Following is our look at the Sun Belt, courtesy Senior Editor Chuck Sippl.  As always, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2015 straight-up, spread, and over/under marks, plus bowl results where applicable...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

                                             by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

APPALACHIAN STATE (SUR 11-2; PSR 6-7; O/U 6-7. Defeated Ohio 31-29 in the Camellia Bowl)...App State came within one game of winning the Sun Belt Conference last season and is eager to get over the hump in 2016. The Mountaineers’ only losses in 2015 were an expected 41-10 setback at Clemson and a key, disappointing home loss to Arkansas State in what turned out to be the decisive battle in the SBC. HC Scott Satterfield is now 22-15 entering his third season in Boone, NC, where App State previously captured three FCS championships. The Mounties won their first FBS bowl game last season (a 31-29 victory over Ohio on a walk-off FG).

Satterfield needs to solve only few problems in order to have his team ready to make another run at the title. Perhaps the main concern is at WR, where App State lost all three starters from LY, and where this year’s top hope—6-2 junior Shaedon Meadors (21 recs. LY) has battled illness and injury his first two seasons. Meadors, a former three-star recruit who has missed seven games his first two years, has proven to be a valuable deep threat when healthy, averaging 20.9 ypr in 2015. The rest of the WR corps is pretty much “under construction,” but the Mounties have a righteous 6-4, 245, sr. TE Barrett Burns, who totaled 8 TDs on his 15 recs. LY.


At QB, App State boasts third-year starter jr. Taylor Lamb, who would otherwise be expected to improve upon last year’s numbers of 60%, 2387 yards, and 31 TDs vs. 9 interceptions. He directed a unit that produced 37 ppg LY. The 6-2, 200 Lamb is also a running threat, with 436 yards and 5 TDs on the ground. App State is replacing two starters up front, but the Mountaineers are expected to be a solid unit, led by sr. G Parker Collins, who is on the early Outland watch list.

The strength of the attack is at RB, where sr. Marcus Cox (1423 YR in 2015, 5.9 ypc, 18 recs.) is the star. But Cox gets loads of support from soph Jalin Moore (731 yards, 7.4 ypc) and from jr. Terrence Upshaw (442 yards, 5.5 ypc). Moreover, freshman RB and KR Marcus Williams is among App State’s top recruits, with big-play ability. The Mountaineers finished sixth in the nation in rushing LY at 272 ypg and might top that average TY.

Eight starters return to a defense that suffered a key blow in the offseason. Jr. CB Latrell Gibbs, who picked off seven passes LY and returned two for scores, has been declared academically ineligible and will miss the season. Two other starters, including 6-3, 210 sr. S Alex Grey (two ints.), return to the secondary, but LY’s 19 ints. figures to be hard to match in the absence of adept ball thief Gibbs.

Up front, two of four are back, including 6-2, 320 sr. NT Tyson Fernandez, a large presence in the middle who helped the App State defense allow only 3.4 ypc, only 132 ypg rushing (27th), and only 19.6 ppg (14th). Sr. DE Nathaniel Norwood (3½ sacks LY) is being counted upon to improve his pass rush to help make up for the loss of graduated DE Ronald Blair (7½ sacks and 19 TFL LY), the Mounties’ sack leader each of the L2Ys.

Summary...HC Satterfield’s Mountaineers are a team on the move, with a 17-2 straight-up record its last 19 games. The team’s existing four-game winning streak very likely comes to an end in the season opener at Tennessee. But Kidd Brewer Stadium (about 24,000 capacity) will be rocking two weeks later when ACC rep Miami becomes the first big-name FBS team to visit scenic Boone, NC, named after famed frontiersman Daniel himself. With defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State not on the 2016 schedule, App State’s October 27 visit to former Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern likely becomes the key game for the Mountaineers.

GEORGIA SOUTHERN (SUR 9-4; PSR 9-4; O/U 6-7. Defeated Bowling Green 58-27 in the GoDaddy Bowl)...Coach Willie Fritz was quite successful in his two seasons in Statesboro, carrying on the winning tradition at Georgia Southern. In 2014, the school’s first season ascending from the FCS ranks, the Eagles were 8-0 in league play to win the Sun Belt Conference title (but ineligible for the postseason). In 2015, GaSo was only 6-2 in conference. But the Eagles rushed for 452 yards in bolting past Bowling Green 58-27 in Southern’s first bowl game. Those two seasons drew the attention of downtrodden Tulane, which lured HC Fritz into taking a whack at the Green Wave program in New Orleans.

Getting an opportunity at his first head-coaching job is Georgia-born Tyson Summers, who last year served as the defensive coordinator at Colorado State. The 36-year-old Summers was the safeties coach in Statesboro in 2006. He has also been an assistant at programs such as Troy, Georgia, UAB and UCF.

Most importantly, in handicapping terms, Summers doesn’t inherit a program where the cupboard is bare. Rather, the Eagles are again a contending team in need of a bit of tweaking in terms of offensive balance.

In the starkest of contrasts, GaSo was the nation’s leading rushing team (363 ypg). But the Eagles were the least productive through the air (only 63.4 ypg). If the Eagles are to begin moving up the national queue, and to regain the Sun Belt crown, Summers knows GaSo must find ways to throw the ball more effectively.

Last season, the Eagles out-rushed their foes 4719 yards to 1702! But they were out-passed by the same teams 2693 to 824. The ground-oriented Eagles gave up only 8 sacks all season. But they notched only 4 TD passes, the fewest in the nation, while allowing 22 TD touchdowns. By the end of the season, quick option QBs Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw had combined to complete just 43.1% for just 824 YP with 10 interceptions.

Not surprisingly, the incoming Summers spent much of the offseason working on ways for the Eagles to live up to their name and become airborne. He has tweaked GaSo’s productive spread-option attack, planning on working in more one-back and designed pass plays to take advantage of what Summers believes is a talented but under-used WR corps. Hopefully, the growing maturity of his QBs will be a positive in 2016. Sr. QB Ellison passed for 1001 yards as a soph, hitting 55.5%. Jr. QB Upshaw hit 70.4% two years ago in limited action. So the potential is there.

The two QBs are a dangerous pair of runners, combining for 1295 yards and 23 TDs on the ground LY. And the presence of two experienced QBs is a plus on a team where QBs often take a lot of hits running the option. At feature RB, the Eagles are deep and very talented, led by 5-11, 190 sr. Mike Breida (1608 YR, 7.9 ypc), who is backed up by 5-11, 210 jr. L.A. Ramsby (816 LY), and 6-0, 195 soph Wesley Fields (682 YR, 6.8 ypc). All can strike quickly for big gainers. Sr. C Andy Kwon leads an OL that returns three starters and several seasoned backups.

On defense, the front seven (allowed only 3.9 ypc LY) figures to be a team strength, while the secondary is likely to be the team’s main area of concern. The rocks in the front four are DTs Jay Ellison (6-1, 310) and Darrius Sapp (6-1, 330), a tandem that possesses the type of interior size coveted by most of GaSo’s Sun Belt foes. DEs Bernard Dawson (4 sacks LY) and Ryan George (3½) are both expected to improve their sack totals in Summers’ more-physical, more-aggressive 4-3 defense.

The Eagles have lost stalwart 254-pound LB Antoine Williams (107 Ts, 4 sacks) and ball-hawking safety Antonio Glover (6 ints.) from 2015's defense. But the LB crew is expected to be strong, led by active 5-10, 210 sr. Ironhead Gallon (81 Ts LY) and emerging jr. Chris DeLaRosa (15 TFL in 5 starts LY). And this year the LB corps adds 6-2, 239 jr. transfer Okeme Eligwe, a rare blue-chip LB recruit now in the Sun Belt who better mind his Ps & Qs after being booted from the Florida State team in 2014.

Summary...Georgia Southern will be in the running for the Sun Belt crown once again. The veteran offense will produce on the ground, as it has for several years. And the defense (23.5 ppg LY) will again be among the better groups in the league. But the schedule has some tests, including only five games in Statesboro, not to mention four straight road games at one stretch. The degree of improvement in the passing game and of the secondary during the season should tell the tale.

ARKANSAS STATE (SUR 9-4; PSR 8-5; O/U 10-3. Lost 47-28 to Louisiana Tech in the New Orleans Bowl)...Offensive-oriented Arkansas State has won at least a share of four of the last five titles in the Sun Belt, under four different head coaches no less! Last year it was under Jonesboro native Blake Anderson, a former six-year offensive assistant under Larry Fedora at Southern Miss and North Carolina. Anderson returns this year.

The Red Wolves posted a perfect 8-0 mark (6-2 vs. the spread) in Sun Belt play. But defense-shy ASU allowed 41½ ppg in its four losses. In 2016, Anderson will try to make another run for the top spot in the SBC after losing his starting QB (fast Fredi Knighten, 43 TDP and 16 TDR the L2Ys), his top RB (Michael Gordon 1058 YR LY), his two leading receivers, and his offensive coordinator. But from the looks of things, Anderson has the base material needed to contend again.

First, the QB situation was muddled during spring competition, with LY’s No. 2, the experienced James Tabary (3 starts LY), in a battle with jr. Cameron Birse (4 of 4 LY as No. 3) and 6-4, 220 juco Justice Hansen, who originally signed with Oklahoma and enjoyed a fine season LY at JC powerhouse Butler CC in Kansas. However, following spring, Tabary was dismissed from the team and later transferred. Then Birse transferred, apparently leaving the QB competition to juco Hansen and redshirt freshman D.J. Pearson, coming off hip surgery.

However, then came word that Pitt QB Chad Voytik—recruited by Anderson when the latter was an assistant at Southern Miss—planned to complete his studies at Pittsburgh in the spring and use his final season of eligibility as a graduate transfer to Ark State. If everything works out, Voytik (14 starts with the Panthers) will give Anderson a QB with plenty of NCAA seasoning. Voytik will still have to win the job, of course, after attempting only 24 passes in limited action LY for the Panthers.

The rest of the Ark State offense (40 ppg LY, 15th in rushing) looks strong, especially with all five of LY’s starting OLmen returning, and all of them seniors! The OL unit is led by all-conference LT Jemar Clark and all-conference RG Colton Jackson, not to mention Rimington candidate C Devin Mondie. Two of this year’s backups also have starting experience. Ready to take advantage of all that seasoning are proven jr. big back Johnston White (614 YR and 14 TDR LY) and 5-5, 175 change-of-pace mighty mite Warren Wand (709 YR, 6.0 ypc, 18 recs.). Three other talented RBs will be fighting for playing time in the deep Ark State RB platoon.

Another transfer from a four-year college is expected to provide immediate help at WR, as former TCU WR/PR Cameron Echols-Luper represents a deep threat to go along with 6-1 returnee Dijon Paschal (28 recs. LY). 5-9 jr. Chris Murray (11 recs. LY) was also expected to slip into a starting role, but that might be delayed a bit after he suffered a fractured ankle in spring. The new off. coord. is Buster Faulkner from Middle Tennessee, and he says he thinks he can boost the fast-paced no-huddle to an even faster tempo.

Eight starters return on the smallish defense, which did not cope well with quality foes. However, the Red Wolves made up for their lack of muscle with opportunism, leading the nation with 26 ints. and finishing second only to Houston in total takeaways with 34. ASU returned six of those picks for TDs, not to mention one punt return, two kick returns, and two fumbles!!!

This year’s defense is expected to be led by sr. DE Ja’Von Rolland (9 sacks LY), 6-2, 338 sr. NT Waylon Roberson (valuable run stuffer), undersized LBs Khari Lain & Xavier Woodson-Luster (a combined 152 Ts), and seasoned DBs Blaise Taylor, Cody Brown and Chris Humes (6 combined ints. LY).

Two new additions are being counted upon to add more size and versatility to the stop unit. Anderson has big hopes for 6-3, 295 jr. transfer Dee Liner, a former highly-rated DT recruit at Alabama who got caught in the numbers game in the powerful Tide defense with only four appearances his first two seasons. And there’s 6-2, 215 OLB Tajhea Chambers, a converted high school QB/athlete who’s still learning his new position and recorded 2½ sacks in LY’s opener at Southern Cal before a season-ending injury. A healthy Chambers would provide needed size at LB and allow the productive 5-10, 195 Khari Lain more opportunities as a morphing LB/S in nickel schemes.

Summary...If the previously-erratic transfer Voytik or 6-4 juco Hansen grabs the reins at QB, ASU should be right in the middle of the Sun Belt title race once again. College teams very rarely return five senior starters in their offensive line. That “engine” should get the ground game going once again. And the new blood on defense offers the promise of needed size. Even so, last year’s 26 ints. and 8 return TDs by the defense will be very difficult to duplicate. And every Sun Belt foe will be aiming to give defending champ Ark State their best shot. The Red Wolves can’t afford an early stumble, as their last three league games are all on the road.

TROY (SUR 4-8; PSR 7-5; O/U 6-6)...Neal Brown’s first year as head coach of the Trojans was a slight disappointment (4-8 SU) in 2015. But there are plenty of indications there are good things to come.

First, 6-3 QB Brandon Silvers (2378 YP, 61.2%, 20 TDs, only 7 ints. LY) has had a full season of Brown’s Air Raid-style spread offense under his belt. Now, with 22 career starts overall, Silvers says he is ready to assume a greater mantle of leadership in 2016. With greater familiarity running HC Brown’s version of the uptempo spread, Silvers seems on the verge of advancing another step up the list of productive college QBs.

Brown’s system (remember, Brown played QB for Hal Mumme at Kentucky and later coached three years at Texas Tech) requires WRs in quantity due to the constant route running and many hard hits they absorb. A decent group (jr. Emanuel Thompson, jr. John Johnson, soph Deondre Douglas, sr. Clark Quisenberry, soph Ismail Saleem) returns, as that quintet totaled 93 receptions. But Brown hopes to have enhanced the group with several jucos chosen speficially to fit his scheme. And QB Silvers must still determine a go-to guy for the many clutch situations that present themselves in tough games.

Last year’s Trojan defense (28.3 ppg; 91st vs. the run; 29th vs. the pass) was not great, but it was not bad by Sun Belt standards. The Troy defenders kept their rush allowance to a respectable 4.1 ypc. The Trojans had only 6 interceptions, but they garnered 29 sacks and forced 21 fumbles, recovering 13 of them. And the Troy defense appears to be a still-developing unit.

Senior DE Josh Dillard put on good pressure LY, collecting 7 sacks. 6-2, 230 sr. Terris Lewis, has been moved from MLB to the DE/OLB position on the other side. LBs William Lloyd (73 Ts, 3½ sacks LY), Demetrius Cain, and Justin Lucas were teammates at East Mississippi CC, where they won two JC national titles.

The secondary suffered a couple of losses in the offseason when sr. safety JaQuadrian Lewis (36 Ts LY) left the team and emerging soph “spear” (safety/LB hybrid) A.J. Smiley suffered a season-ending foot injury in spring. However, jr. Auburn transfer Kamryn Melton, a high school star in nearby Dothan, AL, is now eligible and easily seized a starting CB job in spring. Another newcomer, juco safety Kris Weatherspoon, enrolled early and also impressed.

Summary...With 13 starters back, plus the return of first down and touchdown maker Chunn at RB, Troy has a good base for the upcoming campaign. Moreover, HC Brown’s recruiting class is considered the second best in the Sun Belt and one of the best in school history. In Brown’s four earlier years (2006-09) as an assistant at Troy, the Trojans never had a losing campaign and three times made it to the postseason. Two of the team’s losses LY were by three points, one in OT (at App State). The Trojans must keep triggerman Brandon Silvers healthy TY (true freshman Sawyer Smith is the early backup). But if they do, Troy should make plenty of noise in the Sun Belt and a return to the bowls for the first time in six years.

GEORGIA STATE (SUR 6-7; PSR 8-4-1; O/U 6-7. Lost 27-16 to San Jose State in the Cure Bowl)...Give it up for Georgia State, which, from its location in downtown Atlanta, has become the largest school in the Georgia University system with about 50,000 mostly-commuter students. Once known as the “Concrete Campus,” GSU only began playing football six years ago. But after a 1-23 mark in their first two seasons at the FBS level, the Panthers squeezed into their first bowl game last season. Yes, the 27-16 loss to San Jose State in the Cure Bowl in Orlando was a bit of a downer. But GSU’s rousing 34-7, last-game upset at Georgia Southern (a 20½-point favorite) to reach the .500 mark and qualify for bowl consideration was not.

Now, Georgia State is a team on the move in more ways than one. HC Trent Miles, who previously had success breathing life into the moribund program at Indiana State (1-32 in the three seasons before his arrival), has slowly, steadily upgraded the talent level at GSU, redshirting some incoming players while giving game action to many other players “too early.” Now, Miles has a broader, deeper, more-mature talent base from which to draw.

Moreover, the Panthers have plans to further develop their football program, purchasing the Braves’ Turner Field when the baseball team moves to its fancy, new stadium in Cobb County, northwest of the city, in 2017. Georgia State, which currently plays its games at the way-too-big-for-it Georgia Dome, plans to convert the Turner baseball field into a appropriately-sized football stadium and athletic complex for the Panther team. But that project won’t be completed for a couple of years. Until then, the Panthers will play at the new, state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz retractable-roof stadium that is due to come on line in 2017 as the new home for the Falcons, Peach Bowl, and SEC title games. So, Miles has a nice little plum to further aid his recruiting.

For this season, the Panthers boast a maturing lineup with six starters returning on offense and nine on defense. But before the 2016 Panthers can begin to growl, HC Miles must come up with a triggerman for his pass-oriented spread offense after seeing prolific QB Nick Arbuckle (4368 yards and 28 TDs LY) conclude his eligibility. Three promising candidates from spring will resume their competition for the starting job in August.

They are 6-2 redshirt freshman Aaron Winchester, a dual-threat QB who had several bright moments in spring. 6-2, 230 soph lefty Emiere Scaife, who was the Panthers’ little-used backup LY (three brief appearances; 0 for 8) and perhaps has the strongest arm. But perhaps the most intriguing prospect is 6-1 jr. transfer Conner Manning (via Utah), an early enrollee this spring and the owner of 88 TD passes at El Toro High in southern California. With a proven receiving corps and a promising group of RBs at his disposal, early competence by the Panther QB will be necessary to deal with a tough first month of the season—the opener vs. Ball State, but then Air Force, Wisconsin, and App State, all on road!

The bright spot of Miles’ offense (27 ppg LY, 9th in passing, but only 125th nationally in rushing) is its receiving corps, led by fearless 5-8 soph Penny Hart (71 recs., 15.5 ypr; Sun Belt Freshman of the Year), rangy 6-3 sr. Robert Davis ((61 recs.), and 6-3 sr. TE Keith Rucker (39 recs., 6 TDs).

But there’s plenty of good news on defense (28.3 ppg LY), which in the team’s depressing 0-12 season in 2013, amounted to scarcely more than harsh language. This year’s LBing crew returns three of four starters, including sr. Alonzo Miles, a veteran refuge from the disbanded UAB program who made an immediate impact at GSU last season with 70 Ts, 12½ TFL, and 2 sacks. This year, the LB unit adds another veteran transfer in 6-5, 240 sr. OLB/DE Andrew Everett, who started 26 games at ODU.

The front three starters all return, although the unit as a whole still needs to add more size, weight, and depth. But one example of the developing program at Georgia State is jr. DE Mackendy Cheridor, a one-time OLB for the Panthers as a freshman who is now a 6-5, 275 sr. DE who should easily exceed LY’s total of three sacks.

Summary...Those first three road games for the Panthers are daunting, especially considering GSU’s inexperience at QB. But if the Panthers can steady themselves after that stretch, a run at another minor bowl is possible. Says Miles, “Our QBs are talented. They just haven’t played for us.” Miles believes GSU can compete for the league championship in the near future. But it’s not likely to do so this year, even though the Georgia State program is beginning to make a name for itself. The Panthers were a notable 6-3 as an underdog LY.

LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (SUR 4-8; PSR 4-7-1; O/U 5-6-1)...It was a bad “in-season” and a bad off-season to the Ragin’ Cajuns. In 2015, after four straight 9-4 campaigns under Mark Hudsepth had concluded with four straight wins (and covers) in the New Orleans Bowl, Louisiana slumped to 4-8 last year, with its once-consistent offense becoming way too inconsistent and it’s defense becoming way too lenient. Off the field, the Cajuns owned up to some recruiting irregularities (fraudulent ACT exams; small cash payments to some recruits).

As a result, the Cajuns have had to officially forfeit 22 games, forfeit 11 scholarships over 2016-18, and endure a two-year probation. Partly because of the school’s cooperation with the investigation and partly because the violations were traced to one assistant and not linked to HC Hudspeth, Louisiana escaped a postseason ban. In fact, the NCAA complimented the school for its exemplary level of cooperation.

Thus, with the business off the field resolved, Hudspeth was subsequently able to focus his attention on the on-the-field product. And, after last year’s 4-8 plunge from four straight 9-4 seasons, the result is quite a bit of change for 2016.

One thing that won’t change is the offense focused around NFL-prospect RB Elijah McGuire, the multi-dimensional back who still accumulated 1058 YR (5.0 ypc, 13 TDR) and 33 recs. (3 TDC) as one of the premier performers in the Sun Belt. However, with the passing attack slumping to 83rd in the nation and with the team’s turnover margin plummeting from +3 to -9, changes in Hudspeth’s three-WR, uptempo spread were certain to be in the offing.

At QB, it kind of went like this. Returning sr. QB Brooks Haack transferred to Northwestern State after the season. Sr. No. 2 QB Jalen Nixon (only 53.5% passing LY, but a burly 226 pounds) was moved to RB in spring. Coming out of the spring session, 2015 No. 3 QB, 6-3 soph Jordan Davis (63.4%, 1 TD, 0 ints) held a slight lead over 6-0 redshirt freshman Chris Weaver going into August.

But that was before LSU’s Anthony Jennings announced plans to transfer in fall to Lafayette, where he will be immediately eligible. The 6-2 Jennings was the Tigers’ primary starting QB in 2014, but eventually lost the job later to Brandon Harris. As a starter in 2014, Jennings hit only 48.9% of his passes, for 1611 yards, with 11 TDs vs. 7 ints., while running for 292 yards. Fazed out LY in Baton Rouge, Jennings’ raw talent and considerable experience might prove very useful in Cajun country vs. Sun Belt defenses. We’ll find out in August practices and September games.

Seven starters return on defense. But after allowing 32 ppg, collecting only 22 sacks, and picking off only five opponents’ aerials in 2015, changes are in order. The Cajuns allowed their foes to convert 42.3% on third down, and 59% on fourth. Half of ULL’s foes scored 35 or more.

The veteran shake-up will be noticed in the back seven of the team’s 3-4 defense. Aggressive safety/nickel-back Tracy Walker (74 Ts LY) is being moved up to an OLB/nickel spot T, adding more speed to the second line of defense, and joining returning LB Otha Peters (67 Ts). 6-3 jr. CB Simeon Thomas finally returns after missing the L2Ys due to academic shortcomings. Thomas’ return has allowed Hudspeth to move returning CB Savion Brown (team-leading three ints. LY) to safety, where he will be pair with jr. Travis Crawford (45 Ts). As a result of the changes, ULL seemed faster overall in spring.

After several years of reliable kicking, the Cajuns’ tailed off LY, as now-soph Stevie Antigue hit only 8 of 15 FG tries, including just 6 of 13 beyond 30 yards.

Summary...With more upper-echelon competition in the Sun Belt theses days, Hudspeth is going to find it difficult to return to his accustomed 9-4 level...unless LSU transfer Jennings shines at QB when stepping down in class from the SEC. A return to the low-tier bowls is not out of the question. But a strong run at the SBC title seems much less likely.

SOUTH ALABAMA (SUR 5-7; PSR 4-8; O/U 8-4)...After a 6-6 regular-season in 2014 and the program’s first-ever bowl berth (a 33-28 loss to Bowling Green in the Camellia), South Alabama took a dip to 5-7 LY despite the optimism surrounding the arrival of seasoned, well-regarded QB Cody Clement from the disbanded program at UAB. Clements might have enlivened the Jaguar aerial game with his 2272 YP. But he was too inconsistent (only 52.8%) and too turnover prone (15 ints. vs. only 13 TDs) to get the Jags over the hump.

USA ended -5 in turnovers. And, despite a sometimes very productive ground game, the Jaguar defense was often overwhelmed, yielding 37.3 ppg, and 5.4 ypc. South Al defenders collected only 11 sacks all season (125th in the country) and snagged only 10 interceptions. Change was obviously in the offing for the stop unit. And leading the movement is new defensive coordinator Kane Wommack (Eastern Illinois the L2Ys), son of Ole Miss def. coord. Dave.

Although, technically, only five starters return from LY’s unit, there are several indications the 2016 cast will be more effective. Wommack has made a couple of promising changes in the USA’s 4-2-5. 6-2, 218 sr. Roman Buchanan, who had 67 Ts and 2 ints. LY at safety, is moving to OLB to get his speed and playmaking ability closer to the line of scrimmage. 6-1, 202 Kalen Jackson, who had 77 Ts and 2 ints. as a quick but undersized OLB LY, drops back into a safety spot. Jr. Jeremy Reaves (96 Ts, 2 ints. as a nickel-back LY) is taking his feistiness to CB.

The two best players on offense are 5-11, 181 jr. RB Xavier Johnson (956 YR, 6.6 ypc) and 6-4, 228 multi-talented sr. TE Gerald Everett, who had 41 catches for 8 TD receptions, not to mention 4 short-yardage TD runs, not to mention 1 TD pass! Giving the smallish Johnson a frequent breather will be the even smaller 5-7 sr. Tyreis Thomas. Two starters return to the Jaguar forward wall, which had three before all-conference C Joseph Scelfo transferred to N.C. State for his final season.

The QB spot will be laden with inexperience. After spring practice, 6-2, 210 soph Dallas Davis (11 of 23 as a backup LY) appeared to have the edge. But he will be challenged again by a couple of soph transfers—6-1 Cole Garvin (via Marshall) and 6-2 Evan Orth (via UAB). Insiders say Davis is the more likely to start the tough season opener at Mississippi State because he is the best runner of the three. The Jags scored only 25 ppg LY (93rd in the country). 

Returning kicker Aleem Sunamon is only 5-7, but he showed a big leg, hitting 16 of 19 FG tries LY, including 6 of 7 of 40 or more yards.

Summary...Six times LY the Jaguars gave up 36 points or more. HC Joey Jones says the shuffled 2016 defensive unit was showing good promise at the end of spring, with more aggression, intensity, and hard hitting. New defensive coordinator Wommack is demanding more negative plays after LY’s weak 11 sacks and 10 interceptions. But his unit is still undersized in several spots, with an apparent dearth of impact players up front and of depth overall. The mixture of inexperience at QB, combined with a rebuilding OL, is rarely a good one. Unless one of the young QBs surprises, South Alabama’s second bowl appearance looks at least another year off.

LOUISIANA-MONROE (SUR 2-11; PSR 5-7; O/U 6-5-1)...Mike Viator takes over as the new head coach at ULM and faces one of the toughest rebuilding jobs in the nation. Last year, the Warhawks won only two games—vs. Nicholls State at New Mexico State. Not exactly powerhouses. Former HC Todd Berry was fired ten games into the season after Monroe gave up more than 50 points for the fifth time! In 2015, the ULM offense scored only 21 ppg (111th in the country), ran for only 103 ypg (123rd), produced only 3.1 ypc, and turned the ball over 30 times. Only five FBS teams were more generous. Only four had a worse turnover margin than ULM’s -16.

Thus, barring any warp-speed turnaround, Viator is likely facing his first losing season as a college coach. That would be something new for Viator, the architect of ten straight winning campaigns and five playoff appearances in the FCS level while at McNeese State, located a few miles from the Texas border in southwest Louisiana. Indeed, Viator was a tidy 78-33 with the Cowboys, being credited with producing high-quality offensive teams. McNeese stood 10-0 LY until suffering a second-round loss in the FCS playoffs.

Viator inherits some decent offensive personnel in Monroe, but much of it is still young. That includes 6-1 soph QB Garrett Smith, who showed several positive flashes (e.g., 23 of 29, 2 TDs in the opener at Georgia) while going through the usual redshirt-freshman growing pains (57.4% overall, 17 TDs, 11 ints.) and being hampered by a weak ground game. Smith missed the last three contests due to a shoulder injury. But Smith held onto the starting job despite a rather mediocre spring, trailed by TY’s redshirt freshman, Will Collins. Last year’s No. 3 QB—6-4 Brian Williams, who had 3 TDP in the season finale—was moved to WR (where he was a reserve LY) in spring.

The OL returns three starters. It could have been four had RT Chase Reagan not left the team in spring. The strength of the offense is thus its depth in the RB and receiver departments. The Warhawks should have a speedier backfield with the return from injury of 5-7, 186 sr. Tyler Cain. He is a converted WR who missed LY with injuries after catching 45 passes and rushing for 214 yards in 2014. Last season’s top RB also returns, that being 5-11, 214 soph Ben Luckett (509 YR, 5.4 ypc). Incoming 5-11, 220 juco Thomas Koufie will offer a bigger option. Second-leading rusher Kaylon Watson (336 YR, 20 recs. in 2015) left the program seeking greener pastures.

It’s a different deal on defense, which allowed 36.5 ppg LY, finished 105th vs. the run, collected only 5 interceptions, and was on the field way frequently. Too often in 2015 that unit looked like a group of distracted cellphone gamers focused on seeking out Pokémon creatures while opposing receivers ran free.

Only three defensive starters return from LY, and that’s if you include 6-2, 185 sr. Justin Backus, who was suspended after the first four games LY. Backus has been installed at the key LB/S position in the Warhawks’ new 4-2-5 defense. That unit is now being coordinated by Mike Collins, the former Monroe center, assistant, and—for a while in 2012—the head coach of the team. After a 3-6 finish to the 2002 season, ULM dumped Collins’ “interim” tag, but he lost the full-time gig four months later following a DUI arrest (a case he subsequently won in court).

Now he’s back to try to put some spine into TY’s young, rebuilding, res-structured, but still-undersized stop unit. Collins has been on Viator’s staff before. But for the L3Ys he has been the def. coord. at McNeese rival Sam Houston State. Without much size or experience on the platoon, Collins has opted for increased speed. Thus, the aforementioned move of safety Backus to the key hybrid OLB/safety spot. Junior OLB Caleb Jones (previously at Houston) is now a pass-rushing DE. 5-11, 200 redshirt frosh safety Cortez Sisco showed the desired aggressiveness after being moved to OLB in spring.

Summary...If new HC Viator runs his winning streak of seasons to 11, throw him an extra fish. For sure, ULM is not as bad as LY’s 2-11 mark. But they will be among the youngest teams in the country. Fortunately, the departed Berry was redshirting much of his 2015 recruiting class. And Viator had an impressive initial recruiting class—in terms relative to ULM. But the Warhawks must survive a rugged early stretch of consecutive road games at Oklahoma, Georgia Southern and Auburn. Even with a late-blooming young group, a run at .500 seems quite unlikely.

IDAHO (SUR 4-8; PSR 7-5; O/U 9-3)...After going 1-11 and 1-10 the two previous seasons, last year’s 4-8 represented a big step in the right direction for Paul Petrino’s Vandals. This year’s offense offers the promise of being even better than last year’s 30.3 ppg unit, which stood a respectable 57th in the nation in point production, 27th in passing, and 44th in total offense. It’s the Idaho defense that must improve if the team is going to make a run at .500 and entertain the possibility of only the third bowl in school history. And, as far as bowl seasons go, it’s 2016 or 2017 or bust for the Vandals, who—like the Aggies of New Mexico State—are being dismissed from the Sun Belt Conference after next year. Unlike N.M. State, Idaho is “downsizing” to move into the Big Sky, its friendly, neighborhood and former home FCS league.

While the offense was good enough to produce a few more victories last season, the defense was not. The final numbers looked like this. 42.1 ppg (122nd in the country); 273 ypg on the ground (125th); and 488 ypg overall (117th). Eight times Idaho allowed 44 points or more. Twice (vs. N.M. State and South Alabama) the Vandals blew three-TD leads.

Petrino, the younger brother of Louisville’s Bobby, was a QB at Carroll College in Helena, MT. And, not surprisingly, the strength of his team this year in Idaho will again be its offense, led by QB Matt Linehan, son of Dallas Cowboys off. coord. Scott (himself a former QB at Idaho). Young Matt, now a 6-3 junior, passed for 2989 yards a season ago, completing 63.4% for 16 TDs and 11 interceptions. As a freshman, his stats read 58.5% with 11 TDs vs. 18 interceptions. So one gets the feeling there is a lot of coaching going on both at home and at school.

With three key receivers back from LY, Linehan is capable of expanding the Vandal offense. 5-10 sr. Callen Hightower (57 recs., 2 TDs) is the primary deep threat, and sr. TE Trent “Buck” Cowan (48 recs., 4 TDs) the steady guy, with 6-4, 222 sr. Deon Watson (42 recs., 7 TDs) the hybrid mismatch guy. 5-11 junior WR Jacob Sannon returns from a medical redshirt season after catching 11 passes in the first two games before his campaign was ended by injury. And Petrino is high on incoming 6-1 juco Alfonso Ununwar.

The OL should also be a strength, with 4 of 5 starters back, including sr. center Steven Matlock and 6-6, 322 RT Jordan Rose. But the ground attack is somewhat dubious after the departure of 6-2, 254 power back Elijhaa Penny, who kept defenses honest with 1210 YR and 10 TDs last season. 5-8, 201 jr. Aaron Duckworth is the leading returning rusher with 236 YR, but only 3.6 ypc. HC Petrino is hoping that 5-10, 192 true freshman Dylan Thigpen—a three-star signee from the fertile L.A. area—will be able to help quickly.

The strength of the defense will be at DB, where sr. safeties Russell Siavi (3 ints.) and Jordan Grabski return on the back end. Veteran CBs jr. Dorian Clark, D.J. Hampton, and Kendrick Trotter are all back. And 2016 will see the return of sr. Jayshawn Jordan who started 11 games at CB in 2014 (with two ints.) before missing LY due to injury.

Summary...In selfish terms, Petrino probably would like to see his team improve enough so that he can move on to another FBS job before the Vandals drop into FCS territory after 2017. His pet offense is likely to have another productive campaign. But Idaho has only five home games this year (albeit one road trip is only a few miles to nearby Pullman vs. Washington State). Nevertheless, the potent Vandals figure to be a “tough out” throughout the Sun Belt. A bowl? Not without some defense.

NEW MEXICO STATE (SUR 3-9; PSR 5-7; O/U 9-2-1)...If you watch New Mexico State football closely (and why would you unless you’re a rabid Aggie backer or a lover of the often beautiful southwest desert scenery), you’ve begun to notice some progress from the forgettable recent past. In the last four years, N.M. State has gone 1-11, 2-10, 2-10, and 3-9, with the last three of those under Doug Martin, who once revived (to a degree) the moribund program at Kent State.

It’s tough to build a program in sparsely-populated New Mexico, especially when you’re playing second fiddle to the alpha Lobos of the bigger, better-known, centrally-located University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. To make matters worse, the increasingly southern-oriented Sun Belt Conference is booting N.M. State from the league after 2017, turning the football Aggies into nomad independents...unless pending conference realignment opens up spots in Conference USA or the Mountain West, either of which could throw a lifeline to the Ags.

That dismissal by the SBC is likely to be a good source of motivation for N.M. State football for the next two seasons vs. the team’s Sun Belt foes, if only Martin can muster, grow and develop enough talent on the gridiron to be able to do something about it. On paper, his team has a chance for improvement in in 2016.

To begin with, 6-3 jr. starting QB Tyler Rogers returns to action after being lost for the season 3½ games into 2015 with a broken left (non-throwing) thumb. At the time, Rogers had passed for 974 yards with 7 TDs and 3 interceptions. Those numbers were on track to represent a marked improvement over his 2779 yards in 2014, when he had 19 TDs, but 23 picks. And Rogers this year faces tougher competition for the starting job, as 6-3, 220 graduate transfer Tyler Matthews has arrived. Matthews is a former four-star recruit who made four brief appearances at TCU in 2013 and four last year at Southern Miss. Last year’s main Aggie QB following Rogers’ injury was 6-1 soph Andrew Allen, who has left the team.

The QB task of the Aggies is mainly to manage the offense, as the star of the attack is 5-11, 185 jr. Larry Rose III, the remarkably durable junior who piled up 1651 YR in 2015. SBC scouts describe Rose as one of the slickest, quickest backs in the nation, as he compiled a per-carry average of 6.9 despite opponents geared to stop him that were employing loaded defenses, spies, and just about every gimmick scheme that defensive coordinators could come up with. HC Martin, who also assumed the reins of offensive coordinator of the Aggies last year, is hoping that 5-9, 220 jr. transfer King Burke (via San Jose State) can assume some of the ground game burden this season, saving some wear and tear on Rose.

However, after yielding 45 ppg (125th in the nation) and 522 ypg (124th) there is a new defensive coordinator this season. That being Frank Spaziani, the former head coach at Boston College (2009-12), who was Martin’s boss in that final year. To help stop the bleeding in Las Cruces, Spaziani has opted for a rather conservative “Cover Four” base behind a 4-3 front.

The strength of the unit (and it’s a good sign these days when a New Mexico State defense has any strength) is the returning three-man LBing unit of 6-0, 233 jr. MLB Derek Ibekwe (92 Ts LY), 6-3 soph OLB Terrill Hanks (87 Ts, 3 ints.), and 6-1 sr. Rodney Butler (56 Ts). Also returning are safeties Jacob Nwangwa (3 ints. LY) and Jaden Wright (2 ints.), who have demonstrated a nose for the football when opportunities arise. The Aggies picked off 12 passes and had 10 fumble recoveries last season on a unit that generated only 15 sacks and was overwhelmed to the tune of 5.6 ypc.

Up front, 6-1, 230 sr. DE Noah Brown collected 3½ sacks LY and showed he can be part of the 2016 pass rush. But he, like the majority of NMSU defensive linemen in recent years, is too small to prevent foes from generally having their way up front. And the team will be breaking in new starting CBs this season. That’s why Martin signed five defensive linemen and six DBs in this year’s recruiting class.

Summary...Bear in mind that the Aggies won three of their last five games last year, two of those on the road. Three other games were decided by a TD or less, one of those in OT (vs. neighbor UTEP; this year’s first opponent). So, while NMSU might be very weak in the Power Five sense, the Aggies are certainly not inept in the Sun Belt sense. Las Cruces is not exactly a coveted destination for blue-chip high school recruits. But HC Martin is slowly developing his team by adding quality players and growing others in strength. N.M. State last went to a bowl in 1960 (vs. Utah State in the Sun), representing the Border Conference (ESPN’s College Gameday was NOT there!). This season’s bowl prospects? Don’t go out to the front porch waiting for them. Monitor the depth situation closely in handicapping terms, as the Aggies can scarcely afford to lose any key players.

TEXAS STATE (SUR 3-9; PSR 3-9; O/U 6-5-1)...After five years and three different leagues under Dennis Franchione, Texas State took a big step backward in 2015, with a 3-9 mark. Those victories were gained vs. FCS Prairie View, South Alabama (5-7 LY), and La.-Monroe (2-11). The team’s defense was among the most pliable in the country. So, despite a hopeful 7-5 mark in 2014, Franchione decided it was time to call it quits. With only 8 starters returning for 2016, one can understand why.

Assuming the monumental task of trying to build the San Marcos program into FBS relevance is Everett Withers, who was 18-7 the last two years at James Madison. Before that, Withers spent two seasons as assistant HC and co-def. coordinator under Urban Meyer in the latter’s first two seasons in Columbus. And prior to that, Withers was 7-6 in 2011 at North Carolina after being elevated from Butch Davis’ staff following the improprieties that toppled the latter’s program. Now, he’s rebuilding in a big way on both offense and defense with the Bobcats.

At first, it was assumed Withers would be rebuilding around 6-2 sr. QB Tyler Jones, a three-year starter who passed for 2494 yards LY (58.4%, 14 TDs, 10 ints.) and ran for another 583 yards and 10 TDs. Experienced, senior QBs are usually highly coveted these days in college football. But Withers—seeking any means to accelerate the re-structuring—told reporters to “hold up” at the close of spring. Jones is a known commodity. However, with a new HC, new off. coord. (former Utah QB and Arena League veteran Brett Elliott), and an altered offensive system (renewed emphasis placed on running to help support the team’s overwhelmed defense), Withers wants to take some time looking at all of his QBs.

5-10 dual-threat RS freshman L.G. Williams, who has WR quickness, had some moments in spring. And, in August, Wither wants to take inspect 6-3, 220 Missouri transfer Eddie Printz, a former three-star, pro-style recruit who has two years of eligibility remaining after spending most of his time in Columbia as a holder. TSU doesn’t land a lot of three-star players. Last year’s Texas State backup, 6-5 soph Connor White (26 of 47 LY) will also get a look.

But the RB and WR positions are quite up for grabs following the departure of three-year starting RB Robert Lowe (2951 YR L3Ys) and top backup RB Chris Nutall, the team’s top two TEs, and 4 of the team’s top 5 WRs. That means a lot of rebuilding!
Last year’s defense was one of the worst in college football, allowing 39.2 ppg, 5.7 ypc, and 49.1% on third down. Worse yet, Texas State was one of the least intimidating in the nation, with a severe drought of defensive impact plays. The Bobcats nabbed only three interceptions (only Rice had fewer), collected only 15 sacks, and broke up just 25 opponents’ passes. TSU’s 19 forced fumbles and 11 recoveries represented the only relative bright spot.

Incoming def. coord. Randall McCray is changing to a 3-4 from Franchione’s 4-2-5. He’s counting on jucos to help undersized 5-11, 275 returning DT Dallas McCarty on the inside. At LB, jr. Karee Berry (39 Ts, 3 sacks LY) and soph Ishmael Davis (26 Ts as a freshman) have shown potential.

The secondary has three proven players in sr. safety Damani Alexcee (79 Ts, 2 sacks), jr. S Stephan Johnson (2 of the team’s 3 ints. LY), and jr. CB Brandon McDowell (44 Ts). But that DB group will again be under fire all season unless it gets more help up front.

Summary...As if Withers didn’t have enough problems going in, the Bobcats lost backup DT Will Trevillion in January, when he died of an enlarged heart. Then, the dismissal of the three WRs in spring. Eleven other players have left the team for either personal or medical reasons. Yes, TSU did add a few transfers and jucos over the summer. But by July, it looked as if the Bobcats would have only 73 scholarship players reporting for August camp (12 fewer than the NCAA FBS max of 85). That is likely to mean a severe lack of depth. What to do? “Blow the whole thing up” and “start from the ground up” are some of the phrases used by Withers, who also says some type of fallout must be expected when you “change the culture.” The Bobcats are still looking for their first-ever bowl. It won’t come this season, as the smaller roster numbers likely mean more playing time for the team’s younger players.


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