Following is our 2015 Sun Belt preview courtesy Senior Editor Chuck Sippl, presented in order of predicted finish with 2014 straight-up, spread, and "over-under" records included...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Edtior

                                                                         by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

APPALACHIAN STATE (2014 Straight-Up Record 7-5; Pointspread Record 5-6-1; Over/Under 7-4)...
Mark down App State as team on the ascent. In their first year in the Sun Belt Conference after 44 in the Southern Conference, the former FCS Mountaineers got off to a a slow start (1-5 overall; 0-2 in league play), but enjoyed a fast finish (6-0). App State (6-2 in the conference) ended third in the Sun Belt, behind only Georgia Southern (8-0) and Louisiana (7-1).

Not to be overlooked, however, was that HC Scott Satterfield (former App State QB, now in his third year) made an “investment” in 2014, filling his lineup with sophs and frosh, including 6-2 redshirt freshman QB Taylor Lamb. Now, Satterfield, with 20 starters returning (some might not retain their jobs), is expecting to cash in some experience dividends.

One big plus should be the increased awareness of pass-first QB Lamb, son of current Mercer HC Bobby Lamb. After some early growing pains for the young QB (App State opened at revenge-minded Michigan, losing 52-14), Lamb developed nicely as the playbook expanded, completing 61.4% by season’s end for 2381 yards, 17 TDs, and 9 ints., in addition to running for another 483 yards (6.3 ypc). His top WRs and TE return from LY, including 5-10 sr. Simms McElfresh (42 recs. & 5 TDs) and 6-2 sr. Malachi Jones (36 recs., 16.3 ypr). All members of the veteran WR corps are expecting improved numbers in 2015 as Lamb advances along the QB experience curve.

Still, the driving force behind last season’s 36 ppg was the App State rushing attack, led by 5-10, 200 junior Marcus Cox (1415 YR, 5.5 ypc). In fact, all of LY’s top three RBs return, as soph Terrance Upshaw (573) and 5-8 senior Ricky Fergerson (292) helped the trio combine for a lofty 2290 yards on the ground in 2014. And no relief is in sight for opponents, as HC Satterfield says redshirt freshmen Jalin Moore & Josh Boyd as now ready to contribute as well.

Last year’s OL began to jell nicely near midseason, and four of the five return, led by senior C Jesse Chapman, on the Rimington watch list. The unit allowed only 11 sacks in 2014, and the expected lone new member of the groups is expected to be 6-6, 290 LT Davante Harris, a converted DLman who had five starts last season.

By the end of the season, offense was not a major concern at App State, but the Mountaineer defense still was. That unit was ripped for 30 or more points five times, and yielded 27.3 for the season. Satterfield believes the future became brighter for his stoppers once he abandoned a bend-but-don’t-break style early for an attack mode near midseason. App State recorded only six sacks in its first six games of 2014, but then collected 22 in the last six after becoming more aggressive.

Leading the way were 6-4, 275 sr. DE Ronald Blair (six sacks), now an NFL prospect, and 6-2, 235 soph DE Nathaniel Norwood, who had 3½. The strength of App State’s 3-4 is its pair of 235-pound ILBs, the appropriately-named sr. John Law (top tackler with 91 LY) and promising soph Eric Boggs (43 Ts), who began tapping his considerable potential as his freshman playing time increased.

All-Sun Belt senior safety Doug Middleton (4 ints. LY) returns to anchor Mountaineer secondary, where the main concern is at CB, a position of potential early vulnerability. However, HC Satterfield likes the talent of 6-0 soph Brandon Pinckney (special teams LY), while a proven ball thief in juco Mondo Williams (8 picks LY in the JC ranks) will also compete for a starting spot.

Now that his offense has more experience, Satterfield says he is focusing on generating more open-field plays in 2015, while improving his team’s red-zone defense. Of opponents’ drives that penetrated the red zone in 2014, fully 64% of them ended in touchdowns.

SUMMARY...App State hosts Howard in its opener, but then is likely to see its winning streak end on a revenue-generating visit to explosive Clemson. After that, there are no clear losses on the Mountaineer schedule, as well-regarded Sun Belt foes Georgia Southern, Arkansas State, and Louisiana all must travel to lovely Boone, NC to challenge App State. Last year’s 43-14 loss vs. GaSo not only was in Statesboro, GA, but it was also the Mounties’ opener in their new league. Now that the tables are turned and the Eagles have more rebuilding to do, the edge goes to App State...if they can solve their kicking problem. Now bowl eligible in 2015, owning a favorable schedule, and with three FCS championships (2005, 2006, 2007) under their belts, the Mountaineers are thinking big this season.

GEORGIA SOUTHERN (SUR 9-3; PSR 7-5; O/U 6-8)...Georgia Southern, a former FCS power with six national championships, took the Sun Belt Conference by storm in 2014, going 8-0 SU in league play (4-4 vs. the spread). However, since the Eagles were transitioning from the FCS level, they were not allowed to participate in the bowls. As champion of the Sun Belt, GaSo normally would have made it to the postseason. But the Eagles’ request for a waiver fell on deaf ears at the NCAA, which—once again—blew a chance to boost a feel-good story and to promote positive public relations. Understandably, that rejection last year by the NCAA has been a motivator for the Eagle players during all of spring ball and the offseason.

Second-year head coach Willie Fritz, who mostly ran the passing-game spread offense during his quite successful four-year run at Sam Houston State, adapted his offensive philosophy during his first year in Statesboro, using a Pistol-style triple-option attack (39 ppg) that best suited the personnel he inherited. With quick Matt Breida (1485 YR, 8.7 ypc; six TDs of 60+ yards) at RB and darting 6-0 Kevin Ellison (1096 YR, 6.4 ypc) at QB, GaSo ran for more yards (381 per game) than any team in the nation. Even the Eagles’ backup backfield ran with authority, with RB Alfred Ramsey rushing for 691 yards and backup QB Favian Upshaw another 385. At running the Eagles excel.

However, QB Ellison, then a soph, completed only 55.5% of his passes for only 1001 yards and 5 TDs vs. 3 interceptions. Fritz made it a point of emphasis in the spring to improve the Eagles’ air attack. The HC has expanded the Eagle playbook with some of his spread material from Sam Houston State, and he’s got a veteran WR cast this season to utilize, led by 6-1 sr. B.J. Johnson (23 recs. and 3 TDs LY in 2014's run-heavy attack).

The chief area of concern this season on this otherwise deep and experienced offense is the forward wall, where only 6-2, 305 sr. LG Darien Foreman returns. Last year’s option-style unit allowed only five sacks. And 2014's backups saw plenty of action. But that minuscule sack figure is likely to increase this season as the new OL unit jells and the number of aerial attempts increases. One OL plus is the transfer of 6-3, 319 G Roscoe Byrd from the dismantled program at UAB, where Byrd started 20 games.

Eight starters and 16 prime contributors return on defense, which gave up 23.4 ppg. The unit mostly held its own in the Sun Belt, but had its problems when stepping up in class, failing to hold a fourth-quarter lead in a 24-23 defeat at N.C. State, again in the fourth of a 42-38 setback at Georgia Tech, and in virtually all of a late-season 52-19 blowout loss at Navy. In order to further improve, HC Fritz knows his unit has to come up with more key stops, and he’s focusing this season on generating more sacks (only 24 LY) and takeaways (20 LY). The defensive platoon has a solid nucleus down the center in 6-1, 305 NT Jay Ellison, sr. LB Antwione Williams (66 Ts, 3 sacks LY), and sr. S Matt Dobson (62 Ts, 3 ints. LY).

SUMMARY...Fritz had already proven his knack for offense before arriving at Statesboro last season, when his GaSo team came close to upsets in Raleigh and Atlanta and gobbled up the Sun Belt. And the Eagles still have not yet reached the FBS level of 85 scholarships! (63 it the limit at the FCS level.) The first two recruiting classes of Fritz at GaSo were rated either the best in the Sun Belt or close to it. Except for his OL, Fritz has a veteran team this year. One with proven scoring ability. But the Eagles and their quick-hitting triple option will lose some of the element of surprise in the Sun Belt this season. And Georgia Southern will play the same eight Sun Belt foes in 2015 as it did in 2014, and those eight do not include recent SBC “powers” Louisiana and Arkansas State. So, there’s a chance that there might not be an undisputed champ in the league this season. But one thing is undisputed. As burly LG Darien Foreman says about last year’s NCAA bowl nix, “We deserved a chance to go.”

ARKANSAS STATE (SUR 7-6; PSR 7-6; O/O 8-5; Lost 63-44 to Toledo in the GoDaddy Bowl)...Offense sí. Defense no. That pretty much sums up the 2014 season for fast-paced Arkansas State, which sometimes seemed to play too fast for its own good. Yes, the fast, faster, fastest Red Wolves put up 36.7 ppg (18th in the country) and 477 ypg (20th in the nation). ASU, in its first season under Larry Fedora disciple Blake Anderson, had 33 TD drives of two minutes or fewer, and 17 one-minute TD drives.

However, as injuries began to take their toll on ASU’s thin and undersized defense, the Red Wolf stop unit became ever more exposed. Ark. State allowed 180 points in its last six games; 63 to MAC juggernaut Toledo in the GoDaddy Bowl. The Wolves were ripped for 28 rush TDs in their last seven games; 7 alone by Toledo. By way of extreme comparison, Alabama allowed 5 rush TDs all season. ASU gave up 13 TD runs of 20 or more yards in 2014.

If you get the idea that HC Anderson loves uptempo, high-scoring offense, you’re right. He says flat out he wants the Wolves to be “one of the fastest-operating, flying-around football teams in the country.” So don’t expect ASU to slow the pace of its veteran attack in 2015 to eat some clock and help protect its defenders. Anderson wants his offense to score even more than last year’s 36.7 ppg, but he’s also shaken the trees in the offseason to add size and depth to his Sun Belt Conference defense.

The sparkplug of the offense (nine starters back) is quick Fredi Knighten, the 5-11 dual-threat QB who passed for 3277 yards and 24 TDs (vs. only 7 ints.) and ran for 779 yards and 11 more. Knighten (62.5% LY) says he wants to be more accurate this season and to cut down on his 31 sacks. With his top six receivers returning, including 6-2 sr. Tres Houston and 5-11 sr. possession guy J.D. McKissic, expect Knighten to come out firing in their tough two first games at Southern Cal and vs. Missouri.

The Red Wolves’ top two RBs also return, those being 5-9, 187 sr. darter Michael Gordon (1100 YR, 6.9 ypc) and 5-11 soph backup Johnston White (514 YR, 5.4 ypc as a freshman). Only three of five starters return in the OL, where different combinations were tried in the spring. But jr. tackle Colton Jackson, who has 25 starts in his first two years, is certain to hold down one of the spots.

Only four of last year’s starters return to the 4-2-5 defense, which was too small to stop good running teams and too thin to hold up for the entire season. But help is on the way in 2015. Two of the returnees are DEs sr. Chris Stone (7 sacks) and soph Ja’Von Rolland-Jones (8 sacks), proven pass rushers. 6-2, 285 NG Chucks Ota showed some promise in his first season in 2014. But lots of help up front is on the way in 2015. Juco DTs Waylon Roberson (6-2, 340) and Jake Swalley (6-2, 280) both enrolled early and showed promise in spring. Also coming aboard is 6-2, 300 DT Robert Mondie, a senior transfer from UAB who wanted to play his final season with his brother, Devin, a soph OLman at Ark. State.

The lone “official” returning starter in the secondary is jr. “Money” Hunter (65 Ts, 2 ints. LY), whose real given name is Monshadrick and who is the son of long-time baseball outfielder Torii. However, jr. S Chris Humes and sr. S Charleston Girley, both of whom were starters when injured and lost for the campaign early last season, are both back in 2015. Jucos Cody Brown and Allen Sentimore are also joining the competition, so the DB platoon figures to be much deeper than the unit that was run over so often last season.

Kicking was an adventure for the Red Wolves last season, as sr. Luke Ferguson was only 36 of 42 on PATs. And he converted only 8 of 15 FGs (3 of 9 from 30+).

SUMMARY...One advantage this season for ASU is that it has the same coach for the first time in four years after seeing Hugh Freeze (to Ole Miss), Gus Malzahn (to Auburn), and Bryan Harsin (to Boise State) depart after one each of the previous three seasons. Insiders say that “longevity” has allowed Blake Anderson to pinpoint weaknesses on his roster rather than departing Jonesboro for greener pastures. Still, three of ASU’s non-conference games (Southern Cal in L.A., vs. Missouri, at Toledo) are extremely challenging. And the Red Wolves, for the second straight year, do not face Georgia Southern, the Sun Belt 2014 newcomer that was 8-0 in the league last year. Thus, the 2015 conference scheduling edge goes to GaSo.

SOUTH ALABAMA (SUR 6-7; PSR 4-9; O/U Lost 33-28 to Bowling Green in the Camellia Bowl)...South Alabama (only 3 starters back on offense and 3 on defense) is facing one of the biggest rebuilding jobs in the nation. But that task will also be getting a rare jumpstart from a neighboring team. In 2014, in only the sixth year in its football history, Joey Jones’ boys made their first bowl appearance, a narrow 33-28 loss to Bowling green in the latest incarnation of the Camellia Bowl, this one in Montgomery, AL, a little more than an hour’s drive from the USA campus in Mobile.

But that 2014 Jaguar team was loaded with seniors. So, HC Jones, who once played for Bear Bryant himself, was in need of more than a dozen new starters for 2015. However, help is on the way to South Alabama from the Conference USA, where UAB’s football program was shut down after last season. With Blazer football dissolved (to return in the future, it turns out), its eligible players were allowed to transfer at their discretion without having to sit out a year. Many of those players have decided to hang together as teammates, with at least ten heading south from Birmingham to Mobile Bay to finish their careers.

At least three of those former Blazers figure to be starters for the Jaguar attack this season, those being sr. QB Cody Clements, sr. G Cameron Blankenship, and jr. TE Gerald Everett. But that’s not all, as offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent is also moving from Birmingham to Mobile. Prior to taking over as the off. coord. at UAB, Vincent was the QB coach for three years at South Alabama! Better yet, Vincent assumed his new position at South Al prior to the Jags’ bowl game vs. Bowling Green.

And best of all, incoming QB Cody Clements (66.5%, 2227 YP, 14 TDs, 8 ints.) is already familiar with Vincent’s base offensive system from last year’s work at UAB. TE Everett caught 17 balls as a backup in 2014 for the Blazers. At the end of last season, most would concede that Clements, a junior college transfer in his first year in Birmingham, was performing better for UAB than was 6-4 Jaguar QB Brandon Bridge, who was good at the occasional big play, but highly erratic (52% in 2014; 50.7% career) on much of the routine stuff. South Alabama was only 94th in the country in passing LY.

USA (22.5 ppg LY) is also expected to get a boost at RB, as 5-10, 210 JC All-American Tyreis Thomas has signed on, joining returning Jaguar RBs Xavier Johnson (438 LY) and Terrance Timmons (403 YR) in the backfield. Dami Ayoola, another juco, will also get a test. In fact, off. coord. Vincent envisions sufficient depth at RB and has penciled in another UAB transfer, D.J. Vinson (670 YR last year as the backup to Blazer RB Jordan Howard) at WR, a position of need TY for the Jags. The multi-talented Vinson had 15 recs. in a backup role in 2014 at UAB. If 6-5, 285 G Blankenship (24 starts at UAB) wins a spot in the OL, USA’s forward was will have three starters “returning.”

The UAB influx is not as helpful on the Jaguar defense, which in 2014 was a weak 87th vs. the run and recorded only six interceptions, helping saddle the team with a -7 turnover ratio. The Jaguars are counting on improvement in the DL from sr. DE Jimmie Gipson and 5-10, 295 soph fireplug NT Trey Alford. After losing both starting LBs from last year’s 4-2-5, help is on the way in 6-0, 245 sr. transfer Blake Dees (three years at Texas Tech) and 6-1, 205 OLB Kalen Jackson (two starts LY at UAB before being lost for the season due to injury).

SUMMARY...Joey Jones, the only head coach in the six-year history of the Jaguar program, fully concedes that his team’s improved recruiting and this year’s one-time UAB influx gives South Alabama its best-ever group in terms of talent and depth. But how long will it take all the newcomers to jell with the returning core? The incoming UAB offensive group might have a leg up on other transfers. But most jucos usually take one-half to one season in order to flourish. With at least 15 starting slots open at USA, FBS transfers, jucos, and freshmen alike will all get a shot. However, with contests at Nebraska, at San Diego State, and vs. N.C. State in the first month, they better be quick studies, and physically stout, to boot. In terms of its schedule this season, USA faces every other Sun Belt foe that had a winning record last season. Such is NOT the case for some other Sun Belt contenders. With an enhanced offense and rebuilding defense, maybe “over” is the way to look this year in Jaguar games.

LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (SUR 9-4; PSR 8-5; O/U 6-7; Beat Nevada 16-3 in New Orleans Bowl)...A space-traveling handicapper waking up in Lafayette, Louisiana after an interplanetary voyage would consider HC Mark Huspeth and the Ragin’ Cajuns the most consistent team on earth! Four straight 9-4 seasons and four straight victories in the New Orleans Bowl! But Hudspeth might have trouble this season reaching his own standard after losing 12 starters from last year’s team, including his QB, two OLmen, TE, top DE, top DT, and starting CBs, plus his kicker and punter.

So Hudspeth faces a rebuilding job similar to the one he inherited when taking over a 3-9 Louisiana team following the 2010 season. However, recruiting advances made by Hudspeth in building the Cajun program the last four seasons portend a decline that is not likely to be precipitous. Indeed, if Hudspeth can quickly develop one of his inexperienced QBs, ULL might be a contender once again for the New Orleans Bowl.

6-1 jr. Brooks Haack , 20 of 23 passing with 2 TDs and no ints. as last year’s backup to three-year starting QB Terrance Broadway, went into spring as the presumed No. 1 QB. But Haack (one start in 2013) ran into substantial competition in the persons of 6-2, 226 jr. Jalen Nixon--a powerful runner--and 6-3, 205 redshirt freshman Jordan Davis--a speedy dual-threat with a live arm that has done well in the Hudspeth offense in the past. Hudspeth admits Davis’ quickness intrigues, although his accuracy sometimes is amiss. Thus, the QB competition will resume in August, with Hudspeth saying he might not name his Game One QB until just before the team’s opener at improving Kentucky.

One thing that is sure is the team’s offensive focus for 2015, as speedy jr. RB Elijah McGuire, the returning Sun Belt Player of the Year, figures to rack up numbers even better than last season’s. In 2014, McGuire ran for 1285 yards (7.6 ypc) and was the team’s second-leading receiver with 45 catches. McGuire was also the team’s Wildcat QB and punt returner. No doubt he’s the key Cajun. But McGuire was able to alternate at times LY with graduated power guy Alonzo Harris, who contributed 807 YR and 12 TDs.

The OL, led by all-conference G Mykhael Quave, returns three starters. But Hudspeth believes in 6-5, 280 soph Grant Horst, his new LT. And Hudspeth has consistently developed effective OL units in the past. An experienced cast of WRs returns, and that platoon will be even better if 6-4 Jamal Robinson is ready to go. The rangy Robinson was a major mismatch problem for opponents in 2013, but was limited to only 3+ games last season due to ankle and knee injuries. Robinson (102 career recs. and 15 TDs) was granted a fifth season of eligibility by the NCAA on an injury waiver. His absence last season is one of the reasons the Cajun passing game dipped to 98th in the nation, just as the emergence of the dynamic McGuire helped Louisiana finish 22nd in the nation in rushing.

All told, ULL scored 29.5 ppg, yielded 26 ppg, and won 8 of its last 9 games. But the rebuilding Cajun defense and kicking game are likely to make a similar late run difficult in 2015, at least without a rapid emergence by one of the young QBs. Louisiana featured two impact players in its DL last season, those being DE Christian Ringo (11½ sacks; drafted by Green Bay) and stalwart DT Justin Hamilton (4½ sacks). But now the Cajuns’ front four must be entirely replaced.

Rest assured, however, that the Louisiana defense will not descend quietly to its pre-Hudspeth oblivion. When Hudspeth moved over to Lafayette from the Mississippi State staff in 2011, he found Louisiana to be greatly undersized on defense. And he made a specific effort to increase the size of his defenders in the front seven and the athleticism in his secondary.

In that respect Hudspeth has succeeded, although this year’s DLmen must prove themselves as playmakers other than sr. DE Darzi Washington, who recorded five sacks LY. At DT there are 6-3, 325 Jacoby Briscoe, 6-2, 317 jr. Karmichael Dunbar, and 6-8, 374 soph Sherard Johnson, among others. Briscoe is a former transfer from Miami who has been plagued by ankle problems, while Dunbar showed improvement in spring, and the mammoth Johnson is still striving to make any impact.

SUMMARY...One blessing for Hudspeth in this rebuilding season is an easier non-conference schedule. And, in league play, Louisiana does not face Sun Belt upstart Georgia Southern, 8-0 in its first SBC go-round last season. But even with the multi-talented McGuire sparking the offense, another nine-win season seems unlikely for the Cajuns without an emergence by one of its QBs.

TEXAS STATE (SUR 7-5; PSR 9-3; O/U 6-6)...The Bobcats were a team on the ascension at the end of 2015, covering their last six games while going 4-2 SU to finish at 7-5. In fact, Texas State, now in its sixth season under well-traveled HC Dennis Franchione, was the only 7-5 team not invited to the burgeoning bowl season.

Needless to say, the Bobcats are thus eager to take another step forward in 2015. They appear ready to so advance on offense after switching to the uptempo no-huddle last season. With dual-threat jr. QB Tyler Jones at the controls, TSU boosted its yardage output from 326 ypg in 2013 to 464, and its scoring output from 23.9 ppg in 2013 to 33.8. Franchione calls Jones his “Cool Hand Luke.” And why not after the QB executed the no-huddle with few mistakes last year? Jones connected on 65.4% of his throws in 2014 for 22 TDs vs. only 7 interceptions. Jones passed for 2670 yards and ran for another 539 (6 TDs) and helped TSU finish +7 in turnover margin.

And most of Jones’ supporting cast is back in 2015, with the attack returning 8 starters overall, including proven rusher Robert Lowe (1091 YR in 2014; 5.9 ypc). And it appears as if Lowe will have a solid backup once again, as 5-8, 202 Chris McNall (477 YR in 2013) is back in action after missing LY due to academics. Three starters are back in the OL, including 6-5, 315 all-conference LT candidate Adrian Bellard, and the unit might have had four returnees if C Matt Freeman (6 starts LY) had not given up football.

There is much room for improvement in the receiving corps after returnees C.J. Best, Brandon Smith and Jafus Gaines combined for 95 recs. last season, but for only 1058 yards and only 7 TDs. That’s only 11.1 yards per reception, with Franchione’s offensive staff in the offseason seeking ways to generate more big gainers in 2015. Perhaps those “chunk plays” might come from incoming juco WRs Kwamane Bowens & Chris French.

As long as the 6-2, 205 Jones remains healthy and is forcing the tempo on offense (the Bobcats were 22nd in the country in plays per game LY with 77, and they hope to improve upon that number this year), the Bobcats are likely be a factor in the offense-minded Sun Belt. But unless TSU surprises quite a bit on defense, no title seems in store.

Only five starters are back from last year’s unit that allowed 28 ppg and couldn’t stop the run, finishing 100th in the nation with 203 ypg and yielding a generous 4.7 ypc. And that was with 6-2, 240 MLB David Mayo, who was third in the nation with 154 tackles, was the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, and is now property of the NFL Carolina Panthers. Also gone from 2014 are top pass rusher DE Michael Odiara (9 sacks), CB Germond Williams (4ints; left the team to transfer), and heady safety Craig Magher (3 ints. & 2 sacks).

There is some promising new defensive blood on the way in 6-5 jr. DE Roosevelt Pearson, a juco who redshirted in 2014. But Texas State’s 4-2-5 base gets younger and smaller inside very quickly after 6-3, 300 sr. DT Mershad Dillon and 5-11, 275 jr. NT Dallas McClarty. 6-0, 247 sr. Trey McGowan (80 Ts LY) now becomes the most valuable man at LB following the departure of Mayo. And sr. David Mims (5 ints. LY) is all Sun Belt at CB. But three other players in the five-man secondary will be new starters, joining Mims and FS Aaron Shaw.

Kicker Will Johnson (11 of 15 FGs LY) has graduated, so the kicking chores appear set to go to JCAA Lumi Kaba (12 of 14 LY in the JC ranks).

SUMMARY...One of the reasons the Bobcats were snubbed by the bowls last year was because they defeated only one team (Arkansas State) that ended the season with a winning record (7-5, before ASU’s 63-44 shellacking by Toledo in the GoDaddy Bowl). Even with its quick, balanced Texas State offense, this year’s holes to fill on defense figure to make it difficult for the Bobcats to win tough conference road stops this season at potent Louisiana, Georgia Southern, and revenge-minded Ark. State. And that likely means another middle-of-the-pack Sun Belt finish.

Even though Texas State faces an intimidating road opener at Florida State, it’s worth noting that Franchione’s well-drilled Bobcats enter the 2015 season with a six-game pointspread winning streak. TSU was 6-1 last season as an underdog.

GEORGIA STATE (SUR 1-11; PSR 5-7; O/U 6-5-1)...Few Division I teams in college football have absorbed as much punishment and have had as little to show for it as has Georgia State in the last two seasons. 0-12 in 2013, and then 1-11 last season, with that lone victory coming vs. FCS representative Abilene Christian (a quality team on offense). And that triumph was by a single point (38-37) on a GSU field goal with just four seconds left!

Now, however, unless everything head coach Trent Miles knows is wrong, the Panthers appear poised to make a substantial improvement. In the first place, thin Georgia State was hurt by key injuries at RB, in the OL, and at LB last season. Thus, for a team that is still gradually building its scholarship base from its FCS level maximum of 63, the lack of depth has made for hard times in the young football program in Atlanta.

Here are some of the sad, sad stats from 2014. Georgia State was last in the nation in scoring defense, yielding 43.3 ppg. The Panthers were next to last in stopping the run, yielding 246 ypg. They gave up 6.3 yards per carry! They were worst in third-down conversions allowed at 51.9%. The GSU defenders collected only 12 sacks all season and were last (with Washington State) with only eight takeaways. Due to the Panthers’ own 18 interceptions thrown and 12 lost fumbles, Georgia State had the nation’s worst turnover margin at -22. On offense, GSU was 120th in rush offense and gained only 2.96 ypc. HC Miles, in retrospect, described his 2014 defense in a simple term: ”Horrible.”

Now for the good news. With the playing time gained by key contributors last season, the return of proven players who were injured, the addition of six valuable transfers from the disassembled program at UAB, and the addition of a helpful group of incoming jucos and redshirts, the longtime laughingstock Panthers appear ready to start climbing the Sun Belt ladder.

First and foremost is the return of slinging senior QB Nick Arbuckle, a California juco who lived up to his billing last year by passing for 3281 yards and 23 TDs in his first season. Yes, Arbuckle tossed 17 interceptions. But considering that GSU trailed early and nearly always in 2014, Arbuckle’s interception total might have been even worse had he repeatedly forced balls into coverage while playing catch-up.

Also, a strong nucleus of receivers returns, including 5-11 sr. Donovan Harden (60 recs., 7 TDs), 6-3 sr. Robert Davis (50 recs.), and 6-4, 240 sr. TE Joel Ruiz (39 recs.), an NFL prospect. 5-8 juco Kam Myers, whose JC team was 24-0 in his two seasons, joins the group as a WR and returner. With the offense designed by former Boston College HC and long-time NFL offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, GSU has the aerial elements to do plenty of damage vs. Sun Belt defenses.

Injuries crippled the Panther RBs last year. Now, however, promising soph Kyler Neal returns to action after collecting 211 yards (5.2 ypc) in 2014 before a knee injury ended his season in the fourth game. When other RB injuries forced HC Miles to switch speedy CB Marcus Caffey to the backfield, Caffey contributed 354 yards (3.9 ypc). That one-two combo this year figures to take some of the heat off QB Arbuckle, add balance to GSU’s spread attack, and boost its 22.7 ppg of 2014.

Three starters return in the Panther OL, including 6-5, 340 jr. LT Michael Ivory, who was lost due to a foot fracture in the fifth game. Newcomers battling for starting jobs include 6-6, 360 early enrollee juco Dom Roldan and 6-3, 345 UAB transfer Kelpi Folau. GSU has enough size to move the pile up front; now the Panthers have to jell as unit and stay healthy.

After watching in horror while his defense allowed 36.7 ppg and 43.3 ppg in his first two seasons, HC Miles is now expecting a dramatic improvement in 2015, with the DL, LB, and DB units all more experienced and deeper than last season. Miles has indicated he might even have the horses to incorporate more stunts and blitzes in the hope of generating more takeaways and more negative plays for the offense. Says Miles half-jokingly, “We’re tweaking the schemes. You’ve got to tweak something.”

When its key defenders were either injured or worn out in games last year, GSU was often down to walk-ons...and usually not very good ones. You don’t win many games when your defense isn’t much stronger than harsh language.

This year, things should be different. Last year’s entire soph front three of Tevin Jones, Jalen Lawrence and Shawayne Lawrence returns intact, but is now a little bigger and a lot wiser after a combined 32 starts in 2014. Meanwhile, the Panthers now have enough depth at LB to make a DE of rangy 6-5, 250 soph Mackendy Cheridor, who showed promise of being an impact player LY until being felled by a knee injury near midseason. Adding girth and depth up front in 2015 will be 6-4, 325 Julien Laurent and 6-0, 285 DeQueszman Kelley, a pair of jucos who enrolled early to get into the DL mix.

While HC Miles concedes he still has a few more holes to deal with, on paper it is clear that his 2015 Panther defense is more athletic and more experienced than last year’s worn down, overrun unit.

SUMMARY...In his previous rebuilding job, at moribund Indiana State, Trent Miles’ teams went 1-22 in his first two seasons, but 6-5 in his third. Something similar might happen at Georgia State in 2015. The Panther football program is only five years old, with the first three of those at the FCS level. Georgia State is still not at the Bowl Subdivision scholarship max of 85. But there should be fewer walkovers for GSU foes. The big OL must begin to throw its weight around with more effect. But a bit more success on the ground will beget more impact through the established aerial attack, which will beget more ball control, which will beget more aggressiveness from a deeper defense. Several more wins should ensue, even vs. a schedule that includes all the top Sun Belt contenders. Maybe State draws at least some positive attention in Atlanta, even with UGa, Tech, and GaSo already powers in the Peach State.

Although an awful 1-23 SU the last two years, it’s worth noting that, vs. the spread, Georgia State has gone 0-2 as a favorite and 0-4 as a single-digit dog, but 13-5 as a double-digit dog.

TROY (SUR 3-9; PSR 6-6; O/U 5-6-1)...It has been a long time (24 years, in fact) since Larry Blakeney was not the head football coach in Troy, Alabama. The guy who guided the Trojans from Division II, to Division I-AA, to Division I-A, producing a handful of eye-opening upsets and a fair share of NFL players (Osi Umenyiora, DeMarcus Ware, Leodis McKelvin), has retired after four straight years without a winning season.

Incoming is Air Raid offense advocate and former Troy offensive coordinator Neal Brown, just 35 years old and the second-youngest HC in the FBS. And, like Blakeney, Brown is not looking at this job first and foremost as a quick stop in his coaching career. Says Brown, “Troy is that special place for us. It’s where I became a Division I [assistant] coach for the first time. It’s where Brooke and I moved when we first got married. It’s where our first child was born. It’s where I became the youngest offensive coordinator in the country.” Indeed, it’s where Troy won Sun Belt titles in all four years during Brown’s stay (2006-09). Concludes Brown, “When I saw coach Blakeney step down, I knew I wanted this job.”

Brown followed his stay at Troy with three years at Texas Tech and then two at Kentucky, where he has been molding the Wildcat offense for HC Mark Stoops. Brown intends to bring the same uptempo, no-huddle, Air Raid approach to Troy, and he inherits a decent cast of skill performers. But that cast will have to make some adjustments from last year’s attack, which was more of a run-oriented and short-pass offense due to its quality RBs, a freshman QB, and a vulnerable defense that needed some protection. In 2014, Troy was 3-9, with its only victories coming against 2-10 New Mexico State, 1-11 Georgia State, and 1-10 Idaho. That made the 3-9 Trojans “king” of the worst teams of the Sun Belt.

Last year’s offense scored only 21.8 ppg and notched only 12 TD passes all season. Pretty tame stuff in these days of 70-yard, 90-second drives. In 2014, the Trojans passed only 43.7% of the time. Look for that to change, even with the presence of established alternating RBs Brandon Burks and Jordan Chunn. Burks--the 5-10, 207 sr.--—slashed for 584 YR and 6.1 ypc in 2014. Chunn--the burly 6-1, 227 junior--banged for 505 YR and 4.6 ypc. Chunn has 20 TD runs in his first two seasons. 5-11, 225 soph FB/H-back Josh Anderson is a promising multi-position type of player who could be utilized in many fashions in the new offense.

With a decent running game in place, the key to this year’s revised offense becomes 6-3, 214 soph QB Brandon Silvers, who seems ready to blossom after he completed a freshman-record 70.5% last season. But Silver’s total for 11 starts last season was only 1836 yards, a sum Brown will be interested in greatly increasing. Silvers had 11 TDs vs. only 3 ints., a promising TD/int. ratio for Brown to work with.

There is a seasoned receiving corps returning, as sr. wideouts Bryan Holmes, K.D. Edenfield, and Teddy Ruben combined for 70 recs. in 2014's run-oriented scheme. With more receiving opportunities on the way in 2015, Brown (who will call the plays) praised 6-5 jr. WR Jarvis Bently and 6-4 sr. TE Tommy Blevins for their work in spring. The OL is still to be settled going into August practice, with only stalwart sr. C Dalton Bennett and 6-7 jr. LT Antonio Garcia set in their jobs.

The Troy defense, once among the best in the Sun Belt, has declined in recent seasons, yielding 36 ppg in each of the last two years. 2014's undersized unit was beaten up for 246 ypg on the ground, 5.7 yards per carry, and 35 rushing TDs! That’s not a lot of stoppage. While only five starters are back, they represent a good nucleus for improvement. Veteran defensive coordinator Vic Koenning (North Carolina the L3Ys) will be working with a 4-2-5 base, with lots of variations to emphasize speed and swarming tacklers.

The returning starters are sr. OLB/DE Tyler Roberts (5 sacks LY); soph DE Jamal Stadom (4½ sacks); 6-3, 306 sr. NT Lonnie Gosha (a run-stuffing former Razorback); jr. S JaQuadrian Lewis (1 int. and 2 forced fumbles LY); and sr. S Montres Kitchens, a proven ball hawk (6 ints. in 2014).

While those five make a nice nucleus, the Trojans need more playmakers, more size, and more depth before they once again begin to contend for Sun Belt titles. With that in mind, Brown has added several veterans with playing experience, including juco LBs William Lloyd and Justin Lucas. Lloyd & Lucas have been starters the past two season for East Mississippi CC, going 24-0 and winning a pair of JC national titles. Another promising LB is 6-2, 229 jr. Terris Lucas, who had three starts for the Trojans LY before missing the last seven games with a hand injury. In the secondary, Troy adds juco CB Jalen Rountree and immediately-eligible UAB transfer CB LaMarcus Farmer.

SUMMARY...Brown, who helped speed up and enliven the Kentucky attack, says he would love to see his Trojans eventually lead the country in plays per game. It’s way to soon to expect that to happen at Troy this year, even next year. Maybe ever. Last December, ambitious Trojan athletic director John Hartwell said he wanted to elevate to team’s program to the level of Boise State or Northern Illinois. Then Hartwell left for Utah State in July. But not before lining up improvements in Trojan facilities. It will mostly be up to HC Brown to carry through. Even if Troy is indeed a little better this season, it might not show much, considering tough “money-maker” games at N.C. State, Wisconsin, and Mississippi State in the first five weeks of the season. There are only five home games. Troy might be a “tougher out” in 2015, but not likely a Sun Belt contender.

LOUISIANA-MONROE (SUR 4-8; PSR 5-6-1; O/U 4-8)...Good pitch; no hit. That’s the common baseball cliché referring to a team that can hold down the opposition, but doesn’t score enough runs to win. That cliché seems to be an applicable description of Louisiana-Monroe last season, when the Warhawks racked up 36 sacks, allowed only 26 ppg (not bad for a team that got little help from its offense), and lost five games by a TD or less. As for the “no hit” part, ULM produced only 20 ppg in an era when more than half the teams in the country used their fast-paced attacks to score at least 28 points per contest.

Monroe’s problem on offense last season was largely one of balance. Todd Berry’s team did okay passing (280 ypg; 24th in the country), by terrible with a capital “T” when running (123rd). The Warhawks were very unwarlike in mushing for only 834 total yards on the ground all season. Only impotent Wake Forest and pass-happy Washington State had fewer. Unbalanced Monroe (which gave up 44 sacks) picked up only 2.3 yards per carry. Now, in 2015, the Warhawks will be breaking in a new starting QB after seeing their aerial game mostly benefit last season from the one-year “rental” of 6-5 senior transfer QB Pete Thomas from Colorado State.

Those now in the lead for the QB job are 6-2 sr. Brayle Brown, who has 24 career appearances and two starts, and 6-1 redshirt freshman Garrett Smith, a dual threat whose running ability might come in handy for a team that is looking to balance things up in 2015. Brown (14 of 24 LY) seemed headed for the starting job last season until one-time CSU starter Brown transferred in. With the Warhawks’ first three games in 2015 being a visit to Georgia, a home game vs. Nicholls State (0-12 in 2014), and a visit to LSU, both QBs are likely to see plenty of action prior to Game Four, Monroe’s Sun Belt opener vs. Georgia Southern.

One difference from last season will be that sixth-year coach Toddy Berry (perhaps with his Warhawk future on the line) will be calling the plays in 2015. Berry, a long-time offensive coordinator in the college ranks, was able to previously develop heady lefty Kolton Browning into a scrappy four-year starter at ULM from 2010-13. So it would be no surprise to see some QB development in Monroe prior to that contest vs. GaSo, the defending Sun Belt champ.

The strength of this year’s offense is at WR in Berry’s version of the spread. Two proven commodities are back from LY, those being 6-0 sr. Rashon Ceaser (77 recs. but only 3 TDs) and 5-10 jr. Ajalen Holley (57 and 7, respectively). Plus, 5-8 sr. Tyler Cain is being moved back to a receiver position from his third-down back/RB spot of 2014, when he ran for 273 yards and had 45 receptions.

With top 2014 RB Centarius Donald (606 YR) having graduated, the Warhawks will be younger in the backfield, but will pack more punch. 6-1, 223 soph Kaylon Watson (9 for 31 LY) will get the first shot, along with 5-11, 216 sr. DeVontae McNeal, an experienced backup who missed LY due to injury. Barring a surprise from youngsters, those two will initially be counted upon to help the OL keep opposing defenders at bay.

It is Monroe’s prideful, veteran defense that is being counted upon to help the Warhawks stay in flight until the offense finds itself. And the ULM stoppers just might do so. Nine defensive starters return to the Warhawks’ aggressive 3-3-5, including proven leaders at every level. Rugged 6-1, 290 Gerrand Johnson turned in the rare feat of leading his team in total tackles last season from his NT position with 93, including 6 sacks, opening the eyes of some NFL scouts. All-Sun Belt LB Hunter Kissinger is joined by Michael Johnson and Cody Robinson in an all-sr. backer crew that collected 219 tackles and 16½ sacks last season. Sr. safety Mitch Lane was also all-league, with 91 Ts and 3 interceptions. Promising new blood is on the way at DE in 6-4, 250 freshman Ben Banogu, a talented but raw Nigerian-born pass rusher who was redshirted last season to boost his technique.

Redshirt freshman Craig Ford takes over at PK, but the Warhawks have an established return game with WR Ceaser on PRs and WR/RB Cain on KRs.

SUMMARY...This year’s schedule is foreboding. Thirteen games all told. Eight road games, including those ominous visits to Athens and Tuscaloosa. Other jaunts to Idaho and Hawaii. No byes after September 26. Contests against all of the 2015 preseason Sun Belt contenders--GaSo, App State, Louisiana, Ark. State, Texas State. Even considering the presence of its respected, formidable, veteran defense, the prospect of ULM achieving seven victories and bowl eligibility figures to be extremely difficult. Warhawk depth and Todd Berry’scoaching ability will be severely tested. Unless Berry develops his QBs, RBs and OL fairly early, even a sniff of a winning record might prove elusive.

NEW MEXICO STATE (SUR 2-10; PSR 4-8; O/U 7-5)...First, the perspective. New Mexico State has gone 2-10 and 2-10 in its two years under Doug Martin, who previously had a relative measure of success at another tough college football stop, Kent State (2004-10). His Aggies’ victories have come against--in order--Abilene Christian, Idaho, Cal Poly, and Georgia State. In the event you are new to college football, those are not exactly “powers.”

Last year, the young and thin (figuratively and literally) defense of the Aggies was the worst in the nation vs. the run, allowing 310 ypg on the ground; 6.3 ypc. And, when a team can’t stop the run, it gets all it can “eat.” Seven times the N.M. State defenders were pulverized for more than 300 yards rushing; four times rolled over for more than 400. After early victories last season vs. Cal Poly and at Georgia State, the Aggies lost their next 10 games. Unless N.M. State upsets Florida in the “Swamp” this September 5, the Aggies will have gone more than one full calendar year without tasting victory. Its Sept. 12 conference home game vs. offensively-competent, apparently-improved, and equally-desperate Georgia State (1-11 LY) should be played with the fury of something akin to the Sun Belt version of the Hunger Games.

All that being said, however, the Aggies seem to be on a slow ascent entering 2015. Their uptempo, quick-pass offense that produced 24.5 ppg returns its young core of last season. 6-3 jr. QB Tyler Rogers (2779 YP, 61.5%, but only 19 TDs vs. 23 ints.), soph RB Larry Rose III (1102 YR, 5.9 ypc), and jr. WR Teldrick Morgan (75 recs., 7 TDs) are all back. So are jr. backup RB Xavier Hall and experienced WRs Josh Booren & Greg Hogan. To add a little more spark to the attack, HC Martin has recruited 5-8 juco WR Tyrian Taylor, and he has switched flashy soph backup QB Andrew Allen to a WR/wildcard spot on offense. Three of five starters return on the OL, including a strong left side of sr. tackle Houston Clemente and powerful guard Isaiah Folasa-Lutui.

Head coach Martin, with his job in a bit of jeopardy, will be the team’s offensive coordinator this season, as previous o.c. and former Bowling Green HC Gregg Brandon has moved to Golden, CO, where he is trying to resurrect his career in charge of the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers. Thus, it will be up to Martin himself (a respected QB mentor) to guide Aggie pilot Rogers into a much better TD/int. ratio. The Aggies tossed 24 picks last year to “lead” the nation, resulting in a terrible -13 turnover margin.

It is on defense where the Aggies need to make a quantum improvement in order to advance their fortunes. Last year, N.M. State started the season with a pair of DTs who weighed 240 each and with a first team LB unit that averaged 207. Seven defensive starters at the beginning of LY were either sophs, RS freshmen, or true freshmen. No wonder opponents were so eager to test the Aggies on the ground.

SUMMARY...New Mexico State will improve as does its defense this season.  While NMS is still way too small and too thin for a Big Five conference, it might now be good enough to win a few games in the Sun Belt, where competent offenses are plentiful and stuff ‘em defenses are not.  There is enough talent for a few surprises, in Sun Belt terms.  But the overall schedule is not friendly.  “Paycheck” games at Florida and Ole Miss.  Non-conference, bragging-rights, neighborhood rivalry games vs. UTEP and at New Mexico.  Three road games in three weeks in the middle of the season.  Only five games at home.  A few key injuries might make for another long season in Las Cruces.

IDAHO (SUR 1-10; PSR 8-3; O/U 6-5)...For a team that has finished 1-11 and 1-10 in its first two years under HC Paul Petrino, there’s pretty much only one way to go. However, it’s still not clear whether Idaho is ready to begin making the difficult ascent to respectability. After all, the Vandals have won only five games in the last four years.

One plus this season is that the NCAA has lifted its sanctions imposed on the program for having shown unsatisfactory academic progress. Thus, Idaho is now once again bowl eligible, although postseason action seems very unlikely this season. The bigger plus is that HC Petrino receives an extra four hours of practice time with his players each week. (When under the “academic progress” sanctions, the NCAA mandate those four hours for study hall.)

However, even with an improving offense (25 ppg LY), it still might be a while before the defense (37.3 ppg) catches up. Petrino, the younger brother of Louisville’s Bobby Petrino, has a promising young QB in the patented fast-paced, balanced, Petrino-style spread offense, which ideally employs plenty of running and makes frequent use of a TE. That QB is 6-3 soph Matt Linehan, the son of current St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Matt displaced 2013 Vandal QB Chad Chalich last summer and started all 11 games (the team’s opener at Florida was interrupted by lightning and heavy rain after just one play, then postponed after a long delay, then cancelled to due re-scheduling problems, although Idaho did receive its $975,000 paycheck).

Linehan proved to be a better fit than Chalich for the Vandals’ offense, passing for 2540 yards. However, as a redshirt freshman last season, Linehan had more than his share of choppy moments, completing just 58.3% for only 11 TDs vs. 18 interceptions. Petrino figures an offseason’s worth of advice from father Scott and another cycle of coaching in Moscow, ID should be very valuable to Matt in his second year starting. (Meanwhile, former starter Chalich has transferred to Montana.) 6-6 redshirt freshman Jake Luton is now the Vandal backup.

Linehan has a fairly solid core of returnees helping him this season, with eight other starters on offense if you include senior WR Dezmon Epps, the team’s leading receiver (with 79 recs.) in 2013, who missed all of last season due to suspension. The receiving group also includes 6-4 jr. Deon Watson (37 recs. LY), a wideout who has been moved to TE this season to increase overall offensive speed. The Vandal attack was 30th in passing last season (276 ypg) and should be just as good TY if it can improve last year’s -11 turnover margin.

Idaho was only 93rd in rushing, but hopes to boost than ranking in 2014, thanks to an interesting one-two punch. 6-2, 254 sr. Elijhaa Penny--a JC transfer LY learning the Petrino system--compiled 589 yards (4.3 ypc) and proved to be a valuable “drive-ender” with 12 TD runs. Meanwhile, 5-8, 203 soph slasher Aaron Duckworth (88 yards LY) made a big advance this spring and is expected to provide the Vandals with an effective big-man/quick-guy alternating pair. Four of five starters return in the OL that allowed 41 sacks last season.

It is on the defense where UI improvement does not seem as certain. There’s a new coordinator in Paul Breske, most recently on the staff of Mike Leach at nearby Washington State. Breske has changed the Vandal base to a 3-4, partly in consideration of the way Idaho—not a strong or deep defense to start with—was gashed for big plays in 2014. The Vandals were burned for plays of 20 yards or more 64 times! 

SUMMARY...Their third year in a program is often a good one for coaches who have been in rebuilding mode, as their own systems and own recruits take greater effect. The Vandals travel to Southern Cal in September and to Auburn in November to collect valuable paydays. But there’s an opportunity versus MAC rerep Ohio in Game One.  And versus FCS Wofford in Game Three.  The juco-augmented defense appears improved.  How much is the issue.  Likely not quite enough to get close to break-even for the year.   But enough for a surprise or two in the Sun Belt.
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