarterback. Sophomore Zac Thomas appears is in line to take over for four-year starter Taylor Lamb.
Arkansas State has profited from coaching stability; Blake Anderson is in his fifth year.
“There’s a lot of excitement around our squad,” Anderson said, highlighting a roster full of “guys that we’ve recruited and watched grow up over a four and five-year period. I think it’s our most athletic team. One of our most experienced teams.”
During each of the last two seasons, the Sun Belt tied its record for bowl wins with four, finishing second in bowl winning percentage among all 10 FBS conferences. Since the 2014 season, no conference has a better total bowl winning percentage (.611). The Sun Belt’s 11 bowl wins during that span exceeds those by the American Athletic Conference (10) and the Mid-American Conference (6).
Arkansas State senior QB Justice Hansen is back for one more season after being named the 2017 Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He set single-season Arkansas State and Sun Belt Conference records for passing touchdowns (37) and total offense (4,389 yards) last season. His 3,967 yards passing were the third most in Sun Belt history. He also has been named to pre-season watch lists for the Maxwell, Davey O’Brien, Walter Camp and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards.
There are three new head coaches in the Sun Belt. Billy Napier takes over at Louisiana-Lafayette, as do Steven Campbell at South Alabama and Chad Lunsford at Georgia Southern. Lunsford served as interim head coach at the end of 2017, going 2-4 after replacing Tyson Summers.
Coastal Carolina enters its third season and first of bowl eligibility. The Chanticleer’s also welcome back coach Joe Moglia, who missed the 2017 season for medical reasons.
“I had mold growing inside my body,” Moglia explained. “I wasn’t dying, but I could have had a very serious problem.”
Moglia, a former TD Ameritrade chief executive, had to watch from a distance as Coastal went 3-9 last season.