Sun Belt 2024 preview: Appalachian State, Troy, James Madison and other contenders

Over the last two months of last season, Appalachian State's Joey Aguilar was one of the best QBs in the Group of 5. Troy Babbitt/USA TODAY Sports

The Age of the Sun Belt is upon us. After the AAC's trade of quality (three of its best programs leaving for the Big 12) for quantity (six Conference USA schools coming in as replacements), and after the Sun Belt's addition of brilliant FBS newcomer James Madison, among others, we have a new king of the Group of 5.

The SBC pretty comfortably produced the best average SP+ rating among G5 conferences in 2023, and while last year's top three teams per SP+ (JMU, Troy and South Alabama) are all replacing their head coaches, the Sun Belt is projected to have the edge this time around, too. But can it produce a College Football Playoff team? Or will its biggest strength, depth, backfire in that regard? SP+ gives only one Sun Belt team even a 10% chance of going 11-1 or better, and no one has better than a 21% chance of winning the conference.

It's a free-for-all! Let's preview the Sun Belt!

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another FBS conference exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 134 FBS teams. The previews will include 2023 breakdowns, 2024 previews and team-by-team capsules. Here are the MAC, Conference USA, AAC and Mountain West.

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2024 projections | Best games
Title contenders | Who's close?
Hoping for 6-6

2023 recap

The Sun Belt produced three top-50 teams last year, but only one reached the conference title game. James Madison, still in only its second year of FBS membership, wasn't yet eligible (this really is just the silliest rule), and South Alabama was just plain confusing. The Jaguars recorded some of the conference's most absurdly impressive performances -- 33-7 over Oklahoma State, 59-10 over Eastern Michigan, 28-0 over Marshall, a combined 110-10 over Louisiana Monroe and Southern Miss -- but went 1-4 in one-score finishes.

In the end, a solid Appalachian State team couldn't keep up with ridiculously good Troy in the Sun Belt championship game, and the deepest G5 conference produced a whopping 12 bowl teams. They did a collective South Alabama impression, losing seven of their first eight bowl games (with four one-score defeats, two in OT), then winning the last four by an average of 26 points.