Since moving to the Sun Belt Conference in 2014, Appalachian State has proved it was primed for a quick transition up to the NCAA's top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision.
Last season, Scott Satterfield coached the Mountaineers to the first 11-win season in Sun Belt history, capped by a Camelia Bowl victory over Ohio. The two losses came against Clemson, the 2015 national runner-up, and Arkansas State, which won the Sun Belt by virtue of that victory.
This season, conference coaches have picked Appalachian State as the preseason favorite, surprising no one — especially not the Mountaineers.
"There are a lot of high expectations, but for us at Appalachian State we have always had high expectations," Satterfield said. "When we first arrived (in the Sun Belt) a few years ago, there were questions as to whether or not we could compete in this league and compete at the FBS level. We have been able to answer those questions over the last year and a half. So our guys expect to win every game."
That means the Mountaineers expect to win at Tennessee and also to beat what will arguably be the most prominent program to visit Appalachian State's Kidd Brewer Stadium, the Miami Hurricanes.
Certainly, victories in either of those games raise the profile of the Sun Belt, which has enjoyed steady increases in bowl tie-ins (now up to five) and television revenues in recent seasons.
But the 16-year-old league still has yet to see one of its members qualify for an elite New Year's Day bowl game.
"All our indicators are trending upward," Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said recently. "Why not 2016 becoming the year that the Sun Belt champion plays in Dallas (on) Jan. 2" in the Cotton Bowl?
In addition to Appalachian State, defending champion Arkansas State could have a say in who wins the league. However, the Red Wolves lost their starting quarterback, making it tougher to project how effective their offense will be this season.
"We have never been picked to win the league, but we have found a way to win it in four out of the last five years," said third-year Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, who is 13-3 in the league through his first wo seasons. However, the conference schedule doesn't match Arkansas State against Appalachian State.
Georgia Southern, meanwhile, was picked to finish third in the preseason coaches' poll, but is adjusting to a new coaching staff after Willie Fritz's departure for Tulane.
Appalachian State junior Taylor Lamb has been named preseason all-conference quarterback and could be one of the Sun Belt's most prolific players, given he'll be running a spread option offense. Last season, he passed for 2,387 yards and 31 TDs while rushing for 436 yards and five scores. The league also has a slew of productive running backs including Georgia Southern's Matt Breida, Appalachian State's Marcus Cox, Louisiana-Lafayette's Elijah McGuire and New Mexico State's Larry Rose III. On defense, Arkansas State lineman Ja'Von Rolland-Jones is coming off a nine-sack season, while defensive backs Savion Brown of UL Lafayette and Cody Brown of Arkansas State were both among the league leaders in pass breakups and interceptions in 2015.
Anthony Jennings, who was LSU's starting quarterback in 2014, is a graduate transfer to UL Lafayette, meaning he could start immediately for a Ragin' Cajuns squad looking to bounce back from a 2015 campaign that saw them post their first losing record in five years. Louisiana-Monroe has a new coach in Matt Viator, who has enjoyed a long run of success in the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision with McNeese State. Tyson Summers is Georgia Southern's third new coach in four seasons. Summers also is in his first season as a Division I coach after serving as Colorado State's defensive coordinator the past two seasons. He takes over an experience-laden squad that has gone 18-7 in its first two years at the FBS level.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Idaho coach Paul Petrino, the brother of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, is 6-29 in three seasons with the Vandals. New Mexico State coach Doug Martin is 7-29 in three seasons.
Appalachian State wins its first Sun Belt crown. Arkansas State winds up with a bowl bid, as do Georgia Southern, UL Lafayette and Georgia State.