2022 Sun Belt Football Preview, Best Bets: Time to Buy Low on South Alabama

Nov 20, 2021; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; South Alabama Jaguars mascot SouthPaw poses during the
Nov 20, 2021; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; South Alabama Jaguars mascot SouthPaw poses during the / Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

The Sun Belt is going through some changes, acquiring a handful of talented Group of Five teams to join their conference, giving them 14 teams.

One addition is from the FCS with James Madison taking the step up in class, can they achieve their lofty win total? Or will a team like South Alabama, a team that just missed bowl eligibility last season take the next step forward?

Here are two win totals I'm eyeing in the Sun Belt Conference in 2022.

Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook

South Alabama OVER 5.5 Wins (-115)

The Jaguars are my favorite sleeper in a conference that should be hyper-competitive with the addition of the likes of Marshall, Southern Mississippi, Old Dominion and the aforementioned James Madison. The team lost two home games to Louisiana-Lafayette and Coastal Caroline by a combined eight points and dropped two road games by one score as well. Those add up with a team that is looking to go to a bowl game for the first time since 2016.

I think they get over the hump in 2022.

The team needs to replace Jake Bentley at quarterback -- with a competition between Toledo transfer Carter Bradley and backup from last season Desmond Trotter happening now -- and star receiver Jalen Tolbert, but there is some talent on hand through the transfer portal.

Omni Wells (Ole Miss) and Marco Lee (Virginia Tech) join the running back group that is running behind an offensive line that brings back four starters in addition to more P5 transfers. While the run game struggled last season as they dealt with injuries throughout the season, averaging three yards per carry, it was a slight step up from the year before when they averaged less than that. With more continuity on the line and better health, there should be better blocking up front and a big jump in production.

Head coach Kane Wommack is in his second season after most recently sitting as the defensive coordinator at Indiana. The team took a step forward on that side of the ball in his first year and generated 32 sacks and forced 15 interceptions, tied for 14th most in the country.

There are more transfers coming in from P5 programs like Ole Miss and Womack's former team Indiana to hope to inject more talent into a budding SBC defense.

The team tailed off down the stretch of 2021, losing five of their last six games, they are well suited to get to six wins and make a bowl game.

They are projected favorites in four games (Nichols State, Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Monroe and Texas State) and are in six projected one score spreads (at Central Michigan, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and Southern Mississippi as well as home for Troy, Old Dominion). The team ducks Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Georgia State this year as well.

If Wommack's team wins the games they are supposed to, they need to go just 2-4 in hotly contested games to get over this number. With an elite SBC defensive line and some one-score variance heading their way, I'll take a shot on South Alabama getting to six wins.

PICK: South Alabama OVER 5.5 (-110)

James Madison UNDER 6.5 Wins (-150)

This price of -150 implies that JMU goes under seven wins 60% of the time in their first season at the FBS level, and I'm hard pressed to see them going over this total.

Of course, the Dukes are one of the most decorated FCS schools in recent memory, but this is not only a team that is going up to a more difficult level of competition, but also facing extreme turnover on both sides of the ball.

The team must replace Cole Johnson, who passed for over 3,700 yards and 41 touchdowns last season. He is being replaced by Todd Centeio, who transferred from both Temple and Colorado State. Most recently he struggled for the Rams, posting a 15:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

While he is flanked by running back Latrele Palmer who rushed for over 900 yards and five yards a carry, the team is going to be relatively unproven at receiver, losing one of two 1,000 receivers last season and just three starters back on the line.

The defense is leaning on several transfers all over and should be the stronger part of this team. Last season the team allowed 2.6 yards per carry and replaced two departing starters with Minnesota transfer, among others. Only four starters return, so while there are plenty of transfers joining the roster we don't know what it will like necessarily.

There are only nine starters back overall and the schedule is difficult for a first year program in the FBS.

Even if I look favorably on JMU's schedule, they are going to need to play way above their projection to get to seven wins. The Dukes are a considerable favorite in one game (Norfolk State) and then are in seven projected close games within one score, favored in no more than three of them.

This win total means that the Dukes need to win a ton of coin flips with a rebuilding roster and a complete change of scenery while also facing Sun Belt elites such as Appalachian State, Georgia State and Coastal Carolina. Oh, and they only play 11 games.

I see this team winning no more than six games closer to 70% than 60%, so I'm willing to lay it and play against the transition being so smooth.

This number is heading towards six, and I'm going to grab this hook before it disappears ahead of Week 1.

PICK: James Madison UNDER 6.5 Wins (-150)

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