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#58 Appalachian State Mountaineers





HEAD COACH: Scott Satterfield, 22-15 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Clark, Frank Ponce | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nate Woody

Everybody in Boone last year was smiling from ear-to-ear after a tremendous 11-win season. The Mountaineers have as much momentum as anybody in the Sun Belt and should win their first FBS conference title this fall. Key returners are gunslinger Taylor Lamb and all-purpose back Marcus Cox as the offense will be clicking on all cylinders. Additionally, having nine returners on defense won’t hurt either for rising coach Scott Satterfield.

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Previewing Appalachian State’s Offense

Appalachian State led the Sun Belt in total offense last season and should again possess the league’s most potent attack.

Using his mix of durability and speed to rush for 4,088 yards and 43 touchdowns in his first three seasons in Boone, senior running back Marcus Cox should continue to be one of the most productive runners in the league and beyond. He won’t have to carry the load alone as fellow backs Jalin Moore and Terrence Upshaw combined for more than 1,100 yards on the ground last season.

“They’re hard to tackle,” Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield says. “To me, any one of them can play if we need them.”

The backs should have a solid line in front of them. Satterfield says he’s long believed the best way to build offensive line depth is to avoid tying players to single positions. The result is that Appalachian State possesses a group of versatile blockers who should allow it to handle the loss of two starters from last season.

Like Cox, quarterback Taylor Lamb is creeping up in the program’s record books. The junior set a school record for touchdown passes last season with 31 and ranked 10th in the nation in passing efficiency.

Who exactly Lamb’s targets will be remains a question. Three of last season’s top four receivers are gone. Only big-play threat Shaedon Meadors, who caught 21 passes and three touchdowns, returns. Senior Jaquil Capel and sophomore Jaylan Barbour are among the candidates to play increased roles in the passing game.

Previewing Appalachian State’s Defense

While the Mountaineers’ offense will be stout, the defense is what should put them in the mix for a league title. Nine starters return from what was the Sun Belt’s stingiest unit. All-conference linebacker John Law and last season’s leading tackler, Eric Boggs, return at inside linebacker, giving the unit a rock-solid center.

The Mountaineers’ most important loss on this side of the ball was defensive end Ronald Blair, the team’s leader in sacks in each of the past two seasons. Don’t expect any one player to fill Blair’s role; Satterfield says he plans on having several pass rushers rotate through the spot. Look for Nate Norwood, Tyson Fernandez and Olawale Dada to see significant time up front in the Mountaineers’ 3-4 set.

After picking off seven passes and returning two for touchdowns last season, junior cornerback Latrell Gibbs was expected to lead a veteran secondary that returns all but one starter and has an encouraging amount of young depth. However, Gibbs was ruled academically ineligible in early July.

Previewing Appalachian State’s Specialists

Kicker Zach Matics, whose 23-yard field goal on the final play delivered the Mountaineers a victory in the Camellia Bowl, is gone. Freshman Michael Rubino is the likeliest candidate to fill that role. Senior punter Bentlee Critcher has a firm grip on his gig after putting 13 of his 51 kicks inside the 20. Capel should get an opportunity to field kicks as last season’s main return men graduated.

Final Analysis

After Appalachian State fell a game short of its first Sun Belt title and won its first FBS bowl game in dramatic fashion, the Mountaineers erased any potential doubt about their ability to thrive on the FBS level.

A veteran defense and an offense that returns its nucleus should put Appalachian State among the favorites in the league. Throw in a season-opening trip to Tennessee and a Sept. 17 home date with Miami — the first major conference school to play at Kidd Brewer Stadium — and the 2016 season can’t get here soon enough for the Mountaineer faithful.

“That’s the way we want it,” Satterfield says. “We do have high expectations. We expect to compete for a championship in the Sun Belt, and anything less will be a disappointment.”


#81 Georgia Southern Eagles





HEAD COACH: Tyson Summers, First year | OFF. COORDINATOR: David Dean, Rance Gillespie | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lorenzo Costantini

Georgia Southern had long been a power at the FCS level. Now, the Eagles are about to find out if they can stay among the elite teams in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern went 9-3 in 2014 and followed that with another nine-win season and the program’s first bowl berth in 2015. That was enough for coach Willie Fritz to leave for Tulane. The Eagles replace Fritz with Tyson Summers, a familiar face around the state but a first-time head coach.

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Previewing Georgia Southern’s Offense for 2016

Summers inherits a program with two experienced quarterbacks, arguably the best running back in the league and an identity tied to its success utilizing the option. But Summers, the former defensive coordinator at Colorado State and UCF, makes no bones about wanting the Eagles to throw the ball better. 

“I think it will still be what we call the spread-option offense and will look similar to what it’s looked like in the past, but we’ll try to do a better job of developing our players in the passing game,” Summers says. “I think we have two quarterbacks capable of that.” 

Seniors Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw have grown accustomed to splitting time, and Summers doesn’t see that changing. Given the injury risk with quarterbacks who ran the ball a combined 194 times, it’s a necessity. But the Eagles attempted just 137 passes last season, completing 43 percent with 10 interceptions. It’s unclear how much more Summers wants to throw the ball, but it’s a fine line between trying to expand the offense and getting away from what works best. 

Georgia Southern will still need production from its deep stable of running backs. Senior Matt Breida returns as one of the Sun Belt’s most explosive players after averaging a staggering 7.9 yards per carry, and the next wave of options includes L.A. Ramsby and Wesley Fields, who combined for 1,498 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.


Previewing Georgia Southern’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Summers has predominantly utilized a 4-3 alignment in his previous stops, and he’s got a wealth of talent returning in the front seven to help him get off to a good start in Statesboro. Georgia Southern ranked second in the league in total defense last season and allowed only 23.5 points per game, and there are plenty of pieces in place to help match that production this season. 

The Eagles return all six players who were in the regular defensive line rotation and four experienced linebackers, including 5'10" senior Ironhead Gallon, whom Summers has identified as the leader of the defense. Florida State transfer Ukeme Eligwe also has a chance to make an instant impact at linebacker. 

The biggest concern will be in the secondary, where the Eagles essentially have to replace everyone of consequence. To help soften the blow, they moved former quarterback Vegas Harley to safety in the spring and will hope he has enough time to acclimate to the other side of the ball. 

“He is one of our more talented players,” Summers says. 

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Specialists for 2016

The Eagles used two placekickers last season, but with Alex Hanks graduating the bulk of those duties will fall to senior Younghoe Koo, a former kickoff specialist who made 7-of-9 field goals in 2015, including a 48-yarder at Georgia. Matt Flynn has been the backup punter the last two seasons but showed some promise in limited appearances. Kick return duties are wide open following the graduation of All-Sun Belt return specialist Derek Keaton. 

Final Analysis

As long as the 36-year-old Summers leaves the door open to a philosophy shift away from the option, it will raise some concerns with fans who remember the disastrous Brian VanGorder experiment a decade ago. But given the amount of explosive talent on offense, the experience at quarterback and the winning culture established by predecessor Willie Fritz, it’s hard to envision the Eagles slipping from the ranks of Sun Belt contenders any time soon.

 “You don’t have a program like this with the sustained success it’s had without there being fantastic leadership,” says Summers, who grew up 150 miles away in Tifton, Ga. “I think that’s a big part of why it’s continued to be successful.”


#78 Arkansas State Red Wolves





HEAD COACH: Blake Anderson, 16-10 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Joe Cauthen

Arkansas State finally learned the benefits of being able to keep a coach for more than one season. After one-year stands with Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin, the Red Wolves were able to go into a season with a second-year coach in Blake Anderson. The result was a dominating Sun Belt season. Arkansas State went 8-0 in the conference, beating Sun Belt opponents by more than three touchdowns per game. Arkansas State might not be as dominant as it replaces a starting quarterback and offensive coordinator, but the continuity at head coach should ease the transition.

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Previewing Arkansas State’s Offense for 2016

The Red Wolves have plenty to sort out after losing their offensive coordinator and key skill players from a unit that led the Sun Belt in scoring. Their spread attack will undergo only subtle changes, coach Blake Anderson says, and they may play at an even faster pace under new coordinator Buster Faulkner, Middle Tennessee’s play-caller the last four-plus seasons.

Sophomore transfer Justice Hansen, a former Oklahoma recruit, is the leading candidate to replace Fredi Knighten at quarterback. Hansen is an accurate passer who completed more than 77 percent of his attempts in junior college and is mobile enough to make plays on the run. Chad Voytik - a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh - will push Hansen for the starting job.

Whoever takes snaps will operate behind an experienced line that features All-Sun Belt selections Colton Jackson and Jemar Clark.

ASU rotates running backs frequently. Johnston White and Warren Wand, last year’s backups, played enough to combine for 1,323 yards and 19 touchdowns. White is an effective if undersized short-yardage back who scored 14 touchdowns last year, while the 5'5" Wand offers an elusive change of pace. Junior college transfer Armond Weh-Weh, who began his career at Texas Tech, also figures to have a role.

Texas transfer Kendall Sanders and TCU transfer Cameron Echols-Luper join key returnees Chris Murray and Dijon Paschal in a swift, if mostly unproven, receiving corps. ASU will try to utilize Echols-Luper’s speed.


Previewing Arkansas State’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
ASU led the FBS with eight defensive TDs and tied for second in the country with 34 turnovers gained, including a national-best 26 interceptions. While duplicating those numbers will be difficult, ASU returns key players from a unit that made dramatic improvement in stopping the run. The Red Wolves made big plays on the back end but gave up a bunch, too, yielding 267.8 passing yards per game.

Sun Belt sacks leader Ja’Von Rolland-Jones returns at end, and nose tackle Waylon Roberson, an effective run-stopper, plugs the middle. The Red Wolves, who add Alabama transfer Dee Liner to the mix, have enough line depth to rotate frequently.

Linebackers Khari Lain and Xavier Woodson-Luster, who combined for 149 tackles last season, make up for being undersized with athletic ability and a knack for being around the ball. ASU welcomes back redshirt freshman Tajhea Chambers, who started the first two games at linebacker — and had 2.5 sacks against USC — before suffering a knee injury.

Replacing top cornerback Rocky Hayes is a key in the secondary, where Cody Brown leads an experienced group of safeties. Brown was integral to ASU’s improvement against the run, making 65 tackles, and was active on the back end with three interceptions. 

Previewing Arkansas State’s Specialists for 2016

Explosive return specialist J.D. McKissic is gone, but the Red Wolves still have big-play potential. Blaise Taylor, who returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns last season, is one of the best in the Sun Belt. Echols-Luper was among the Big 12 punt return leaders in two seasons at TCU. J.D. Houston, who made 12-of-14 field goals last season, is reliable up to 40 yards. ASU’s biggest concern is replacing punter/kickoff man Luke Ferguson.

Final Analysis 

Anderson led a team recruited primarily by four other coaches to 16 victories and two bowls in his first two seasons. He patched holes on defense with transfers last season as ASU won its fourth Sun Belt championship in five seasons. This year’s unknowns are on the other side of the ball. The Red Wolves have enough talent to contend in the Sun Belt, but they also have questions to answer on offense before making plans for a sixth straight bowl game.


#115 South Alabama Jaguars





HEAD COACH: Joey Jones, 42-35 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bryant Vincent | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kane Wommack

Last season, South Alabama came up just short of a second straight bowl appearance. The Jaguars hope to return to the postseason in 2016 but to get there an inexperienced offense must gel quickly while the defense must adjust to a new coordinator and personnel changes.

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Previewing South Alabama’s Offense for 2016

South Alabama coach Joey Jones must level out some potential offensive imbalance. His ground game is proven, but the passing attack is untested. And one side of his offensive line is strong, but the other carries question marks. Getting consistent quarterback play would solve a lot of issues. Sophomore Dallas Davis should enter the season with the starting job, but he attempted only 23 passes for 108 yards in a backup role last season. Marshall transfer Cole Garvin and UAB transfer Evan Orth round out the three-man competition. Davis’ running ability helps him earn the upper hand, but he must make good decisions to keep the Jaguars offense on the field.

Running backs Xavier Johnson and Tyreis Thomas return after rushing for more than 1,500 yards combined last season. Johnson averaged 124 yards in wins and only 48 yards in losses. Gerald Everett is perhaps the best tight end in the Sun Belt. USA suffered a blow in April when All-Sun Belt center Joseph Scelfo announced he was playing his final season at NC State as a graduate transfer.

The Jaguars need to improve their production after ranking 10th in the Sun Belt in scoring (25.0 ppg), but they first need to get better at sustaining drives and limiting turnovers.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing South Alabama’s Defense for 2016

New defensive coordinator Kane Wommack, from Eastern Illinois, will keep USA’s 4-2-5 scheme intact, but he’s shaken up some of the personnel. All-conference selection Roman Buchanan (67 tackles, two INTs) has moved from safety to the Stinger position, or weak-side linebacker, to take advantage of his physical style and knowledge of the defense. Kalen Jackson (72 tackles) has moved from linebacker to the secondary to utilize his athleticism. And Jeremy Reaves (96 tackles), another all-league performer, slides from nickel back to cornerback.

Wommack wants more energy out of the defense, dialing up pressure with speed and flexibility and hopefully forcing more negative plays. Last season, USA ranked second in the Sun Belt in pass defense, but its pass rush was nearly nonexistent. The Jags hope to bolster that area with the return of end Jimmie Gipson, who missed the 2015 season with a torn Achilles. Gipson — like Scelfo — opted to transfer and play his final season elsewhere in the spring but decided to return to the team in June.

USA has talent in the linebacking corps, and the secondary should be solid again. But the progress of an underwhelming front will determine the success of the defense. Look for nose tackle Tre Alford to lead the charge if the line makes big strides.


Previewing South Alabama’s Specialists for 2016

In a perfect world, accomplished placekicker Aleem Sunanon will have only one job. Last season, he made 16-of-19 field goals, including 6-of-7 beyond 40 yards, but he also had some of the punting duties. Corliss Waitman has the biggest leg, but he’s still trying to return from a 2015 season-ending injury. Brandon McKee is another option at punter. The return jobs could be in flux, especially since USA would like Johnson to conserve his energy for offense. Josh Magee, a blazing fast wide receiver, might factor in before season’s end.

Final Analysis

The schedule is front-loaded with Mississippi State and strong Sun Belt squad Georgia Southern in the first two games. If USA can win potential toss-up games at Louisiana-Lafayette and at home against San Diego State, then bowl eligibility could be attainable with more winnable Sun Belt games in the back half. But USA has a slim margin for error in order to improve on last year’s 5–7 mark and reach bowl contention. The Jaguars must cut down their turnovers with an inexperienced quarterback, run the ball with more consistency and win a couple more Sun Belt games than a year ago to reach the postseason.


#126 ULM Warhawks





HEAD COACH: Matt Viator, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Kubik | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Collins

After going just 2-11 last season, ULM dismissed Todd Berry and hired McNeese State head coach Matt Viator from the FCS ranks. The Warhawks return plenty of experience on offense, but it was one of the nation's least productive units, while the defense will be undergoing a complete overhaul. It likely will be another tough season in Monroe, La.

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Previewing ULM's Offense for 2016

New coach Matt Viator inherits an offense with seven returning starters, but they accomplished little last season. The Warhawks ranked last in the Sun Belt in scoring (21.0 ppg), total offense (310.8 ypg) and turnovers committed (30).

There are at least some building blocks for a quality passing attack. Quarterback Garrett Smith passed for 2,033 yards, 17 TDs and 11 interceptions last season, and he gets back his top two receivers in Marcus Green (63 receptions, 698 yards) and Ajalen Holley (60 for 709). ULM will utilize heavier tight end sets to expand the passing attack and bolster the ground game. Tight end Alec Osborne should be a weapon after missing the 2015 season due to injury.

The team’s top two rushers return in Ben Luckett (509 yards) and Kaylon Watson (336), and Smith is also a running threat. But all-purpose speedster Tyler Cain, who missed last season with an injury, will move to starting running back to spice up a ground game that was held under 100 yards rushing seven times last season. Viator had strong rushing attacks at McNeese State, so that should be a priority in year one at ULM.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing ULM’s Defense for 2016

Mike Collins, a former ULM player, defensive coordinator and 2002 interim head coach, returns to Monroe as the defensive coordinator. He has changed the scheme from a 3-3-5 to a 4-2-5, which still takes advantage of an experienced secondary. Safeties Tre’ Hunter, Wesley Thompson and Roland Jenkins, along with cornerbacks Lenzy Pipkins, Marcus Hubbard and Aaron Townsend, give ULM talent and depth on the back end.

But there are big question marks otherwise, as the entire front six must be replaced. ULM took a big hit when playmaking defensive end Ben Banogu (team-high 14.5 tackles for a loss) transferred to TCU. In his absence, Caleb Tucker could be an X-factor. The former Houston transfer was disruptive in short stints last season, and he will be key as an undersized, athletic defensive end. Other former backups also will have to come of age if ULM is to grow any teeth in its run defense or pass rush. For example, sophomore Shaquille Warren steps into a starting role on the line after making only one tackle last season. 

If the youngsters can make an impact up front, it could free up the veteran secondary to make plays. If they can’t, then there will be some major growing pains for the rebuilt defense.


Previewing ULM's Specialists for 2016

Craig Ford made 9-of-14 field goals in his freshman season, and he is the obvious choice at placekicker. Freshman walk-on Alex Prince is likely the best option at punter. Green is an experienced kick returner.

Final Analysis

Viator isn’t used to losing. With a 78–33 record over 10 years at McNeese State, he remains the only coach in Southland Conference history with at least eight years on the job to never have a losing season. But in traveling 200 miles north, Viator takes over a ULM program coming off a 2–11 record, its worst record since 2003. To make it work in Year 1, he must tweak the offense in the right way, find some defensive playmakers quickly and hit a couple of home runs with his first recruiting class.

To make the task even tougher, ULM has only five home games, plus daunting road trips to Oklahoma and Auburn in the first month of the season. The combination of a new coaching staff and unproven players says this could be a late-blooming team. If so, there will be only two home games in the second half of the season to show that progress. If Viator can pull off a .500 record in his debut season, he’ll be a Sun Belt Coach of the Year candidate.


#122 Texas State Bobcats





HEAD COACH: Everett Withers, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brett Elliott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Randall McCray

Believed to be on a program on the upswing, Texas State finished a disappointing 3-9 last season. Head coach Dennis Franchione was replaced by Everett Withers, who is tasked with getting the Bobcats back on track. With just eight returning starters, Withers will have every opportunity to mold this program to his liking. But is Texas State in line for a quick turnaround or another finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt standings?

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Previewing Texas State’s Offense for 2016

Everett Withers has already had to dodge this question: Who’s your No. 1 quarterback? As for his response, well, it’s simple: You have to wait until late August for the answer. 

The first-year head man, who replaced Dennis Franchione at Texas State after the latter retired last December, has said that every spot on the depth chart is up for grabs, including the starting quarterback.

On the surface, incumbent Tyler Jones would appear to have a leg up on the competition; the senior has eclipsed 3,000 total yards in each of the past two seasons. Yet, with Eddie Printz, a graduate transfer from Missouri, and redshirt freshman L.G. Williams hot on Jones’ heels, the race probably won’t be settled until a week before the Bobcats take the field at Ohio University on Sept. 3. 

While the quarterback battle will hog the headlines, Texas State has as many questions, if not more, at tailback. The Bobcats certainly have quantity at the position (Nick Bingham, Stedman Mayberry, Tyler Siudzinski and Anthony Taylor along with incoming freshman Tyler Tutt). The quality of those tailbacks is where the uncertainty lies.

Regardless of who’s under center and who’s toting the football, new offensive coordinator Brett Elliott has made it clear that Texas State will remain an up-tempo attack. After averaging 78.6 and 77.2 snaps in 2014 and 2015, respectively, the Bobcats plan to surpass those numbers this season.


Previewing Texas State’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

There’s nowhere to go but up for this group. Texas State ranked 124th in the nation in total defense (521.8 ypg) and 120th in scoring defense (39.2 ppg). Defensive coordinator Randall McCray hopes that a change in formation (3-4 in 2016 compared to 4-2-5 in 2015) and an emphasis on “running to the football” will turn things around. 

For the Bobcats to improve defensively, they have to do a better job of creating takeaways. In 2015, Texas State had to wait until Game No. 9 (Georgia State) to record its first interception of the season. In all, the Bobcats finished with 14 takeaways (11 fumble recoveries, three interceptions).

McCray’s toughest task prior to the season opener is in finding a dominant nose tackle, arguably the most important position in the 3-4. Dallas McClarty is a candidate for the job, but look for freshmen Ramon Readus and John Lilly to challenge the senior.

Previewing Texas State’s Specialists for 2016

Brandon McDowell showed with his kick-six touchdown against South Alabama last season that he is a home run threat on special teams. Lumi Kaba the punter was great, but Lumi Kaba the placekicker wasn’t. Kaba pinned opponents inside the 20 on 20 different occasions last season. Yet, the junior’s field goal kicking left something to be desired (10-of-18). 

Final Analysis

Before last season’s 3–9 clunker, Texas State was a program on the rise. After recording four wins in 2012, the Bobcats’ debut FBS season, and upping that total to seven two seasons later, what transpired in 2015 was unexpected, and that’s putting it mildly. Withers, who has said he wants to bring a new brand of football to Texas State (hence the hashtag #PartyInTheEndZone), guides a football program that is at a crossroads. 

Best-case scenario? The Bobcats show that last season was merely a speed bump and make positive inroads toward 2017 by going to a bowl game. Worst case scenario? Texas State slips further behind, which is entirely possible given the lack of talent in some key areas on both sides of the ball. 

If Texas State can weather the early storm of a tough non-conference schedule and take advantage of a favorable Sun Belt slate down the stretch, Withers’ team could reach six wins and secure the first bowl bid in program history.