2023 Sun Belt Bowls Preview

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Once again (and hopefully fully this time), we are going to preview each and every bowl game team by team, conference by conference. This year, there are 41 bowl games and the CFP National Championship on deck. There are 11 brand-new matchups with three programs making their bowl debuts. No bowl-eligible teams were left home. In fact, two technically ineligible FCS-to-FBS teams and a 5-7 team made it! When breaking the teams down, we will look at what certain players did.

The bowl opt-outs and transfers are too hectic to keep track of so we certainly apologize!

2023 Sun Belt Bowls Preview

Myrtle Beach Bowl (December 16, 11:00 A.M., ESPN)

Georgia Southern vs Ohio

Head-to-head: 0-0
Bowl Record: 3-2

Georgia Southern comes into this game with five wins over FBS foes and only two over bowl-bound teams. The Eagles got off to an impressive 6-2 start and scored over 40 points per game in each of those wins. However, they faltered toward the end of the year and dropped their final four games, each against bowl-bound Sun Belt teams.

Former Tulsa quarterback Davis Brin threw for 3,431 yards and 22 touchdowns, but he turned the ball over quite a lot. His 16 interceptions were tied for the most in the FBS. His favorite receiver this year was Khaleb Hood who turned in an effort of 917 yards and five touchdowns off of 94 receptions. Meanwhile, at running back, Jalen White is a workhorse. This season, despite missing two games, he amassed 891 yards and nine touchdowns off of a whopping 159 carries.

This season, the Eagles struggled against the passing attack. They allowed 244.1 yards per game via the pass, good for the 31st worst in college football. Linebacker Marques Watson-Trent nearly doubled up the next nearest tackler on the defense with 117. He added 13 TFLs, three-and-a-half sacks, a forced fumble, and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against rival Georgia State. Ohio will also have to contend with defensive lineman, Justin Rhodes, and his 13 tackles for loss

Even though the Bobcats will be breaking in a few new faces on offense, their defense should be good enough to carry them through this game. Take Ohio here.

New Orleans Bowl (December 16, 2:15 P.M., ESPN)

Louisiana vs Jacksonville State

Head-to-head: 0-0
Bowl Record: 7-3

It was quite the up-and-down season for the Ragin’ Cajuns. While they finished 6-6, they only beat two bowl-bound teams. However, four of their losses were by one score so this could have been a very different season if they had just finished games. They draw Jacksonville State, a program making its FBS debut.

Louisiana had four players attempt a pass but Chandler Fields and Zeon Criss led the way. However, the strength of this offense is in its rushing attack. Three different Cajuns amassed at least 73 rushing attempts, led by sixth-year running back, Jacob Kibodi and his 729 yards and seven touchdowns. Overall, there are no single players to pinpoint but they have a handful of players who can beat Jacksonville State.

Overall, this Louisiana defense has few stars and arguably its biggest star has hit the Portal. They’ll be without Kendre’ Grant and his 12 TFLs and six sacks. On the back side, three different players recorded multiple interceptions this year.

This is likely going to be a closer game but expect Louisiana to come out on top.

Cure Bowl (December 16, 3:30 P.M., ABC)

Appalachian State vs Miami (OH)

Head-to-head: 0-0
Bowl Record: 6-1

The Mountaineers had themselves a successful season, for the most part. Thanks to James Madison being ineligible for post-season play (at the time), Appalachian State played Troy for the Sun Belt crown, where it ultimately fell, 49-23. Its four regular-season losses each came by one score to four bowl-eligible teams and even took down four other bowl-bound teams. The best win of the year was actually at home with College Gameday in attendance when Appalachian State took down the previously unbeaten James Madison.

The Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year and Second-Team All-Sun Belt quarterback Joey Aguilar leads an impressive Appalachian State offense. His 33 touchdown passes were the best in the conference and third in the FBS and added 3,271 yards. Without Nate Noel (Transfer Portal), Kanye Roberts will take the reigns and it’s not like he’s a stranger to working for it. He amassed 648 yards for a team-leading seven touchdowns off of 113 carries. Roberts even added 110 receiving yards. Aguilar’s favorite receiver was Kaedin Robinson by far. Robinson’s 2023 campaign will continue in this game as he looks to add to his 787 yards and 10 touchdowns.

As a unit, the Appalachian State’s defense was taken advantage of all year. They allowed 28.4 points per game and nearly 400 yards per game. First-Team All-Sun Belt linebacker Andrew Parker led the way with his 108 tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks. Despite allowing a fair chunk of yardage through the air, the Mountaineers have an opportunistic secondary with a pair of defensive backs with four interceptions each. Jordan Favors added a forced fumble to his four-interception mark. Meanwhile, two of Tyrek Funderburk‘s four interceptions were returned for touchdowns in back-to-back games.

This is a low-key great matchup that will be well worth tuning into. The difference in this one will be Miami (OH)’s quarterback situation. The Mountaineers should be able to take this one.

Famous Toastery Bowl (December 18, 2:30 P.M., ESPN)

Old Dominion vs Western Kentucky

Head-to-head: Old Dominion 1-5 Western Kentucky
Bowl Record: 1-1

At 6-6, it was not the greatest season for Old Dominion. They somehow beat four bowl-bound teams but at the same time only beat 1-9 Texas A&M Commerce (FCS), 10-9. Four of their six losses were by one score. They’re coming into this game having salvaged the year with back-to-back wins over the two Georgia teams in the Sun Belt.

ODU managed just 350 yards per game and will be without its second-leading receiver in this one. It should not hurt too much because they run the ball. Not entirely too well, but they run the ball. Keshawn Wicks and Kadarius Calloway combined for 1,146 yards and eight scores off of 188 carries. Although neither played much of a role in the final game of the year due to injury.

The Monarchs finished with three players over 100 tackles led by two-time All-American, Jason Henderson. Unfortunately, he will miss this game due to injury as well. Which is a massive shame because he is one of the premier linebackers in the country. Wayne Matthew will continue his strong year in his absence and the third player, safety Terry Jones, is off to the Portal.

This will be an interesting matchup. ODU did not excel nor did it falter against the pass this year. Western Kentucky throws the ball like nobody’s business. Let’s roll with the Hilltoppers in this one.

Frisco Bowl (December 19, 9:00 P.M., ESPN)

Marshall vs UTSA

Head-to-head: Marshall 2-1 UTSA
Bowl Record: 13-5

In one of the worst misses of this author’s preseason hype, Marshall finished 6-6 and was not anywhere as good as expected. You win some, you lose some. After starting off 4-0, The Herd dropped each of its next five games. There was a string of games where Marshall failed to score 10 points in four of five games. This offense struggled this year.

On offense, running back Rasheen Ali was once again the star of the show, rushing for 1,042 yards and 14 touchdowns after missing most of last year. It was not quite 2021 Ali but he was still a force. Starting quarterback Cam Fancher led the way this year but has since jumped into the Portal, so Cole Pennington should get the start. He threw for 437 yards but no touchdowns and six interceptions. It’s going to be an interesting experience, that’s for sure.

Defensively, The Herd are led by Owen Porter and Elijah Alston who combined for 25.5 TFLs, and 10 sacks on the year. Alston even added a pair of forced fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown. As a unit, this Marshall was not great on defense.

They’ll likely struggle against this UTSA offense. This could have been a matchup if both teams played as well as expected but regardless, they’re in the Frisco Bowl. The Roadrunners Meep Meep their way over The Herd.

Birmingham Bowl (December 23, 12:00 P.M., ABC)

Troy vs Duke

Head-to-head: Troy 0-2 Duke
Bowl Record: 6-3

The first matchup of what could be unofficially be “Sun Belt Bowl Day”, Troy, the conference’s champion, faces off against a meh Duke team. At 11-2, the Trojans continue their dominance, now winning 23 games over the last two years. Those two losses came in the second and third games of the year against Kansas State and the surprising James Madison team. Nine of their wins were by more than one score. Head Coach Jon Sumrall elected to take the Tulane job, so he will not be with the team.

The Troy offense goes through quarterback Gunnar Watson and his 3,339 yards and 29 touchdowns on the year. His favorite target was Jabre Barber as he hauled in 65 passes for 892 yards and five touchdowns. However, he did not lead the way in scoring. Chris Lewis did and his impressive 23 yards per reception. Also in the backfield, Kimani Vidal broke out for 1,582 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Oddly enough, the defense is the strength here, as it finished 10th in the nation in scoring defense. Javon Solomon was an actual freak this year for the Trojans, posting 52 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 16 sacks, and three forced fumbles. Piece of advice for Duke: locate the maroon “6” and go the other way.

While this matchup is not nearly as disrespectful as others, Troy is looking to, once again, show the nation that it’s a legitimate program. Both teams will be without head coaches. Troy wins this one.

Camellia Bowl (December 23, 12:00 P.M., ESPN)

Arkansas State vs Northern Illinois

Head-to-head: Arkansas State 1-7 Northern Illinois
Bowl Record: 4-6

The year started off incredibly poorly for Butch Jones’ squad. In the first two weeks, they suffered two losses by a combined score of 110-3. They kicked it in gear, of course, winning the next three games and finishing with six wins. Of those six, only two were against bowl-bound teams.

This offense has a number of productive players, they just did not string it together for a better season. Freshman quarterback Jaylen Raynor burst onto the scene with 2,300 yards and 15 touchdowns and earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors. Three different receivers finished with over 500 yards, so they spread it out. On the ground, three players, including Rynor, rushed it at least 100 times. The two backs, Zac Wallace and Ja’Quez Cross, combined for 1,244 yards and 13 touchdowns. Wallace missed the final game of the year so that’ll be something to keep an eye on.

The Red Wolves lost their second-leading tackler to the Portal this offseason but still have each of its stars. Overall, this unit was gashed regularly, allowing over 400 total yards seven times and over 500 three times.

This is not going to be a premier bowl game and it would make sense if you skipped this one because neither team looks very good heading into it. When it comes to Sun Belt vs. MAC, however, let’s roll with the FUN Belt.

Armed Forces Bowl (December 23, 3:30 P.M., ABC)

James Madison vs Air Force

Head-to-head: 0-0
Bowl Record: 0-0

Has there been a more exciting FCS-to-FBS jump than this James Madison team? All year, Dukes fans and casuals alike wished to allow this team to play for the Sun Belt Championship and, potentially, a NY6 Bowl. JMU got to 10-0 before falling on the road to Appalachian State. Despite being ineligible, there were not enough 6-6 teams, so James Madison (and Jacksonville State) earned berths.

This will be the final JMU game for star quarterback Jordan McCloud as he will jump into the Portal (to go to his fourth school) following the game. He threw for an impressive 3,400 yards and 32 touchdowns for the Dukes and he had TWO 1,000+ yard receivers in Elijah Sarratt (1,076 yards and eight touchdowns) and Reggie Brown (1,010 yards and nine touchdowns).

In addition to the 18th-best scoring offense, the Dukes finished with the 18th-best scoring defense. The Portal stole the three top JMU tacklers. They do still have Jamree Kromah (19 TFLs, 10 sacks) and Jalen Green (21 TFLs, 15.5 sacks…and he missed the final three games).

On the year, JMU allowed just 61.5 yards per game on the ground, good for the best in the nation. I’ll be strength vs. Strength. The Dukes haven’t faced a rushing attack like Air Force and losing those top three tacklers will hurt, but they’ll finish the year on top.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (December 23, 3:30 P.M., ESPN)

Georgia State vs Utah State

Head-to-head: 0-0
Bowl Record: 3-2

This was a prime example of the cliché, tale of two halves. The Panthers earned bowl eligibility in just seven weeks…then they lost each of their final five games. It was a difficult schedule for Georgia State as they faced off against nine bowl-eligible teams where they won three.

Quarterback Darren Grainer led this offense with 2,364 yards and 17 touchdowns but he will be without his star running back, top receiver, and right tackle as they are all testing the Portal waters. As a unit, the Panthers offense managed just 372.5 yards per game but rushed for over 100 yards in every game save for one. Playing without stud running back Marcus Carroll will be a challenge.

Defensively, the Panthers struggled. They allowed nearly 432 yards per game. They allowed over 400 yards in eight games and over 500 in four, including three of the final four games. On the plus side, Gavin Pringle held down the secondary with four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

Even if the Panthers struggle on defense, they should still be able to run the ball on Utah State. The Aggies are considerably weak in that area and it’ll be what allows Georgia State to win.

68 Ventures Bowl (December 23, 7:00 P.M., ESPN)

South Alabama vs Eastern Michigan

Head-to-head: 0-0
Bowl Record: 0-3

Last year’s Sun Belt runner-up did not meet expectations, unfortunately. They could not replicate their 10 wins and only managed six this year. They destroyed Oklahoma State early on in the year but traded wins and losses down the stretch. Half of their wins came against bowl-bound teams.

The Jaguars have a few key pieces who will be missing in action. Most notably, stud running back La’Damian Webb (opt-out, 1,006 yards and 16 touchdowns) and leading receiver Caullin Lacy (Portal, 1,316 yards and seven touchdowns). Carter Bradley led the way at quarterback again but fell short of his lofty 2022 marks.

Last year, the strength of the Jaguars was its defense. This year, it’s more of the same, though not to the same level. Linebacker Quentin Wilfawn led the way with 81 tackles, 15 TFLs, and 6.5 sacks. In the secondary, Jaden Voisin led the way with four interceptions.

What even is a 68 Ventures? Great marketing considering most people likely don’t know. For this one, Eastern Michigan has not looked great in the MAC, so South Alabama should be able to get the win here.

Hawai’i Bowl (December 23rd, 10:30 p.m., ESPN)

Coastal Carolina vs San Jose State

Head-to-head: 0-0
Bowl Record: 1-2

One of the better Group of 5 programs, Coastal Carolina took a small step back in 2023, finishing 7-5. All six of the Chants’ FBS wins came against bowl-bound teams but only one of their five losses was by less than two scores. The loss of Jamey Chadwell prior to the year obviously hurt but they were still in the top half of Sun Belt teams.

The Portal hit Coastal hard this year. Longtime quarterback Grayson McCall, QB2 Jarrett Guest, second-leading wide receiver Jared Brown, and RB2 CJ Beasley have left. The Chants will turn to Ethan Vasko to lead the offense. The leading receiver, Sam Pinckney, a sixth-year former Georgia Stater finished the regular season with 904 yards and seven touchdowns.

Overall, the Coastal Carolina defense was decent-not-great. They allowed 380 yards per game, led by safety Clayton Isbell. With 86 tackles and three interceptions, the former Utah Ute led the way and added 4.5 TFLs and a sack.

San Jose State and its quarterback can sling it around. Oddly enough, that quarterback used to play for Hawai’i. They’ll get the win over Coastal in this one.

First Responder Bowl (December 26, 5:30 P.M., ESPN)

Texas State vs Rice

Head-to-head: Texas State 2-2 Rice
Bowl Record: 0-0

Making their bowl debut, the Texas State Bobcats close the Sun Belt bowls schedule with a party with in-state foe, Rice. In the 12th season at the FBS level, Texas State finally broke through and had, by far, its best season. This will be the third time the Bobcats will face off against a Texas-based team and they’ll have the opportunity to break the 1-1 tie. Of those seven wins, the Bobcats took down just two bowl-bound teams.

If you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t know that this team is 17th in the nation in scoring offense. They go for nearly 471 yards per game and have a number of serious playmakers, led by quarterback TJ Finley. Finley passed for 3,287 yards and 24 touchdowns on the year and had two receivers with 800+ yards and two with eight touchdowns. Ismali Mahdi ran the ball nearly 200 times on the year for 1,209 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Bobcats were not the greatest, either. However, they have a few notable names led by stud former SMU linebacker, Brian Holloway. He led the way with 98 tackles and 16 TFLS while adding 1.5 sacks, a pair of interceptions, and three forced fumbles. They did allow a good chunk of yards this year but they could rely on that potent offense to power them to victory.

In this battle of Texas schools, Texas State has the upper hand. That Bobcat offense will be difficult to stop for Rice and will be the difference in this one.

Sun’s Out, Guns Out; Sun Belt, Fun Belt

With a whopping 12 teams going bowling, the Sun Belt is actually home to the most bowl-bound teams in the nation. The entire Sun Belt East division is bowl-bound, providing plenty of evidence that the Sun Belt is the best Group of 5 conference and can, realistically, play with the Power 5.

Every year, we overestimate conferences when picking. Over the past few years, that conference was the MAC (yeah, I know) but this year, eight Sun Belt teams have been picked to win. Not bad.

Read More:

MAC Bowls Preview
Mountain West Bowls Preview
Conference USA Bowls Preview
American Athletic Conference Bowls Preview

Main Image: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

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