As we approach the 2023 season, let's take a look at how things might shake out in the Sun Belt West.
Check out Bruno's Sun Belt East preview here:
Arkansas State Red Wolves
Last season: (9-4) Arkansas State was one of the best teams in the conference last year, but unfortunately lost the division by a tiebreaker. They were led by one of the most formidable passing duos in the G5 in QB Eugene Salas and WR Roscoe Bishop. The Red Wolves didn’t really even have to bother with a run game, as their air raid attack shredded most defenses they played. They were also fantastic defensively, giving up the least amount of points in the Sun Belt, as well as forcing the most turnovers. It certainly helps that their offense was able to keep the chains moving to keep the defense well rested. Arkansas State capped off their nice 2022 season with a 30-28 win over Eastern Michigan in the Arizona Bowl.
Next season: With the graduation of Roscoe Bishop, all eyes will be on Eugene Salas and how he performs with just 2.5/2.5s and 3.0/3.0s at receiver. He does have 4.0/4.0 tight end Manuel Gonzalez, however Gonzalez is more of a blocker than a receiver. The offensive line won’t be great, but hopefully they can keep Salas off the ground long enough to carry the offense. On the defensive side of the ball the front seven didn’t lose much, returning both their leading tackler and sack-getter. The secondary took a pretty big hit though with the departure of CB Jason Morton who led the team in interceptions and pass deflections. This defense may have to employ a bend-don’t-break strategy as their starting mostly 3.0s across the board.
Offensive Star: QB Eugene Salas 6-3 214 (Sr) Valdosta (Valdosta, GA) 4.5 of 4.5 [Pocket]
Defensive Star: OLB David Bullock 6-1 224 (Jr) Lutheran (Little Rock, AR) 4.5 of 4.5 [Coverage]
Key Game: at UL-Lafayette (Week 13)
Previewing the Record: 7-5
South Alabama Jaguars
Last season: (7-6) In 2022 South Alabama was one of the most balanced teams in the Sun Belt, which led them to quite a nice campaign. Quarterback Rafael Higgins and running back Ray Jay Dougherty led a Jaguars offense that put up the second most yards in the conference. They were also the third best defense in points allowed. Between the solid offensive and defensive play they finished 6-2 in the Sun Belt, just losing out on winning the West by a tiebreaker to Louisiana-Lafayette. They ended the season by losing the Alabama Bowl to Toledo by a score of 30-17.
Next season: One of the biggest question marks for this team going into 2023 is who is going to start at quarterback? They’ve got 3.0/3.5 sophomore Carter Hill and 2.0/4.0 redshirt freshman Jack Evans. Coach rocksaucesundae has yet to comment on who he’s leaning toward starting this season. The other offensive skill positions look pretty solid. The Jaguars brought in 4.0/4.0 Juco running back Leonard Willams to carry the load and also return 3 of their top 4 receivers from 2022. However, the offensive line is pretty suspect as half of the starters will likely be 2.5s or 3.0s. The defensive side of the ball isn’t as promising. They do return DE Sean Boone and DT Milo Gardner, but with only one good linebacker and a less-than-spectacular secondary, they’ll likely have trouble stopping some of the more potent offenses.
Offensive Star: RB Leonard Williams 6-1 213 Jr Columbus State Community College (Columbus OH) 4.0 of 4.0 [Power]
Defensive Star: DE Sean Boone 6-3 262 (Sr) Livingston (Livingston, AL) 4.5 of 4.5 [Blitz]
Key Game: vs Texas State (Week 12)
Previewing the record: 4-8
Texas State Bobcats
Last season: (5-7) Last season coach rabidsnowman and the Bobcats just barely missed out on a bowl game. This doesn’t mean they were necessarily a bad team; they went 5-3 in the conference and just had a really tough out of conference slate. Offensively they played well enough to be in the middle-high tier of the Sun Belt. Defensively, they rushed the passer with some tenacity, racking up the most team sacks and tackles for loss in the conference. Despite this, they did give up quite a few yards and points which kept the offense from being able to do their thing.
Next season: The offense is going to have quite a bit of a learning curve this year, as the starter at every position besides LT is an underclassmen. It’ll be exciting to watch how running back Bradley Carmichael and wide receiver Miguel Madrigal develop over the course of the season. The offensive line should be fairly solid, led by one of the best offensive tackles in the country Sawyer Dobbs. The defensive line is back and reloaded for 2023. Defensive end Ryan Starling and DT Jeremy Spears are back and combined for 16 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. The Bobcats also added 2.0/4.0 DE Gerald Johnson who looks ready to have a really good year. The rest of the defense won’t be great, but they certainly won’t be bad either. The secondary may have some trouble covering some of the better receivers, but when you have a pass rush like Texas State does, you always feel a little better about it.
Offensive Star: OT Sawyer Dobbs 6-7 258 Sr Lackawanna (Scranton PA) 5.0 of 5.0 [Pass Blocking]
Defensive Star: DE Ryan Starling 6-6 252 Sr La Marque (La Marque, TX) 4.0 of 4.0 [Blitz]
Previewing the Record: 6-6
UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
Last season: (7-7) The Ragin’ Cajuns had a nice season in 2022 that resulted in their second conference championship in a row. They went 6-2 in the conference, winning the division tiebreaker over both Arkansas State and South Alabama. Their offense didn’t stand out at all, but they weren’t awful either, finishing middle of the pack in most team offensive statistics. Their defense is what won them a lot of games, as they were in the top half of the conference in a majority of the defensive statistics.
Next season: A lot of the pieces that spurred them to their conference championship are back and even better this season. Offensively, Emory West is back after being benched after just three games last year, but coach Dr_Novella has put his trust into West once again. The receiving corps is going to be near impossible for any Sun Belt secondary to stop, with two returning 3.5/3.5s and stud Juco transfer Rakeem Brown. The offensive line should be just good enough to protect West with two 3.0s and three 3.5s. Defensively, the Cajuns are just as scary as last year. They return their leading sack artist in DE Thomas Newsome and leading tackler in OLB Jeff Evans in the front seven. And the secondary will lock down opposing receivers with three 3.5 Cornerbacks and the pro-ready safety pairing Kelly Cordero and Dustin Nowak. In my opinion, ULL has the best roster in the conference this season and looks primed to make another championship run.
Offensive Star: WR Rakeem Brown 6-2 230 Jr Northwest Florida State College (Niceville FL) 4.0 of 4.5 [Target]
Defensive Star: DE Thomas Newsome 6-2 267 Jr Interlachen (Interlachen, FL) 3.5 of 4.5 [Contain]
Previewing the Record: 9-3
Last season: (4-8) Last season didn’t go as coach jared may have planned, but they weren’t as poor as their record may have suggested. The Warhawks did go 4-4 in the conference, but were wrecked by a brutal out-of-conference slate. They were a very pass-happy offense last season, with the second most passing yards in the conference; this affected their ground game though as they picked up just 337 yards on the season on just 3.37 yards per carry. Their defense fairly adequate in defending against the run, but gave up the second most passing yards and touchdowns in the conference. Coach jared did a fine job with this squad in 2022, but scheduling a more favorable OOC schedule would’ve went a long way.
Next season: I don’t expect this team to look too much different from last season, but they do have a better out-of-conference slate in 2023. Last year’s starting quarterback Martin Johnson is gone, but redshirt junior James Harvey appears to be about identical in talent. The Warhawks return three of their top four targets from last year, including star tight end Abdoul Brinson, who is actually listed as the #1 receiver on the depth chart. The offensive line will need to step up quite a bit for the offense to be productive though. Monroe looks like they should be solid of the defensive line, but the front seven improved a lot as a whole with the addition of Juco MLB Reece Matthews. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Matthew lead the conference in tackles by quite a bit this season. The secondary isn’t very talented, but they are still pretty young so that’s to be expected. Sophomore free safety Lamont Brooks is back after a fabulous 2022 campaign in which he racked up five interceptions and three pass deflections. This team still looks fairly solid, but I think they’ll have to pull a few upsets to get to bowl eligibility.
Offensive Star: TE Abdoul Brinson 6-2 198 Sr St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley (Ferguson MO) 5.0 of 5.0 [Receiving]
Defensive Star: ILB Reece Matthews 6-2 249 Jr Wallace State Community College (Hanceville AL) 3.5 of 4.5 [Mike]
Previewing the Record: 4-8
Projecting the Division:
1 - UL-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns
2 - Arkansas State Red Wolves
3 - Texas State Bobcats
4 - UL-Monroe Warhawks
5 - South Alabama Jaguars