This article is part of our Conference Preview series.
We continue our College Football conference previews with the Sun Belt. Traditionally one of the more under-the-radar conferences on the college football landscape, the league made waves by adding Old Dominion, Southern Miss, Marshall and James Madison to its ranks. With perennial top-25 teams like Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State sticking around, the Sun Belt is (pun intended) gaining a few notches.
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Sun Belt All-Conference Teams
First-Team All-Sun Belt
QB: Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina (14)
RB: Rasheen Ali, Marshall (5)
RB: Camerun Peoples, Appalachian State (62)
WR: Kris Thornton, James Madison
WR: Corey Gammage, Marshall
WR: Ali Jennings III, Old Dominion
TE: Aubry Payne, Georgia State
Second-Team All-Sun Belt
QB: Chase Brice, Appalachian State (49)
RB: Nate Noel, Appalachian State (39)
RB: Blake Watson, Old Dominion (25)
WR: Jalen Wayne, South Alabama
WR: Tez Johnson, Troy
WR: Te'Vailance Hunt, Arkansas State
TE: Lincoln Sefcik, South Alabama
Third-Team All-Sun Belt
QB: Layne Hatcher, Texas State
RB: Tucker Gregg, Georgia State
RB: Percy Agyei-Obese, James Madison
WR: Marcell Barbee, Texas State
WR: Boogie Knight, Louisiana-Monroe
WR: Sam Pinckney, Coastal Carolina
TE: Xavier Gravette, Coastal Carolina
Sun Belt Fantasy Sleepers
Christian Wells, Wide Receiver, Appalachian State
Wells is a candidate for a breakout season almost by default, given how much production Appalachian State has lost at the receiver position. Gone are its three leading receivers from last season (Corey Sutton, Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams), leaving Wells as the only returning Mountaineer wideout with more than one receiving touchdown in 2021. The quarterback situation is friendly too, as Chase Brice is back in Boone for a second season in black and gold. After not catching on at Clemson and struggling at Duke, Brice has finally found a home in the hills of North Carolina. With App State squarely in the running to win the conference, Wells should benefit from Brice's newfound confidence and be leaned on heavily to lead an inexperienced receiver room. We got a preview of what he can do in the Mountaineers' bowl game, where he went for four catches, 86 yards and a touchdown.
Braydon Bennett, RB/ATH, Coastal Carolina
Less a sleeper and more of a wild card, Bennett's sporadic explosions of production can make or break any given week in fantasyland. A weapon out of the backfield or lined up outside, Bennett is a track star who is liable to break any play for a big gainer. Unfortunately, Bennett couldn't escape the shadow of Shermari Jones in Conway last season. With Jones gone (along with effective receivers Jaivon Heiligh and Isaiah Likely), the door is open for the speedster to see more touches (both out of the backfield and in the passing game) and turn in more consistent performances.
Darren Grainger, Quarterback, Georgia State
Grainger was *this* close to making an appearance on my All-Sun Belt team list, such was his growth last season. Grainger seized the job from Cornelious Brown in September and never looked back, leading the Panthers to a 8-5 record and a TaxAct Camellia Bowl win on Christmas Day. Most encouraging was how Grainger finished the season. Georgia State closed out 2021 on a 7-1 run, with a narrow loss to 13-1 Louisiana the only blemish on its record. The next step for Grainger is to develop his downfield passing, and with receivers Ja'Cyais Credle, Terrance Dixon and Jamari Thrash returning, he should have the weapons to do it. If Grainger can navigate a tricky start to the season (at South Carolina, home to North Carolina) and emerge with some solid performances, he could be worth a look as the Panthers enter conference play.
Caullin Lacy, Wide Receiver, South Alabama
If there's one thing we learned from South Alabama's offense last season, it was that it can support an elite receiver or two. Jalen Tolbert and Jalen Wayne thrived in 2021, with Tolbert rewriting USA's history books before being selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round and Wayne hauling in 53 balls for 630 yards and two touchdowns. With Tolbert out of the picture, it's Wayne's turn to emerge, leaving Lacy to pick up Wayne's 2021 workload as WR2. For Lacy, the questions come after the catch. He caught 41 passes last year, but only managed 291 yards. If he can up his YAC and the Jaguars sort out who will be under center, Lacy could be in for a big year.
Malik Jackson, Running Back Louisiana-Monroe
Through two months of the season, the ULM running game was nowhere. Then, head coach Terry Bowden decided to give Jackson a shot at the RB1 position. All the speedster did over his three-game tryout (which included trips to LSU and Louisiana) was rack up 356 yards on 66 carries and three touchdowns. He was a revelation out of the backfield and single-handedly changed the outlook of the Warhawks' offense going forward. He may still share carries with Andrew Henry, but if Jackson keeps up his 2021 pace, RB1 will undoubtedly be his. Of all the sleepers, he might be the one to pounce on.
Sun Belt Fantasy Busts
Michael Jefferson, Wide Receiver, Louisiana
If there's one team slated for a steep falloff in the Sun Belt, it's the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns. Long a stalwart at the top of the league, Louisiana is replacing its head coach (Billy Napier), record-breaking quarterback (Levi Lewis), two of its top running backs (Montrell Johnson, Emani Bailey) and its 2021 leader in receiving touchdowns (Kyren Lacy). With Lewis at the helm, Jefferson led the team in receiving yards last season and averaged a ridiculous 26.7 yards per catch. Now, with an unknown quantity under center and a new head coach trying to feel out his playbook, don't be surprised if Louisiana leans on veteran running back Chris Smith and neglects the passing game until true leaders emerge.
Gerald Green, Running Back, Georgia Southern
While Green is the leading returning rusher at Georgia Southern this season, buyer beware: We have no idea what to expect from Clay Helton's offense in 2022. Helton and Co. have made it clear that they're moving Georgia Southern off of the triple option, meaning that there will likely be less carries to go around for the Eagles' stable of capable backs. Green averaged a solid 5.6 yards per carry last season and five touchdowns, so there is upside, but waiting to see what Helton brings to Statesboro first might be the best bet before leaping to grab any back from Georgia Southern.
Kyle Vantrease, Quarterback, Georgia Southern
Not to rag on the Eagles too hard here, but this has the makings of a painful season for Vantrease. As previously mentioned, Georgia Southern is embarking on a journey into modernity and eschewing the triple option this season. This means that the offensive line will have to learn how to pass block, a process that is still ongoing at in-state neighbors Georgia Tech years after the Yellow Jackets made the switch. This is not good for Vantrease, who is more of a traditional pocket passer. He managed to rack up some solid statistics during his time at Buffalo, and with Clay Helton there is an allure that he could create something great, but hold off on Vantrease and let the Eagles figure things out first.
Any Arkansas State running back
In a word, the Arkansas State running game in 2021 was pitiful. Behind an offensive line that could neither pass block nor run block, the Red Wolves managed only 81.3 yards per game on the ground, good for third-worst in the country. While things have improved up front (and let's be honest, anything is an improvement over last year), this is still going to be a pass-first team as long as James Blackman is under center and weapons like Te'Vailance Hunt and Jeff Foreman are lining up on the outside. Even though the Arkansas State offense has shown the ability to put up points, their run game is not to be trusted.