2023 Sun Belt East college football preview: Burning questions, players to watch

Linebacker Mikail Kamara returns for a James Madison team that had a lot to smile about in its FBS debut season. Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

Editor's note: This story was updated in late July to reflect the latest projections and changes to teams and rosters.

I've long advocated for college football to move beyond divisional play. It's hard for huge conferences to feel like conferences when teams are only playing some of their cohorts twice every 12 years or so, right? And it's frustrating when we end up with conference title games -- sometimes with CFP implications -- that pit the best team in the conference against, say, the fifth best.

My anti-divisions stance is on the record, and I'm slowly getting my way. The Pac-12, ACC and Mountain West have all ditched their divisions in favor of more sensible scheduling and potentially stronger title games, and only four of 10 FBS conferences still use divisional structures. It's great when sense occasionally takes over this sport.

I don't want change to ever touch the Sun Belt East, however. It's perfect. It's geographically sensible -- as far as my Google Maps skills can take me, only one matchup is more than an eight-hour drive away (and Marshall vs. Georgia Southern is still less than nine) -- and competitive: At least three of its current members have finished in the SP+ top 75 for five straight years.

In 2022, the East gave us Appalachian State's all-time run of September drama -- a 63-61 loss to North Carolina, followed by an upset of Texas A&M, followed by a Hail Mary win over Troy with College GameDay in attendance. It gave us another year of Coastal Carolina's mullet-acious quarterback, Grayson McCall. It gave us one of the greatest FBS debuts we'll ever see, with James Madison hopping up and immediately playing top-50 ball. It gave us a Georgia Southern upset of Nebraska. It gave us loads of close games and wild finishes.

What will it give us in 2023? We'll see. Let's preview the Sun Belt East!