Sun Belt teams missed out on the fun during Week 0, but look to more than make up for it when Week 1 kicks off with a great slate of games.
The biggest game will be North Carolina making the trip up to Boone to play Appalachian State in a rematch of their 2019 meeting, but several other games stand out this weekend.
Several teams get to take a swing at nearby Power 5 school in the East division this week. Appalachian State and Old Dominion play in-state foes and Georgia State is only a 3-hour drive away from South Carolina. These kinds of big games are perfect for Sun Belt fans who have been blessed with fantastic regional rivalries after the latest round of realignment.
Quick Breakdown (Non-FCS games)
Virginia Tech vs. Old Dominion
ODU finished the 2021 regular season on a 5-game winning streak that culminated in its first bowl appearance since 2016, which just so happens to be the last time it had a winning season. On the other side, Virginia Tech brings in a new coaching staff and transfer quarterback Grant Wells from Marshall. These teams have played three other times since 2017 — two in Blacksburg and one in Norfolk — with the home team winning each game.
Can Old Dominion keep this streak alive and steal this game at home? Probably not. Virginia Tech had a down year last year, but will have no issue taking it to Old Dominion. ODU was 101st in passing defense last year and lost its best cornerback. Look for Wells to have a monster day.
Virginia Tech 35, Old Dominion 13
Middle Tennessee vs. James Madison
James Madison hits the ground running in its first year in the FBS with its first FBS opponent since 2019. Middle Tennessee has had a lot of ups and downs (more downs) over the last several years and was buoyed by an extremely easy schedule last season. JMU had a few key loses to the transfer portal that were remedied with some solid additions.
However, the Dukes will really turn some heads with their offensive line. They were great last year and return four starters. Transfer quarterback Todd Centeio has a ton of experience and will be a steadying hand for an offense that will need to evolve to the FBS level. MTSU won’t get away with playing bottom dwellers in Conference USA and Connecticut for much longer.
JMU could provide a wakeup call.
Middle Tennessee 14, James Madison 24
Let’s get to the good stuff.
Georgia State vs. South Carolina
Georgia State has a sneaky good chance to be a surprise team in the Sun Belt East. It ranks third in the country for Phil Steele’s returning experience, bringing back eight offensive starters and seven on defense. On offense, the entire line is back, along with dual-threat quarterback Darren Grainger, and a pretty deep running backs group that ranked eighth in the country in rushing yards in 2021.
South Carolina has a lot of hype after bringing in Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. If he performs as he did as a freshman in 2020, this won’t be a game at all, and South Carolina will steamroll Georgia State.
However, Georgia State has the luxury of being on the slate right before what could be a tough run of games for South Carolina in Arkansas and Georgia, so the Gamecocks could be caught looking ahead. If the Panthers are going to pull out an upset, they’re in a good spot for it. South Carolina is currently a 13.5-point favorite but expect this one to be much closer.
Georgia State 24, South Carolina 27
Army vs Coastal Carolina
Another, more in-depth, preview of this game can be found here. Army travels down to Conway, S.C. to see if the old school option can compete with the new triple option used by the Chanticleers. Unfortunately for Coastal Carolina, it doesn’t have many starters left from the last few years of successful seasons, only returning seven (four offense, three defense.)
Fortunately for Coastal, Grayson McCall happens to be one of them. His mobility and efficiency at quarterback should not be discounted. Coastal loses a lot of production out wide, so it will be interesting to see who will fill the shoes of Jaivon Heiligh and Isaiah Likely for this coming year. However, the biggest losses are on defense.
Only three returning starters leaves a lot of question marks from untested players. This opening game could be a worst-case scenario for a team ranked 61st at stopping the run last year. Luckily, it has had all summer to game plan for it. With all the rushing we’ll see, this one could fly by.
Army 35, Coastal Carolina 31
North Carolina vs Appalachian State – Game of the Week
This is a rematch of the 2019 contest that ended with the Mountaineers celebrating in Chapel Hill. This time, the game will be in Boone. The atmosphere should be great as tickets were sold out nearly a month and a half ago.
The Tar Heels will be breaking in a new quarterback after losing Sam Howell to the NFL Draft. They’re also dealing with unfortunate injuries at the running back and receiver positions. The Mountaineers return one of the best running back rooms among the Group of 5, maybe even the country, with two potential 1,000-yard rushers in Camerun Peoples and Nate Noel.
On the passing side, Chase Brice returns after a successful 2021 campaign and the offensive line returns four starters. App State will be breaking in an entirely new wide receivers group, which have huge shoes to fill after the departures of Corey Sutton and Thomas Hennigan, among others.
North Carolina had issues stopping the run last year. If that continues, App State could run all over it. Look for the Mountaineers to control the clock and come out with a win. A full preview and prediction will come later in the week.
Featured image courtesy of Appalachian State athletics