Sun Belt Power Rankings 2023: James Madison Dukes Dominante, Texas State Bobcats Surprise

    The "Fun Belt" has lived up to its name so far in 2023, and our Sun Belt power rankings stack the teams from worst to first after five weeks.

    The Sun Belt is known as the “Fun Belt” for a reason, and the opening salvo of the 2023 college football season has certainly seen the conference live up to its nickname. We sift through close-fought games, high-action offenses, dominant defenses, and more plot twists than “LOST” to rank the 14 teams from worst to first in our updated 2023 Sun Belt Power Rankings.

    Sun Belt Power Rankings 2023

    Our Sun Belt Power Rankings for the 2023 college football season take into account several factors. Overall record is a consideration, but roster talent and depth, coaching staff, strength of schedule, plus offensive and defensive efficiency are taken into consideration in our latest update.

    14) Southern Miss Golden Eagles

    Preseason Ranking: 10th

    After outperforming expectations and reaching a bowl game in the first season under head coach Will Hall, there’s been something of a level set in year two as the Southern Miss Golden Eagles come crashing back down to earth after a 1-4 start to the 2023 college football season.

    They prop up our Sun Belt Power Rankings after dropping to 0-2 in the conference with defeats to Arkansas State and Texas State. Overall record doesn’t define a program, and it’s worth pointing out that they’ve faced FSU and Tulane out of conference. However, the offense has sputtered at times and the defense has resembled a sieve in allowing 39 points per game.

    13) Old Dominion Monarchs

    Preseason Ranking: 12th

    After all their losses to the transfer portal and the NFL Draft this offseason, it really could have been a lot worse for the Old Dominion Monarchs. They got an early conference win under their belts by knocking off Louisiana in their second game of the year. Meanwhile, they played Wake Forest close and came within a touchdown of upsetting high-flying Marshall.

    Despite some positives to take away from the early going, things have been more good than bad for Ricky Rhane’s team. They’re averaging the second-fewest points per game in the conference, and only Louisiana-Monroe has fewer yards per game so far. Their remaining schedule also features high-flying James Madison and CUSA front-runner Liberty. Tough times are ahead.

    12) Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

    Preseason Ranking: 2nd

    Perhaps we underestimated the “Jamey Chadwell” effect when conducting our preseason Sun Belt Power Rankings. Perhaps we underestimated the sheer impact of their NFL and transfer portal losses. Perhaps we underestimated the impact of a change to head coach Tim Beck and offensive coordinator Travis Trickett would have on the mulleted-magician, Grayson McCall.

    Perhaps it’s a combination of all the above, but the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers haven’t lived up to preseason expectation or their perennial status as a Sun Belt contender. McCall has thrown more interceptions in five games than in the previous two seasons combined. The Chants are 0-2 in the Sun Belt, with their only wins coming against an FCS team and Jacksonville State.

    11) Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

    Preseason Ranking: 14th

    While the teams below them in our Sun Belt Power Rankings have failed to live up to preseason expectations to some degree or another, the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks have outperformed our admittedly low hopes early in the season. An opening weekend win over Army as a nine-point underdog and with just a 27.2% win probability kicked off the season in stellar fashion.

    A 2-0 start has given way to consecutive defeats, but the schedule was always going to be against Terry Bowden’s team. They played Appalachian State close in a thriller, a stark contrast to the shellacking they received the last time the two teams met. The defense has been a difference maker, allowing six points less than a year ago through the first five weeks of this campaign.

    10) Arkansas State Red Wolves

    Preseason Ranking: 13th

    One of the big climbers from our preseason Sun Belt Power Rankings, the Arkansas State Red Wolves might not be done with their ascent just yet. Butch Jones’ team has already matched their conference win total from last year by knocking off Southern Miss, and they need just one more win to accomplish the best campaign since Jones took the helm in 2021.

    Early defeats to Oklahoma and Memphis showcased there is still a long way to go defensively, but Arkansas State has a legit talent on offense to get excited by and to set expectations by. Jaylen Raynor was named the CFN Freshman of the Week for his performances against UMass, and the talented dual-threat QB is the playmaking threat needed to elevate this program.

    9) Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

    Preseason Ranking: 8th

    The Sun Belt is arguably the best Group of Five conferences right now, and nothing speaks to that more than the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns slipping a spot in our Sun Belt Power Rankings despite carrying a 3-2 record out of Week 5. They beat UAB in a similarly convincing style to the team currently viewed as the best in the nation and played Minnesota close in a defeat.

    Michael Desormeaux’s team has been a lot more dangerous offensively this season so far, with QB Zeon Chriss adding a ground game threat to complement an impressive running back room led by Jacob Kibodi. However, there’s a need to pump the brakes on the excitement a little, with a loss to Old Dominion standing out like a sore thumb and some defensive difficulties.

    8) South Alabama Jaguars

    Preseason Ranking: 1st

    It’s been tough sledding so far for our preseason favorite. After achieving a 10-win season in the first campaign under Kan Wommack, the natural expectation was an assault on the Sun Belt title for the South Alabama Jaguars. Despite returning a lot of the talent that powered the success of 2022, it feels like the program is a long way short of even replicating last year.

    With matchups against Tulane and Oklahoma State, the early slate was always going to be the hardest. They even passed half of that test with a win over the Cowboys that gives them a Power Five scalp on their résumé. However, a loss to James Madison already has them at a disadvantage in the conference, and a loss to Central Michigan is a clear blot on their copybook.

    7) Appalachian State Mountaineers

    Preseason Ranking: 6th

    One of the big areas for concern when ranking Appalachian State in our preseason Sun Belt Power Rankings was how they’d before offensively with the departure of offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay to North Carolina. Well, through five games and three wins, they’ve averaged 1.5 points more than in the 2022 campaign which was Barbay’s sole effort with the Mountaineers.

    That has been powered by running back Nate Noel, and fuelled by some high-scoring duels — some of which they’ve won, some which they haven’t. They beat Louisiana-Monroe in one such contest to go 1-0 in the conference through Week 5. Right now, there’s not a marquee win and too many questions on defense for them to ascend beyond the midpoint of our updated rankings.

    6) Georgia State Panthers

    Preseason Ranking: 9th

    One of the early-season storylines in the conference, the Georgia State Panthers get a bump up our Sun Belt Power Rankings after going 4-0 to open a season for the first time in program history. After a struggling win over FCS Rhode Island, the Panthers ruthlessly dissected UConn, Charlotte, and Coastal Carolina to make program history.

    Their Week 5 loss to Troy brought them back down to earth with a bump as the offensive line faced a trench test they hadn’t encountered before in the 2023 campaign. Nonetheless, the emergence of Darren Grainger and Marcus Carroll on the national stage alongside some ferocious defensive demons means they’ve already matched their 2022 win total with seven games left.

    5) Georgia Southern Eagles

    Preseason Ranking: 7th

    The Georgia Southern Eagles started the season ranked seventh in our Sun Belt Power Rankings, with their offensive firepower making them alluring but questions over their defense and with last season’s inconsistencies still ringing alarm bells. We highlighted rising defensive coordinator Brandon Bailey as the potential missing piece of the puzzle, and so far, so good.

    The Eagles have seen no drop-off offensively with the switch from Kyle Vantrease to long-time Tulsa QB Davis Brin. They’re scoring at a higher clip than last year so far. The defense has been substantially better thus far, helping facilitate a 4-1 record and a conference win over Coastal. A win on the road at James Madison in Week 7 would see them leapfrog the teams in front of them in what is a tight battle from third to sixth.

    4) Troy Trojans

    Preseason Ranking: 3rd

    When you’re the reigning conference champion coming off a season with your highest AP Poll ranking in program history, there is a sense of expectation but also a target on your back. Troy hasn’t enjoyed a particularly flawless start to the 2023 campaign and has as many conference losses through five weeks as they had through the title-winning 2022 campaign.

    The defense that was the foundation of their success a year ago has been far less sturdy thus far, giving up 30 points to Stephen F. Austin and 42 points to Kansas State. There have been signs of improvement in the wins over Western Kentucky and a previously undefeated Georgia State team, but they’ll need to be better on both sides of the ball to run the table down the stretch.

    3) Texas State Bobcats

    Preseason Ranking: 11th

    While the Auburn Tigers struggle for offensive identity, their former quarterback is doing the business in San Mateo for a Texas State Bobcats team rejuvenated by first-year FBS head coach G.J. Kinne. The fortunes of the program have been transformed far quicker than anyone could have imagined and they carry a 4-1 record into Week 6 of the season.

    An opening weekend win over Baylor gives them a Power Five victory on the résumé that would have carried them up our Sun Belt Power Rankings. However, a blip to UTSA aside, the Bobcats have ripped their way through the rest of the opposition on their schedule so far, setting a pace for scoring and total offense that is well ahead of any other team in the conference.

    2) Marshall Thundering Herd

    Preseason Ranking: 4th

    While head coach Charles Huff receives national attention as a potential suitor for every program on Power Five head coach hot seat watch, the Marshall Thundering Herd have quietly stampeded through their early schedule to go undefeated ahead of their second Power Five game of 2023.

    Their four-win start includes the Power Five scalp of Virginia Tech, their first over the Hokies in decades. Running back Rasheen Ali is the only player in the FBS with two touchdowns in every game he’s played, powering an offense that has done enough without being spectacular. Other than an anomaly against Old Dominion, the defense has been as solid as a rock.

    1) James Madison Dukes

    Preseason Rankings: 5th

    James Madison came out firing in their inaugural season at the FBS level in 2022 and would have been playing for the Sun Belt title if not for ludicrous regulations that penalize FCS converts at a time when teams are switching college football conferences more easily than trying to switch your cell provider. We digress. A follow-up campaign on a similar level was going to be difficult.

    MORE: Rank the Dukes!

    Someone forgot to give the Dukes the memo. They’re 5-0 entering their Week 6 bye, and 2-0 in the conference having defeated the two teams that you’d have called their stiffest opposition ahead of the year. The defense has been dominant, leading to two CFN Defensive Player of the Week accolades, while  Jordan McCloud has picked up the QB baton with aplomb so far.

    College Football Transfer Portal Tracker

    Never miss a beat with the CFN-exclusive College Football Transfer Portal Tracker, listing the student-athletes entering and exiting the transfer portal.

    Related Articles