2022 college football: Group of Five conference previews, top contenders, sleepers and predictions

With the 2022 college football season fast approaching, it’s time to start previewing the conferences. We’ll start with the Group of Five, where the trickle-down effect from last summer’s realignment bombshell is already being felt.

Once Texas and Oklahoma decided to depart the Big 12 for the SEC, the Big 12 looked to the American Athletic Conference to bolster its league. In turn, the AAC raided Conference USA and several of the remaining C-USA teams then departed for the Sun Belt.

While the AAC changes won’t go into effect until next year, several former C-USA members already moved to the Sun Belt. Consequently, both C-USA and the Sun Belt have a different look this season.

Here's what you need to know from those two leagues, plus the AAC, MAC and Mountain West.

American Athletic Conference

What does Cincinnati do for a sequel?

After becoming the first non-Power Five team to qualify for the College Football Playoff, Cincinnati must replace a lot of key players if it wants to contend for a national title.

Gone are QB Desmond Ridder, RB Jerome Ford and WR Alec Pierce, while the defense must replace top-five pick Sauce Gardner along with Coby Bryant at corner as well as Bryan Cook at safety. Oh, leading tackler Joel Dublanko is also gone along with leading sacker Curtis Brooks.

On the bright side, Ridder, Ford and Pierce are the only offensive starters to replace. The offensive line returns intact and the QB competition is between veteran Ben Bryant and former four-star recruit Evan Prater. Ryan Montgomery is in line for a big role at running back while Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker are proven threats at receiver. Tight end is also a strength.

The defense should stay solid as well. UC has allowed fewer than 21 points per game in each of the last four seasons and it’s hard to see how that changes in 2022. A Week 1 matchup with Arkansas is the toughest game of the season before back-to-back trips to SMU and UCF at the end of October. Cincinnati rightfully enters as the AAC favorite, but an undefeated regular season looks like a long shot.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell guided the Bearcats to a perfect 13-0 regular season and a College Football Playoff berth in 2021. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell guided the Bearcats to a perfect 13-0 regular season and a College Football Playoff berth in 2021. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Houston back to challenge Cincinnati for AAC title

Dana Holgorsen’s Houston rebuild hit its targets in 2021. After seven wins over 2019 and 2020, Houston went 12-2 and only lost to Texas Tech and Cincinnati last year. And with Cincinnati and UCF absent from the regular-season schedule, Houston looks set for another great season.

Last year, Houston went undefeated in AAC play during the regular season before dropping the title game to Cincinnati. This year, the toughest AAC opponent appears to be a road game at SMU.

Clayton Tune is back after completing nearly 70% of his passes with Alton McCaskill (961 rushing yards and 16 TDs) and Nathaniel Dell (90 catches for 1,329 yards and 12 TDs) as his top weapons. The biggest offensive question is up front, where three starters need to be replaced. The defensive line has to replace Bucs draft pick Logan Hall but returns Derek Parish who had 5.5 sacks as a rotational rusher in 2021.

UCF enters Year 2 with Gus Malzahn

UCF’s second season under Gus Malzahn begins with an intriguing QB competition. Mikey Keene, who took over last year for the injured Dillon Gabriel, is set to compete with Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee.

Keene and Plumlee have very different skill sets. Plumlee was a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019 but mainly played receiver in 2021. Keene, a more proficient passer, threw for 1,730 yards and 17 TDs. In addition to the Plumlee transfer, UCF also added Kobe Hudson, Auburn's leading receiver in 2021.

The defense returns all but three starters and its 36 sacks a year ago were the most for the team since 2016. Games against Louisville and Georgia Tech over the first four weeks are good tests before conference play and an Oct. 29 home game vs. Cincinnati could end up being for a spot in the AAC title game.

Is Mike Houston building a contender at East Carolina?

East Carolina is looking to do something it hasn’t done since 2015.

ECU hadn’t won more than five games in any of its last six seasons entering 2021. But thanks to a soft second-half schedule, the Pirates reeled off four consecutive wins to finish with a 7-5 record.

Entering 2022, ECU is going for consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2013-15. And there’s no reason to think it can’t happen with QB Holton Ahlers and RB Keaton Mitchell back, along with four starters on the offensive line. Defensively, ECU brings back six players on the front seven and eight starters overall on a unit that was the best the team has had since 2015.

Even with an opener vs. NC State, don’t be surprised if the Pirates get off to a hot start before a tough five-game finishing stretch that includes UCF, BYU, Cincinnati and Houston.

What’s going on at Navy?

What the heck is up at Navy? The Midshipmen went 3-10 in 2018 before bouncing back for an 11-2 season in 2019. Since then, Navy has won just seven games, including a 4-8 finish in 2021.

The highlight of that 4-8 campaign was a win over Army, but this program needs to get back to a bowl game soon. And that starts with finding a way to improve the offense.

Navy averaged 37 points per game in 2019 and has averaged fewer than 20 points since. That drop-off is because of a struggling triple-option attack that has averaged fewer than four yards a carry. The defense, meanwhile, has allowed opponents to complete over 60% of their passes in its most recent three losing seasons.

Those improvements are much easier said than done, but if Navy can improve in just one of the two areas, a bowl game is achievable even with Houston, Cincinnati and UCF on the schedule.

Which AAC team is most overrated?

Sam: Memphis. This program hasn't been the same since Mike Norvell left for Florida State. The QB is solid but the lack of a running game and a below average defense are problems that likely won't be solved this year.

Nick: SMU. The Mustangs return a lot on offense, but it looks incredibly tough for an SMU team with a new coaching staff to exceed last year’s 8-4 season. The Mustangs have games against Maryland and an improved TCU in September and play the top three teams in the AAC. This team could go 7-5 and be just as good as last year’s team.

Who is a sleeper to contend for the AAC title?

Sam: UCF. Calling UCF a sleeper may be a stretch, but it feels like the Knights are being overshadowed by Cincinnati and Houston. UCF had so many injuries last year but still managed to win nine games. With the level of skill position talent on this team, UCF could be really dangerous if Malzahn gets steady QB play.

Nick: East Carolina. Yeah, the schedule in October and November is brutal. But it’s been a while since ECU has played meaningful football late in the season. The Pirates could conceivably be on a six-game win streak ahead of a home game vs. UCF on Oct. 22 and going 2-1 against UCF, Cincinnati and Houston could put ECU in the thick of the race for the AAC title game.

Who is your pick to win the AAC championship?

Sam: Houston

Nick: Cincinnati

Conference USA

Can UTSA replicate last year’s magic?

UTSA was one of the darlings of the sport in 2021 as it won its first 11 games en route to a 12-2 record and a C-USA title, the program’s first conference championship. Will UTSA be able to recapture that magic in 2022?

Though QB Frank Harris Jr. is back with a talented group of wideouts, the Roadrunners will be without workhorse RB Sincere McCormick, a slew of defensive contributors and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.

UTSA should be one of the best programs in C-USA once again but with those departures and games against Houston, Army and Texas in Weeks 1-3, it’d be a shock if UTSA got off to such a good start again. And if Jeff Traylor keeps coaching at such a high level, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be a hot name on the coaching market in a few months.

How will Bill Clark’s retirement affect UAB?

The surprise retirement of Bill Clark (due to back problems) was overshadowed by realignment drama and did not get the attention it deserved. Clark brought UAB back from extinction and built the Blazers into a perennial C-USA contender. The Blazers have played in a bowl game in each season since their return to the field and have won three division titles and two outright conference championships.

Bryant Vincent, in his sixth season at UAB as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, is the team's interim head coach. Even with the change, UAB should be one of the top teams in C-USA. And after missing out on the C-USA title game in 2021, this group should be plenty motivated.

What will Western Kentucky’s offense look like?

WKU had one of the most explosive offenses in the country in 2021 thanks to the play-calling of Zach Kittley and the excellence of quarterback Bailey Zappe. Both arrived at WKU from Houston Baptist, along with leading receiver Jerreth Sterns, completely transforming the Hilltoppers’ attack. Now, all three are gone, as is No. 2 receiver Mitchell Tinsley, who transferred to Penn State.

With those pieces out of the equation, what will the WKU offense look like? Ben Arbuckle, who worked with Kittley at both HBU and WKU, will step into the play-calling role while West Virginia transfer Jarret Doege is the front-runner to win the starting QB job.

If the Hilltoppers can be similarly explosive, they can compete for the C-USA crown again after losing to UTSA in last year’s title game.

UTSA quarterback Frank Harris (0) returns this season with hopes of defending the Roadrunners' Conference USA title. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
UTSA quarterback Frank Harris (0) returns this season with hopes of defending the Roadrunners' Conference USA title. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Can Willie Taggart get things going at FAU?

With all of his connections in Florida, Willie Taggart felt like a strong fit at Florida Atlantic. FAU found success, particularly on offense, under Lane Kiffin. But in Taggart’s two seasons, the Owls have really underwhelmed. Under Taggart, FAU is 10-11 overall with a 7-7 mark in league play. Last year, the Owls closed the season with four straight losses to finish 5-7 and miss a bowl game.

Will things click for the Owls in Taggart’s third season? That’s what happened when he was at USF. The Bulls combined for six wins in his first two seasons before winning eight games in his third season and then 10 in his fourth.

Miami transfer N’Kosi Perry is back at QB for FAU, along with four starting linemen and top producers at receiver and running back. There’s got to be improvement, right? If not, the transition to the AAC could be ugly.

How will realignment affect the 2022 season?

Conference USA has already seen three programs depart to the Sun Belt: Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion. As a result, there are no divisions this season. Instead, it’s 11 teams with the top two competing in the conference title game.

In June of 2023, six more will exit for the AAC: Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA. That means five schools — FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, UTEP and Western Kentucky — are getting left behind. In order to keep the conference alive in 2023 and beyond, Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State will join.

Times are pretty bleak in Conference USA.

Which C-USA team is most overrated?

Sam: Western Kentucky. I have real concerns about what WKU can do without the group that was in place on offense last year. The offense should look similar schematically, but Zappe, Sterns and Tinsley were phenomenal. My biggest concern is Doege at quarterback. If the offense regresses, there’s not enough on defense to keep WKU in games against teams like UAB and UTSA.

Nick: I agree on Western Kentucky. WKU went from 19 points per game in 2020 to 44 thanks to Bailey Zappe and the wide-open offense it brought in from Houston Baptist. The offensive philosophy shouldn’t change too much, but this is a team that could struggle to get more than seven wins given the schedule.

Who is a sleeper to contend for the C-USA title?

Sam: North Texas. The Mean Green had back-to-back nine-win seasons earlier in Seth Littrell’s tenure but has a combined 14-21 record over the last three years. Last year, it looked like Littrell was on his way to getting fired before UNT closed out the regular season with five straight wins. Can that carry over to 2022? I think so, especially with the addition of transfer QB Grant Gunnell.

Nick: UTEP. The Miners return 15 starters from a team that won two more games in 2021 than it had in the previous four seasons combined. While UTEP has to play UTSA, it avoids UAB and WKU. That easy conference schedule should put UTEP in the mix for the C-USA title game, especially if the defense is as good as it was a year ago.

Who is your pick to win the C-USA championship?

Sam: UAB

Nick: UAB

Mid-American Conference

Northern Illinois went from worst to first. What’s next?

Can we safely say that 2019 and 2020 were simply a blip for Northern Illinois? The Huskies were 5-7 and 0-6 in Thomas Hammock’s first two seasons before bouncing back for a 9-5 season and a MAC title in 2021. With 18 starters back in 2022, Northern Illinois is one of the favorites in the MAC and a strong contender to win its third conference title in five seasons.

The Huskies could challenge for 10 wins as well. NIU has three winnable non-conference games against Eastern Illinois, Tulsa and Vanderbilt and gets MAC West rivals Toledo and Central Michigan at home. NIU has to replace 2021 leading rusher Jay Ducker, but Harrison Waylee averaged nearly six yards a carry and should be up to the task.

Was Toledo better than its record suggests?

Toledo finished 7-6 and second in the MAC West, but wasn't far away from a season that was much better.

Five of Toledo’s six losses came by a single score and four of those defeats were by three points or fewer. Toledo lost by three at Notre Dame and then lost back-to-back games to Northern Illinois and Central Michigan by a combined five points.

Fifteen starters return, including one of the MAC's top quarterbacks in Dequan Finn, and the schedule is extremely manageable. Yeah, there’s a Week 3 game at Ohio State, but Toledo should hang with San Diego State and drew Kent State, Buffalo and Bowling Green from the East. Finding a second target for Finn to throw to behind Devin Maddox is key; no other returning player had more than 16 catches.

Who emerges from a crowded MAC East?

While Northern Illinois and Toledo appear to be the top two teams in the West, there doesn’t seem to be a clear favorite in the East. Defending East champion Kent State needs to replace seven offensive starters, including QB Dustin Crum. Miami must replace five of its six leading tacklers on a defense that was very good, and Buffalo has just nine starters back from a team that went 4-8.

The loss of experience at each of those three schools could open the door for a team like Ohio or Bowling Green. Bowling Green was one of the youngest teams in college football in 2021 but returns 18 starters. Ohio has a lot to replace on offense, but brings back a lot of key players on defense.

Ohio aims for a bounce-back season

Ohio’s first season under Tim Albin was rough. Following a stretch of 11 consecutive seasons with at least a .500 record under Frank Solich, the Bobcats had a 1-7 start and finished 3-9.

This season could be a whole lot better, especially on defense. Ohio gave up over 30 points per game for the first time since 2005 as opposing QBs completed 67.4% of their passes. Nine starters return on that unit and the pass rush should also improve. Ohio had just 17 sacks last year.

Offensively, Kurtis Rourke — yes, Nathan’s younger brother — opens the season as the starting quarterback and replacing leading rusher De’Montre Tuggle is imperative.

Joe Moorhead’s impact at Akron

Former Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead is the only new head coach in the MAC. Moorhead, who also coached innovative offenses at Penn State and Oregon, replaced Tom Arth and immediately began adding players through the transfer portal.

After three combined wins over the past three seasons, Akron needed the talent infusion. The Zips return 16 starters from last year’s team, but that squad went 2-10. Akron is very likely a bottom-tier MAC team again, but Moorhead has the offensive acumen to potentially pull off a few upsets.

Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock holds up the MAC Championship trophy, which the team won in 2021 after bouncing back from a winless 2020 campaign. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)
Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock holds up the MAC Championship trophy, which the team won in 2021 after bouncing back from a winless 2020 campaign. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images) (Aaron J. Thornton via Getty Images)

Which MAC team is most overrated?

Sam: Northern Illinois. I'm way more skeptical about NIU. The Huskies went from winless to winning the league, and I think they will fall somewhere in the middle this year. They're probably a bowl team, but I'm a firm believer in regression on the heels of a season where NIU went 7-2 in one-score games.

Nick: Western Michigan. WMU shouldn’t fall to the basement but it’s hard to see the Broncos contending for the division title. WMU needs to replace QB Kaleb Eleby and WR Skyy Moore while Corey Crooms is the only returning player who had more than 15 catches. There’s also pressure on the defense to replace the 19 combined sacks of Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley.

Who is a sleeper to contend for the MAC title?

Sam: Central Michigan. Away from the spotlight of the SEC, Jim McElwain is dong a great job at CMU. The Chips return two of the MAC's best players — RB Lew Nichols and QB Daniel Richardson — and can compete for the MAC West crown if their defensive losses can be adequately replaced.

Nick: Ohio. With a wide-open MAC East, Ohio could easily be three games better in 2022. The schedule is rough, with games at Penn State and Iowa State and WMU and NIU from the West. If the defense does take a step forward in 2022 and the Bobcats get a couple early-season division wins, they could be in contention for the East title over the final third of the season.

Who is your pick to win the MAC championship?

Sam: Toledo

Nick: Northern Illinois

Mountain West

Is Boise State ready to bounce back?

Boise State went 7-5 in its first season under Andy Avalos. Other than the COVID-shortened 2020 season, it marked the first time Boise won fewer than eight games in a season since 1998. Along the way, the Broncos lost three games in conference play after losing a combined four Mountain West games in their previous five seasons.

After a year like that, can Boise State re-establish itself as the dominant team of the Mountain West? To get back to the top, Boise needs to fix an offensive line that allowed 27 sacks and struggled to open holes for a run game that averaged only 3.1 yards per carry.

Having QB Hank Bachmeier and RB George Holani back should help the offense, but replacing big-play receiver Khalil Shakir will be a challenge. Fortunately, Boise’s defense should again be one of the conference’s best. And after having three one-possession losses and impressive wins over Utah State, BYU and Fresno State in 2021, there’s plenty of reason for optimism in 2022.

Is Air Force underrated again?

Quietly, Air Force has reached double-digit victories in two of the last three seasons. And there’s reason to believe the Falcons can do it again. Troy Calhoun’s team returns 15 starters and should contend for that elusive Mountain West title. With Haaziq Daniels back at QB, the option attack should be clicking on all cylinders again after leading the country in rushing last season.

On the other side, defensive coordinator John Rudzinski has departed for Virginia after 12 seasons on Calhoun’s staff. Rudzinski was promoted to DC in 2018 and oversaw a continually improving unit, culminating in last year’s team that led the MWC in total defense (299.5 ypg) and was second in scoring defense (19.8 ppg).

From a schedule perspective, AFA has Wyoming, Utah State and San Diego State on the road but gets to host Boise State. That Boise game could decide the Mountain division.

Jeff Tedford, Jake Haener back at Fresno State

After two years out of coaching, Jeff Tedford is back at Fresno State. Tedford was Fresno's coach from 2017-2019 and won a combined 22 games and a conference title in his first two years before dropping to 4-8 in 2019. He stepped away due to health reasons but is back to lead a team that could have the Mountain West’s best offense.

The offense is led by QB Jake Haener, who is in his third year as the starter. Haener threw for 4,096 yards and 33 TDs in 2021 and has top receivers Jalen Cropper and Josh Kelly and versatile RB Jordan Mims back at his side.

Defensively, the Bulldogs have all-conference DE David Perales back rushing the passer in front of an experienced group of linebackers and defensive backs. This team should be the class of the West division.

Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Jake Haener returns this season after leading one of the most prolific passing offenses in the country a year ago. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate)
Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Jake Haener returns this season after leading one of the most prolific passing offenses in the country a year ago. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

What can Utah State do for an encore?

Utah State was one of the biggest surprises in college football in 2021. The Aggies won just one game in 2020 but new coach Blake Anderson came from Arkansas State, replenished the roster with transfers and coached USU to 11 wins and its first Mountain West title.

Among those transfers was QB Logan Bonner, who followed Anderson from Arkansas State and is back for another year. With Bonner running the show, the offense should be quite good once again, especially if more transfer additions at receiver are ready to produce. Utah State’s defense also improved significantly from 2020 to 2021, but was still in the middle in the pack among Mountain West teams. If the defense gets better and the offense remains among the league’s best, USU could find itself in contention for another conference title.

Will SDSU have enough offense?

Like Tedford, Brady Hoke is in his second stint at San Diego State. The Aztecs went 4-4 in 2020 before going 12-2 and winning the West division last year. SDSU’s season finished with a disappointing title game loss to Utah State, but it was still a strong year.

Like many former SDSU teams, the Aztecs were led by stellar defense and special teams, but had an underwhelming offense. There’s no reason to expect much of a drop-off on defense other than perhaps less of a field position advantage created by all-world punter Matt Araiza, who is now in the NFL.

Braxton Burmeister, formerly of Virginia Tech, was added to improve the quarterback play. But with leading rusher Greg Bell, several receivers and three starting linemen departing, he won’t be the only new face on offense.

Which Mountain West team is most overrated?

Sam: Utah State. I’d be pretty shocked if the Aggies win the title again. The league's defensive coaches will be more equipped to handle this offense and I don’t think USU’s defense will be very good. It’s also very hard to have that much success in close games in back-to-back years. The Aggies won four games by four points or fewer last year. And with so many tricky road games, I think this team takes a step back, probably to third in the Mountain.

Nick: San Diego State. I could see the Aztecs dropping to third in the West behind Fresno State and San Jose State. Braxton Burmeister completed less than 56% of his passes in 2021, Bell needs to be replaced and the offensive line is very young. SDSU also draws both Boise State and Air Force out of the Mountain division. They could be the two best teams in the conference.

Who is a sleeper to contend for the Mountain West title?

Sam: San Jose State. This team won the league in 2020 but dropped to 5-7 last year as it dealt with an array of injuries. This year, I think Fresno State is the only team in the West clearly better than the Spartans. This defense should be really good and Brent Brennan brought in a big group of transfers on offense, including ex-Hawaii QB Chevan Cordeiro.

Nick: San Jose State. The Spartans could be in the mix for the West title with Fresno State if they can force some turnovers. SJSU won the turnover battle in just one of its 12 games in 2021. With Cordeiro transferring in and nearly the entire receiving corps returning, the offense should take a step forward. The only thing that gives me pause about the Spartans are road games at Fresno State and San Diego State.

Who is your pick to win the Mountain West championship?

Sam: Fresno State

Nick: Boise State

Sun Belt

Can Louisiana continue its dominance without Billy Napier?

Since the Sun Belt split into a two-division format, the West has been dominated by Louisiana. In fact, UL has won the West in all four years the division has existed. Will that change in 2022?

Louisiana, also the two-time reigning conference champion, is the division favorite but some are projecting a step back for the Ragin’ Cajuns after head coach Billy Napier’s departure for Florida. UL replaced Napier with Michael Desormeaux, who was previously the team’s co-offensive coordinator. Beyond Napier, Louisiana also has to replace longtime starting QB Levi Lewis, its two top running backs, its top receiver and four starters on the offensive line.

There is far more returning production on defense, but will that turnover open the door for others in the West? The East has been much more competitive, but teams like South Alabama and Troy could potentially give Louisiana a challenge.

Will App State continue on its steady path?

While Louisiana has dominated the West, Appalachian State has been the most consistent team in the East. App won the division in three of the last four years, only falling behind Coastal Carolina during its Cinderella run in 2020.

App State is still the East favorite. Last year, the Mountaineers were led by a strong defense and the emergence of transfer QB Chase Brice. App State has typically been a run-first operation, but Brice led an impressive passing attack. Brice is back, but his top three receivers (who combined for 173 catches, 2,546 yards and 20 TDs) have all moved on.

With Brice, four starting linemen and two proven running backs returning, the offense still has talent, but the lack of experience at receiver is notable. The defense also had some top players depart, but this program has a strong track record of maintaining stellar play on defense. Still, this is a really tough division and App will be tested.

Will Coastal Carolina take a step back?

This is a big year for Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers went 13-23 in their first three FBS seasons yet are a combined 22-3 over the past two years. With so many key players no longer on the roster, can CCU maintain that level of excellence? Or will the Chants fade into the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt?

One reason to expect another strong season is the return of Grayson McCall, one of the best QBs in the country. McCall has been the face of Coastal’s emergence and famously proclaimed he “pisses teal” when announcing his 2022 return. Coastal averaged more than 40 points and nearly 500 yards per game last year, but McCall will be surrounded by new faces this time around.

There will be even more new starters on defense, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. CCU is counting on a lot of transfers on defense.

Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall (10) is one of the nation's top returning quarterbacks. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall (10) is one of the nation's top returning quarterbacks. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Can Clay Helton quickly rebuild Georgia Southern?

Since it transitioned into the FBS in 2014, Georgia Southern has typically been competitive in the Sun Belt. The Eagles had a winning record in five of their first seven FBS seasons and played in four bowl games. Last year, though, the Eagles went 3-9 and Chad Lunsford was fired.

To replace Lunsford, the school hired a familiar face for college football fans: ex-USC coach Clay Helton. It’s an interesting fit. Georgia Southern has long employed an option offense, but Helton’s offenses look completely different. There is a lot of experience on the roster, but transitioning from the option to a more pass-happy scheme won’t be easy, especially in a division as strong as the Sun Belt East.

How will the 4 new members impact the Sun Belt title race?

The Sun Belt has ballooned to 14 teams with Marshall, James Madison, Old Dominion and Southern Miss joining the conference. To balance the league geographically, JMU, Marshall and ODU were added to the East division while Southern Miss was assigned to the West. Additionally, Troy was moved over to the West.

Will these changes affect the divisional races?

Of the newcomers, Marshall is probably the biggest contender. The Thundering Herd were perennial C-USA contenders and have the potential to be really good on offense. JMU was an FCS power but could be in for some growing pains in its first year as an FBS program. ODU closed out the 2021 season with five straight wins and also had three one-score losses, so the Monarchs could be an under-the-radar tough team. Southern Miss, meanwhile, went 3-9 last year but should be improved in its second season under Will Hall.

Which Sun Belt team is most overrated?

Sam: Marshall. Marshall has a history of being a strong program, but moving over to the Sun Belt in a year when it lacks experience and is integrating a lot of new pieces may not go well. The Thundering Herd had a very mediocre defense last year that especially struggled stopping the run. The offense has good talent at the skill positions, but is replacing four starters on the line. I won’t be surprised at all if Marshall finishes fourth or fifth in the East.

Nick: Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers are well-positioned to have another solid season, though I’m not sure they’re one of the two best teams in the East. Having a QB like Grayson McCall is a huge advantage, but just six other starters return from last year’s team. Coastal also has to play at Marshall and at home against App State four days later in Weeks 9 and 10, while App State hosts Robert Morris in Week 9. Advantage Mountaineers.

Who is a sleeper to contend for the Sun Belt title?

Sam: Georgia State. GSU has reached a bowl game in four of the past five seasons and is coming off an 8-5 (6-2 Sun Belt) record. The Panthers nearly beat Auburn before upsetting Coastal Carolina on the road last year. This is an ascending program and, with 16 starters back, this could be the year the Panthers go from good to Sun Belt champion.

Nick: Troy. The Trojans could have a new coach bounce with Jon Sumrall. Eighteen starters return from a team that faded at the end of the season and lost its last three games by a combined 79 points. Nearly every key contributor is back on the defense and the run game should be better behind a veteran offensive line. The Sun Belt West title could be decided on Nov. 5 when the Trojans play at Louisiana.

Who is your pick to win the Sun Belt championship?

Sam: Appalachian State

Nick: Appalachian State