1) Appalachian State. Top rushers Jalin Moore and Terance Upshaw return. The Sun Belt’s top defense last year has depth at linebacker and in the secondary. The schedule favors the Mountaineers. They don’t play either Troy or Arkansas State.
2) Troy. The Trojans hung with national champion Clemson into the fourth quarter last year before falling 30-24. Boise State and LSU provide the biggest tests this year. After that, Troy might run the table from October to December. Quarterback Brandon Silver, one of the Sun Belt’s best, returns.
3) Idaho. The Vandals finished fourth in the league in 2016, and this year’s team motto is “raise the bar.” If Idaho can avoid key injuries, why not? The Vandals also get Appalachian State at home Oct. 14.
4) Arkansas State. A tough opening to this season against Nebraska and Miami. After that, the Sun Belt slate shouldn’t scare the Red Wolves, leading up to a season finale with Troy that could determine the league title.
5) South Alabama. The Jaguars have won at least six games three of the last four years. The defense has a year of experience, and Dallas Davis returns at quarterback.
6) Georgia Southern. The Eagles’ introduction to new coach Tyson Summers last year led to a disappointing 5-7 record. But Georgia Southern rallied in its last game to beat Troy. Will that good vibe carry over to 2017 with a new quarterback, redshirt freshman Shai Werts, who won the job in fall camp, and with the need to replace seven starters on defense? The schedule is brutal. The Eagles play Sun Belt elite Appalachian State, Arkansas State and Troy. Nonconference games feature Auburn and Indiana.
7) Louisiana-Monroe. Managed four wins last year under first-year coach Matt Viator, and starting quarterback Garrett Smith was pushed hard enough in the preseason by sophomore Caleb Evans that Viator says both will play in early games. That can’t be good. But the Warhawks’ defense made 16 tackles for loss in the final fall scrimmage. That must make Viator hopeful.
8) Louisiana-Lafayette. Twelve starters return from a team that finished 6-7 last season. Quarterback and running back are not among them.
9) Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers are making the jump to FBS off a 10-2 record last season. But they were thrown a curve when head coach Joe Moglia announced he will miss this year to treat bronchial asthma. Offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell, who was only hired in January, steps in as interim head coach.
10) New Mexico State. The Aggies are coming off a three-win 2016. But one of those victories was over in-state rival New Mexico, a 9-4 team. A key returner is running back Larry Rose III. He recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons before a sports hernia last year limited him to nine games and 865 yards. If he is healthy, he could go out in style and bring the Aggies with him – at least part of the way.
11) Texas State. Injuries destroyed the Bobcats, who finished 2-10 in coach Everett Withers’ debut season. But they return depth on both sides of the ball, including All-Sun Belt honorable mention linebacker Gabe Loyd. Two of his 102 tackles in 2016 were sacks against Idaho.
12) Georgia State. New coach Shawn Elliott takes over a 3-9 team. But if the Panthers learned from experience, Elliott should benefit from 10 returning defensive starters, four on the offensive line, and senior quarterback Connor Manning and top receivers Penny Hart and Todd Boyd.