One of the premier mid-major conferences in the nation, the Sun Belt has plenty of contenders heading into 2023, but how will the addition of Southern Miss and James Madison affect the conference? Here is a look at four teams to keep an eye on heading into the upcoming spring, who will factor into the conference title race.
Southern Miss, newcomer and favorite
The Sun Belt looks quite a bit different in terms of structure and strength as a mid-major conference heading into the 2023 season. That is because Southern Miss, a traditional powerhouse who has reached the NCAA Tournament in each of the last six seasons, is now part of the league. Despite being new to the league, No. 8 Southern Miss is also the perceived preseason favorite. (RELATED: Preseason Top 50)
Under longtime head coach Scott Berry, the Golden Eagles were 47-19 a year ago. Despite some notable departures on the pitching staff in closer Landon Harper, starter Hunter Riggins and reliever Hurston Waldrep, Southern Miss is poised for another tournament run. The pitching staff will need to find a closer to replace the clockwork-like Harper, whose consistency resulted in 12 saves a year ago. On paper, Southern Miss has at least a few options within the group of five transfers, one being Nebraska transfer Tyler Martin, who had a team-high 20 saves for the Huskers a year ago.
But then you look at the returners. Righty Tanner Hall posted All-American-type numbers on the mound in 2022, posting a 2.81 ERA and 148 strikeouts as a sophomore. He will form the centerpiece of the pitching staff.
In the lineup, there is a slew of bats that will make the Golden Eagles tough for opposing pitchers to beat. Slade Wilks was exceptional, mostly in a designated hitter role last season, hitting .288 with 10 homers and 37 RBIs. He has a powerful bat in the middle of the order, as does first baseman Chris Sargent, who swatted 21 home runs a year ago.
Carson Paetow is experienced as the starting right fielder, and hit .271 in 2022. Dustin Dickerson has the speed to be a top-of-the-order bat for Berry’s squad, along with an ability to hit for contact (.320 BA in ‘22). In total, seven position player starters are back, which will undoubtedly help the Golden Eagles in the Sun Belt title race.
Key non-conference matchup: at No. 5 Ole Miss (March 7). Southern Miss always schedules well and has matchups with Mississippi State, Alabama, and Louisiana Tech all scheduled. But the March duel in Oxford at No. 5 Ole Miss rises to another level. This is probably the toughest challenge USM will have this season, considering Ole Miss’ firepower. A Tuesday night matchup will have the feel of a super regional.
Georgia Southern, in the hunt
Georgia Southern finished second in the league title race a year ago at 23-7 and is in prime position to finish in the top half of the conference once again.
Four of Georgia Southern’s top five hitters from last season have returned, including power hitter Noah Ledford, who hit .348 with 17 homers, 19 doubles, and 70 RBIs in 2022. Ledford’s return for his senior year will be key, as will the presence of leadoff hitter Jesse Sherill, who hit a team-best .361 in 56 starts last season.
Consistent production out of the lineup is going to be a primary objective for the Eagles, though they do have a few solid arms who will go toe-to-toe with the Sun Belt’s best. Ty Fisher is likely the best arm Georgia Southern has, having posted a 6-2 record with a 2.58 ERA in 87.1 innings. A starter, he is likely in line to be GSU’s go-to in Friday night contests. Coming out of the bullpen, southpaw Jay Thompson returns for his senior season after leading the team in appearances last year, with 37. Outside of that duo, there is not quite as much depth on the pitching staff as one would like, though Jaylen Paden returns after making 14 starts with a 5.30 ERA in 2022, and righty reliever Jake Martin is back for his junior year after 27 appearances out of the bullpen a year ago.
Key non-conference matchup: vs No. 35 Georgia (March 7): These two teams will meet twice, playing at Georgia later in the month, but this has a different feel to it, being that it is a neutral site game, part of the slate of SRP College Baseball Showcase games in 2023. Not only is Georgia looking solid in the SEC conversation this year, but this is also a battle between in-state schools separated by 165 miles. Pitching depth, especially a few days after a road weekend series at UCF, might be the biggest difference in this matchup .
Texas State, also in the hunt
The Bobcats won the league a year ago, and nearly shocked Stanford on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Super Regional round. Texas State is in a bit of a different position this year, but still very much in the running in the Sun Belt, with a group of solid returnees.
The main departure was reliever Tristan Stivors, who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox following last season. Stivors had 32 appearances and a 7-1 record, so he certainly leaves behind a hole in the Bobcat bullpen. In the starting rotation though, Zeke Wood and Levi Wells, Texas State’s Friday and Saturday starters, respectively, are both back with another year under their belts. Wells had the top ERA of any starter on the staff (3.07), going 8-3 in 16 starts. Wood also started 16 games and was the only pitcher to strike out 100 batters for the Bobcats last season.
In the lineup, the name to know is Jose Gonzalez. An outfielder who was named to the All-Stanford Regional team in last year’s national tournament, Gonzalez enters his junior year after hitting .298 with 60 RBIs a year ago. He will be a focal point of the lineup, though pay attention to infielder and Baylor transfer Alex Gonzales as well. He started 29 games for the Bears in 2022.
Key non-conference matchup; No. 18 Texas (April 10-11): A set of games that have attracted great attention in recent years, the close proximity between the two programs allows a game, in this year’s case, to be played on Monday night in San Marcos, followed by another on Tuesday night in Austin. Each hosts one game, and it gives the feel of a weekend series to a midweek matchup. These are also two games that could boost Texas State’s tournament resume if the Bobcats do end up competing for an at-large bid.
Coastal Carolina, the wild card
Still the only Sun Belt program to win a national title (though they won their title as members of the Big South), Coastal Carolina is in the hunt once again for the conference championship, after finishing third in the league standings in 2022. Senior outfielder Graham Brown looks to be the focal point of Chanticleers’ lineup, having hit .302 with 43 RBIs in 46 starts last season. His experience level will be key, especially as the team’s top two hitters from 2022 (Tyler Johnson and Eric Brown) have since moved up to the professional ranks. In fact, Brown is one of just three position player returners who started in at least 30 games last season, making Coastal Carolina very much on the border of being a team that could either surprise or underperform, depending on how quickly the young talent on the roster gets settled.
The same could be said for the pitching staff, who saw all three of its weekend starters graduate. Junior southpaw Bryce Shaffer, though a transfer, will almost certainly be in line for a spot in the weekend rotation, after making 13 starts at South Florida State College last spring. Shaffer, who honed his talents in the Cape Cod League this past summer, has great accuracy on his pitches, and struck out 84 batters in 71.2 innings pitched for SFSC. Out of the bullpen, another transfer looking to have an impact is Clemson transfer Alex Edmondson, who was 2-0 in 11 relief appearances for the Tigers in 2022. Opponents hit just .222 against him, and he could have a breakout year for the Chanticleers.
Key non-conference matchup: No. 15 North Carolina (March 28, May 16): For mid-major programs, these midweek duels, especially when they are played at home, can be huge. At-large bids are hard to come by at times in mid-major conferences like the Sun Belt, but Coastal Carolina’s two matchups against UNC should help their case if they find themselves in the at-large conversation. The question will simply be if they have enough pitching to go toe-to-toe against the Tar Heels in a midweek duel.
Depth will shine
The Sun Belt will once again show off its depth as a litany of teams not already mentioned should be in competition for NCAA Tournament berths. Louisiana, South Alabama, Troy, and Georgia State all finished at or above .500 in conference play last year. Louisiana with their 19 Sun Belt wins a year ago will certainly be in the running for the Sun Belt title in 2023.
Projected Players of the Year
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Tanner Hall, Southern Miss: Hall is the centerpiece of Southern Miss’ starting rotation and figures to build on what was already a strong sophomore season. His 146-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio was perhaps the most impressive aspect of his ability to attack on the mound a year ago, and with a similar kind of number in 2023, his ERA will stay low as well. Hall’s ability to make batters swing and miss was put on display with the USA Baseball Collegiate National team this summer, as he came up with a handful of key strikeouts in a 2-0 win over Cuba. If Southern Miss ends up winning the Sun Belt when this season is all said and done, Hall will have plenty to do with it.
Position Player of the Year: 1B Noah Ledford, Georgia Southern: There are some excellent offensive players in the league entering 2023, but Ledford has just the right balance of power and contact in his approach at the plate. A redshirt senior, Ledford’s impact for Georgia Southern will be critical this season especially, considering the level of collegiate experience he brings to the lineup, combined with the limited pitching depth it appears the squad has, at least evaluating things from a preseason standpoint. He had an on-base percentage of .444 and a slugging percentage of .665, near or at the top of both categories amongst regulars in the lineup a year ago. There are plenty of contact hitters likely to hit ahead of him in the lineup, which should lead to RBI opportunities. Ledford’s final collegiate season is gearing up to be his best.