College football conference odds: In new-look Sun Belt, UL-Lafayette, new coach hope to keep pace

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PHOTOGRAPHER:

Between now and the start of college football season on Sept. 1, we’ll preview every conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision with an emphasis on futures odds. Each preview will include a look at favorites, long shots and a pick as well as the full list of odds for the conference.

(If you’re just getting started with sports betting and want to learn the terms and how it works, check out Sports Betting 101.)

We’ll start with the smaller conferences and work our way toward the top, finishing with the Southeastern Conference just before games kick off. By the time the season starts, you’ll have a comprehensive look at the top division in college football.

With Sun Belt Media Days ongoing at the Sheraton New Orleans, it’s a great time to look at the south’s primary Group of Five conference. The Sun Belt has gone from perhaps the weakest of the FBS leagues to one of the strongest, thanks to improvement from within — the UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Troy have each proven themselves formidable — and then by emerging a winner from the recent round of realignment.

The SBC poached Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion from Conference USA — additions that would have felt impossible less than 10 years ago — and also took in FCS power James Madison to form a robust 14-team league that stretches from central Texas to coastal Virginia.

Last season

Unlike the 2020 season, when UL-Lafayette stunned Iowa State in its pandemic-season opener, Billy Napier’s final season in Lafayette started with a thud. The Ragin’ Cajuns went to Austin as a preseason top 25 team and were beat soundly, 38-18.

But that was the early nadir for last year’s Cajuns, who didn’t lose again. They ran off 13 straight victories, including seven by one possession, to claim the Sun Belt crown and then the New Orleans Bowl against future conference mate Marshall.

App State won the East Division, with the key result a 30-27 home win over Coastal Carolina. The Mountaineers’ four losses came to Miami, UL twice and to Western Kentucky in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Coastal started out 6-0, including a 27-point victory over Kansas, and was No. 14 in the country when it lost to App State. The Chanticleers only lost once more, 42-40 to Georgia State, but that was enough to give the division to App State.

Other teams who finished in bowl games: Marshall, which was 5-3 in Conference USA and lost that New Orleans Bowl; Georgia State, which topped Ball State in the Camellia Bowl; and Old Dominion, also 5-3 in Conference USA and a 30-17 loser to Tulsa in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.

Favorites

Despite a new coach in Michael Desormeaux and a new quarterback among 11 new starters, the Ragin’ Cajuns (+250) are a co-favorite to repeat their Sun Belt title. Such is the level of respect and recruiting gained by Napier (and Desormeaux, his longtime assistant). UL-Lafayette has won the West Division every year since the Sun Belt started staging a title game in 2018, and the Cajuns are favored to do it again.

The other co-favorite isn’t a surprise either: Appalachian State (+250) has won the East Division in three of those four years, with Coastal Carolina’s triumph in 2020 the only exception. The Mountaineers boast more continuity than the Cajuns, with coach Shawn Clark entering his fourth season and quarterback Chase Brice returning for a second season after transferring from Duke.

App State’s problem is that the two other teams atop the odds board are also in the East. Conference newcomer Marshall (+375) will look to make a grand entrance behind freshman All-American running back Rasheen Ali and perhaps the conference’s best defense. Then there’s Coastal Carolina (+550), which had the best point differential in the league a year ago but return just three starters on each side of the ball — though one of them is prolific quarterback Grayson McCall, who has 5,361 yards, 53 touchdowns and a 71.1% completion rate over two seasons as a starter.

Longer shots

If you’re looking for another choice in the West Division, the biggest threat to the Ragin’ Cajuns seems to belong to Troy (+1000), which actually moves over from the tougher East Division. The Trojans boasted a top 25 defense last year and return nine starters on that side of the ball, plus 10 on offense — where improvement is needed if Troy is to even get back to a bowl game, much less challenge UL.

Another division newcomer is Southern Miss (+3000), which returns a bunch of production but must somehow improve its offensive line or suffer another painful series of injuries to quarterbacks. And if the Cajuns regress and neither Troy nor Southern Miss steps up, maybe South Alabama (+2200) or Arkansas State (+2800) could fill the void.

Back in the East, Georgia State (+1400) returns a solid nucleus from a team that went 8-5 and won a bowl game, including elite running backs Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams. The Panthers’ problem is the division: They must play Coastal Carolina on a short week and both App State and Marshall on the road.

One further note: As a team transitioning from FCS, James Madison is ineligible for the postseason, so you won’t see the Dukes listed on any odds boards no matter how much talent they bring from the lower level.

Value picks

This isn’t a conference to pick a lot of long shots. The favored teams are significantly better than the field by most power metrics.

So the question becomes which of the top teams to back. The early lean here is to UL-Lafayette, even at a short +250 price. You have to have faith that Desormeaux can continue what Napier built, but playing in the far weaker division, it’s a reasonable bet that not only will the Cajuns return for a fifth straight Sun Belt title game but also be hosting it.

In the East, take a look at Marshall at +375. The Thundering Herd gets both Coastal Carolina and App State (and ULL) at home and could make noise in their first year in the league.

If you must play a long shot, consider another newcomer in Southern Miss at 30 to 1. The Golden Eagles had an eight-game losing streak last year but ended with back-to-back wins, and the underlying numbers were better than the record suggested. With a lot of returning production, if a surprise emerges from the West, USM has a chance to be it.

Full Sun Belt odds and win totals

(From Caesars Sportsbook)

 Team Division  Title odds Win total
 UL-Lafayette  West  +250  8.5 (o-125)
 Appalachian State  East  +250  9 (u-135)
 Marshall  West  +375  7.5 (u-150)
 Coastal Carolina  East  +550  8
 Troy  West  +1000  5.5 (o-170)
 Georgia State  East  +1400  6.5 (o-125)
 South Alabama  West  +2200  5 (o-145)
 Arkansas State  West  +2800  5
 Southern Miss  West  +3000  5.5 (u-125)
 Old Dominion  East  +6000  4.5 (u-140)
 Texas State  West  +6000  4.5 (o-135)
 Georgia Southern  East  +7500  4 (o-125)
 UL-Monroe  West  +30000  2.5
 James Madison  East  n/a*  n/a*

*James Madison is in transition from FCS and is ineligible for postseason

Categories: Upstate Action

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