Sun Belt

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#113 Texas State Bobcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#113

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Dennis Franchione, 29-29 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Conway, Mike Schultz | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Thompson

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 113 Texas State.

Previewing Texas State’s Offense for 2014: 

Now that Texas State has found its quarterback in sophomore Tyler Jones, coach Dennis Franchione has elected to install more of an up-tempo, spread offense in the hopes that it will make the group more prolific this season after ranking 111th nationally in total offense in 2013. The Bobcats are loaded at tailback with junior Robert Lowe (945 yards, nine touchdowns in 2013) leading the backfield. Lowe finished 55 yards short of being the first Texas State tailback to finish with 1,000 yards since 2008.

There are a few questions at wide receiver. The Bobcats bring back Ben Ijah (16 receptions for 207 yards). Ijah will need to step up after the team lost Isaiah Battle and Andy Erickson to graduation. The senior wideout offered a glimpse of his playmaking ability in a 33–31 win over South Alabama last October when he caught a 51-yard pass on 4th-and-24. C.J. Best made the move from running back to slot receiver in the spring.

If the Bobcats want to take a step forward in the Sun Belt, they need their offensive line, which struggled with inexperience last season, to be more consistent. Former Arkansas State offensive line coach Brad Bedell was hired in the offseason.

Previewing Texas State’s Defense for 2014: 

After coordinator Craig Naivar left Texas State for a job at Kentucky in March, Franchione had to scramble to fill the opening quickly. The Bobcats chose someone with experience in the Sun Belt in John Thompson, who coached at Arkansas State last season. Thompson brings a read-and-react scheme, which places the onus on his players to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. 

Texas State has plenty of experienced players to build Thompson’s system around, especially at linebacker. This group is led by senior David Mayo, who was the MVP of the defense last season with 89 tackles despite missing two games.

Questions remain in the secondary and on the defensive line. The one player Thompson can count on in the defensive backfield is senior cornerback — and four-year-starter — Craig Mager. After Mager, it turns into a guessing game with Xavier Daniels, Aaron Matthews and Justin Iwuji all gone from the 2013 roster.

The defensive line hasn’t taken shape yet, either. Franchione made the line his focal point during recruiting, mostly because the Bobcats lost all four starters to graduation. Texas State inked eight defensive linemen, including six from the junior college ranks. The Bobcats need at least one of the transfers, possibly Mershad Dillon or Dondre Elvoid (or both), to offer some size inside.

Previewing Texas State’s Specialists for 2014:

After Will Johnson struggled early in the season (0-of-5 on field goal attempts), Jason Dann took over the placekicking duties. Johnson moved to punter, and the Bobcats never looked back. Dann went 9-of-10 on field goals, including a 41-yard game-winner against South Alabama with four seconds remaining. Mager and receiver Brandon Smith are on hand to handle return duties.

Final Analysis 

This season will mark the first time in the past four years that the Bobcats will have spent back-to-back campaigns in the same conference after moving from the Southland to the WAC to the Sun Belt. Franchione has already said that this is the most FBS-ready roster he’s had at Texas State. The team will again have a backloaded schedule with plenty of tough games in the latter half of the season. The good news is that the Bobcats will play both UL Lafayette and Arkansas State — the Sun Belt co-champions in 2013 — at home.

After Texas State went 6–6 in 2013, a winning season and bowl game would be the next logical step for this program. For that to happen, though, the defense — with a rebuilt line and secondary — will have to overachieve while learning a new system.  




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#110 ULM Warhawks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#110

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Todd Berry, 23-26 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Farmer | DEF. COORDINATOR: Troy Reffett

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 110 Louisiana-Monroe. 

Previewing ULM’s Offense for 2014

The Kolton Browning era is over at ULM. The four-year starting quarterback racked up nearly 12,000 yards of total offense and 99 total TDs before graduating last season. His vacant role is open to four contenders, likely led by NC State transfer Pete Thomas. Brayle Brown — the only returning QB who took a snap at ULM last year — Earnest Carrington and Brian Williams could also get their shot, but Thomas is the favorite to win the job in preseason camp.

A California native, Thomas started for two years at Colorado State (2010-11) and one season at NC State (’13). He struggled in his one season with the Wolfpack (throwing four touchdowns and nine interceptions for a team that went winlesss in the ACC) and then transferred when it was apparent that Jacoby Brissett was going to win the job going forward.

Speedster Tyler Cain is back from a 2013 injury to join returning bruiser Centarius Donald (433 yards, four TDs) for a one-two punch in the backfield, and a physical, veteran line of four seniors and one junior should turn the offense to a more run-heavy style. Leading wideout Rashon Ceaser (65 receptions, 964 yards) paces a solid receiving corps, but talented tight ends Alec Osborne and Harley Scioneaux may provide the most security for the new quarterback.

Previewing ULM’s Defense for 2014

The group has come of age, with nine starters returning. Five of the top six defensive linemen are juniors or seniors, all three starting linebackers are upperclassmen and four starting defensive backs return. “We have been young on defense the last couple of years, but this year we are older and more confident,” Berry says. “This is the first year that we have had enough depth that our 3s (third-string players) are competitive.”

Despite the optimism and apparent depth, ULM must replace top tackler and defensive leader Cameron Blakes at linebacker, and the Warhawks need a more potent pass rush after last season’s team recorded only 16 sacks.

ULM is at least more athletic than past years. Nose tackle Gerrand Johnson and linebackers Ray Stovall and Hunter Kissinger should make the Warhawks strong against the run, but there are questions of consistency against the pass. Junior Mitch Lane, playing the pivotal Hawk position in ULM’s 3-3-5 scheme, needs a big year to bolster the secondary.

Previewing ULM’s Specialists for 2014

Justin Manton had the nation’s fourth-longest punting average (45.8) last season, but his placekicking has been a mere 50-50 proposition. The senior has made only 16-of-32 field goals in his career, and he has had a combined nine kicks/punts blocked over three seasons. Ceaser is a dangerous punt returner.

Final Analysis

As usual, ULM has a challenging non-conference schedule with games against Wake Forest, LSU, Kentucky and Texas A&M. That makes it even tougher to get one of the Sun Belt Conference’s limited bowl slots, as its 6–6 record last season did not land a bid.

“We have got to schedule like that every year from a financial standpoint, so our players are all acclimated to those type of challenges,” Berry says. “It can have an impact with the bowl tie-ins in our conference because of your overall record.”
ULM will have more experience than the majority of its opponents, but a lot rests on the performance of the starting quarterback, especially since Browning provided the team’s identity for so long. Berry’s teams have often overachieved, but with four new Sun Belt members it’s difficult to figure where the Warhawks should rank in the new lineup.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#108 Troy Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#108

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Larry Blakeney, 175-104-1 | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kenny Edenfield | DEF. COORDINATOR: Wayne Bolt

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 108 Troy.

Previewing Troy’s Offense for 2014

The Trojans are solid and experienced on offense — except at the trigger, where that vital role falls to one of several unknown quantities. Corey Robinson, one of four players in NCAA history with four 3,000-yard passing seasons, could be replaced by returning third-teamer Dallas Tidwell (19 pass attempts in two seasons) or redshirt freshman Brandon Silvers. Troy also signed junior college transfers Dontreal Pruitt and Connor Bravard in January. The position remains up for grabs heading into preseason camp.

Whoever winds up at quarterback will be surrounded by skilled veterans from the Sun Belt’s top scoring team in 2013. Junior Brandon Burks ran for 675 yards and sophomore Jordan Chunn for 514 last year, with Chunn finding the end zone 14 times to lead the nation’s freshman running backs.

Even though Sun Belt career touchdown catch leader Eric Thomas is gone, the wide receiver group boasts big numbers. Junior Bryan Holmes tied for third nationally with five catches of more than 50 yards to go with seven scores. Senior B.J. Chitty split time with Holmes in the spring and has 59 career grabs.

Speedy senior Chandler Worthy moves from an inside slot to the outside after catching two touchdown passes last year, and K.D. Edenfield, son of offensive coordinator Kenny Edenfield, takes over at one inside slot.

The Trojans’ deepest position offensively is up front, even though the three returning starters were sidelined with injuries for spring drills. All-Sun Belt right tackle Terrence Jones anchors the group. Dalton Bennett played right guard and left tackle last year but is in a battle with Caleb Carbine at center. Troy, which gets a boost from Ole Miss transfer Ethan Hutson at guard, allowed only 19 sacks on 483 pass attempts last season.

Previewing Troy’s Defense for 2014

As potent as Troy’s offense was, its defense was just as porous last season. The Trojans were last in the league in total defense (483.2 ypg) and scoring defense (35.9 ppg), and now they have to replace three of their starting front four. Only junior end Tyler Roberts, who led the down linemen in tackles and had 5.5 sacks, returns. In search of immediate help, the staff signed four junior college defensive linemen in February.

The outlook is better behind that group, with senior starters Mark Wilson and Wayland Coleman-Dancer back at the two linebacker slots. Wilson has 16 starts in two seasons and 102 career tackles.

Troy’s secondary had only six interceptions as a group last season while allowing 313.6 pass yards per game, and that unit needs improvement from cornerbacks Ethan Davis, Chris Davis and Keion Payne after they combined to start 24 games last year. Veteran Jeremy Spikner returns at nickel back, but the safeties will be untested.

Previewing Troy’s Specialists for 2014

Graduated Will Scott handled punting and kicking last year. Those tasks now fall to sophomore punter Ryan Kay and junior placekicker Jed Solomon. Holmes, who averaged 20.6 yards after taking over as punt returner in the final four games, is a threat at both return positions.

Final Analysis

Troy’s offense kept things close last season — the Trojans lost 41–36 and 41–34 to Sun Belt co-champions UL Lafayette and Arkansas State, respectively — but the defense couldn’t get key stops in a 6–6 season. Troy’s three straight non-winning seasons are a first in revered coach Larry Blakeney’s 24-year career, and the weight of snapping that streak falls on the shoulders of untested quarterbacks. The Trojans loaded up on junior college talent to shore up the defense, but that group’s ability to mesh and finding a leader for a potentially dangerous offense remain huge questions.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#93 Arkansas State Red Wolves

NATIONAL FORECAST

#93

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Blake Anderson, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Walt Bell, Glen Elarbee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Joe Cauthen

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 93 Arkansas State.

Previewing Arkansas State’s Offense for 2014

Recruited to run Gus Malzahn’s fast-paced system two years ago, junior quarterback Fredi Knighten appears poised to take the reins as ASU installs Blake Anderson’s version of the hurry-up offense. Knighten spent most of 2013 on the sideline but took over near the end of the season when senior Adam Kennedy was injured. Knighten earned GoDaddy Bowl MVP honors after engineering a last-minute touchdown drive to beat Ball State. While not a classic pocket passer at 5'11", Knighten is capable of spreading the ball around and is always a big-play threat with his speed.

Michael Gordon emerged as one of the Sun Belt’s best running backs as a sophomore, rushing for 754 yards and 10 touchdowns, but backfield depth is a concern, and freshmen could be in the mix. Anderson’s first recruiting class included three running backs.

ASU features one of the league’s most versatile players in J.D. McKissic, who was on the All-Sun Belt team as a wide receiver, all-purpose player and kick return specialist last fall. McKissic has caught 185 passes in his first two seasons. Graduation hit the receiving corps hard, however, and redshirt freshmen Dijon Paschal, Brandon Cox and Carl Lee Jr. got plenty of work in the spring.

The Red Wolves have all-conference talent at tight end in 6'5", 264-pound Darion Griswold, who figures to thrive in Anderson’s system. All-Sun Belt center Bryce Giddens retired from football in July, but Colton Jackson returns at right tackle and Alan Wright has experience at right guard. The Red Wolves have to replace the left side of the line.

Previewing Arkansas State’s Defense for 2014

The Red Wolves will still line up in a 4-2-5 system under new coordinator Joe Cauthen. Their personnel won’t change in many places, either, with eight starters returning from last year’s unit that ranked third among Sun Belt teams in scoring defense (26.2 ppg).

The greatest concern is the interior line, where the Red Wolves can no longer rely on Ryan Carrethers to stop the run. Dexter Blackmon, who sat out the spring with a back injury, and Darrius Rosser were key members of last year’s rotation. Recruits are likely to fill in behind them. At end, the Red Wolves can count on junior Chris Stone, who led the team with 9.5 tackles for a loss last year.

All-Sun Belt linebacker Qushaun Lee, a two-time GoDaddy Bowl Defensive MVP, is a punishing hitter who led ASU with 134 tackles in 2013. Senior Kyle Coleman and sophomore Xavier Woodson lead what should be a solid supporting cast at linebacker.

The Red Wolves were burned for big pass plays early last season but improved as the year progressed. Second-team All-Sun Belt free safety Sterling Young has started 33 games. Chris Humes and Money Hunter split time at strong safety last year, while second-team All-SBC selection Rocky Hayes, Artez Brown and Andrew Tryon return at cornerback.

Previewing Arkansas State’s Specialists for 2014

ASU improved dramatically in the kicking game last year, but the Red Wolves have to replace All-Sun Belt placekicker Brian Davis. Luke Ferguson, one of two punters used last season, could handle all kicking duties. McKissic averaged 30 yards on kickoff returns in 2013, tops in the Sun Belt and fourth in FBS.

Final Analysis

Coaching changes followed conference championships in each of the last three seasons at ASU. With a $3 million buyout in the first two years of his contract, Anderson figures to have a longer stay than immediate predecessors Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin. The former North Carolina offensive coordinator inherits more than expectations, too. The Red Wolves figure to experience some of the typical transition issues, and there are key players to replace on both sides of the ball, but they have enough talent to contend for another Sun Belt title and bowl bid.




Unpublished

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#84 South Alabama Jaguars

NATIONAL FORECAST

#84

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Joey Jones, 31-21 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Robert Matthews | DEF. COORDINATOR: Travis Pearson

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 84 South Alabama.

Previewing South Alabama’s Offense for 2014:

All the parts are in place for South Alabama to have the best offensive squad in the program’s six-year history — if the team can answer its question at quarterback. Surrounded by a plethora of returning skill players and eight starters overall, Brandon Bridge takes over under center. The 6'5" Canadian showed promise as a dual-threat backup last season, but his consistency and decision-making must be cleaned up in the full-time role.

“Brandon can make a lot of plays, and I sat on my back porch last season trying to decide if he was going to be our starter back then,” USA coach Joey Jones says. “But we went with (All-Sun Belt senior Ross Metheny). Now it’s Brandon’s time. And he’s in the same spot as any quarterback from little league football to college, where he just has to stay away from mistakes.”

USA’s top three running backs and top four pass-catchers are back, led by first-team All-Sun Belt tight end Wes Saxton. That receiving corps should be even deeper with the addition of Alabama transfers Josh Magee and Marvin Shinn. Up front, two all-conference tackles return in Chris May and Ucambre Williams to anchor a line that allowed the fewest sacks in the Sun Belt last season.

Previewing South Alabama’s Defense for 2014:

Travis Pearson takes over as defensive coordinator, promoted from linebackers coach after former defensive play-caller Kevin Sherrer took a position on Georgia’s staff. Pearson will try to continue the focus on strong play up front, but USA must replace first-team all-conference defensive linemen Alex Page and Romelle Jones.

Led by returning nose tackle Jerome ­McClain, junior college All-America end Jimmie Gipson III and playmaking linebacker Maleki Harris, the front seven should be solid once again, but depth may be a concern at multiple positions.

“At defensive end, we feel good. But with those inside guys, we have depth issues right now,” Jones says. “We need some junior college guys to play in those spots right away.”
Four starters return for a nickel-heavy secondary that allowed the second-fewest passing yards in the Sun Belt last season, but that performance came with the support of a strong pass rush. This season’s secondary may have to lead rather than follow.

Previewing South Alabama’s Specialists for 2014:

Placekicker Aleem Sunanon made his final 12 field-goal attempts and ranked second in the Sun Belt in scoring as a freshman in 2013, and his return solidifies the position for the next three years. USA’s coverage teams have been stingy, but a new punter must emerge. The return game is in good hands with Magee and T.J. Glover.

Final Analysis

USA finished its first full-fledged season of FBS play with bowl eligibility (6–6 record) and one win shy of the Sun Belt title. Now the bar is raised, and the Jaguars are no longer the ever-changing conference’s newcomer.

“We are not a veteran in this conference by any means, but things have changed quickly,” Jones says. “We were about a play or two away from winning a conference championship and going to a bowl. There is some pep in our step.”

Taking another step forward is plausible but carries conditions. Last year’s team won by committing very few turnovers on offense and causing disruption on the defensive front. The 2014 squad must do the same with a new quarterback and new starters on the defensive line. After a tough home opener against Mississippi State, the Jaguars face five consecutive winnable conference games before difficult road trips to UL Lafayette and Arkansas State. If the Jaguars are riding a winning streak at midseason, title contention could be a possibility.




Unpublished

Unpublished

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#60 UL Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#60

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Hudspeth, 27-12 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jay Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: James Willis

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 60 UL Lafayette.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Offense for 2014:

Terrance Broadway has thrown for 5,261 yards and 36 scores in two seasons. He’s 15–6 as a starter with two bowl wins, and he led the Sun Belt Conference in passing efficiency last year. In other words, the quarterback spot is secure. UL Lafayette does, however, have to find a backup — last year the offense struggled mightily when Broadway was out for the final two games with a broken arm. Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon will battle for the No. 2 spot, but running back and former prep quarterback Elijah McGuire could also take snaps this year.

McGuire and Alonzo Harris make up the Sun Belt’s most dynamic one-two rushing punch, with Harris powering for 942 yards and 14 scores and McGuire speeding his way for 863 yards and eight TDs as a true freshman. Both are bigger and stronger one year later, a bad omen for defenses trying to stop what was the league’s second-most potent rushing attack a season ago.

That attack is helped by a line that returns four starters from a group that started intact for all 13 games last year — the third year in a row for the Cajun front to accomplish that feat. Brothers Daniel and Mykhael Quave at right guard and left tackle, respectively, anchor that group, but the center spot is a question mark, with redshirt freshman Grant Horst penciled in as the starter.

Athletic Jamal Robinson emerged as a go-to receiver last year with 54 catches, 862 yards and eight scores and was high on coach Mark Hudspeth’s most-improved list in the spring. The Cajuns will have to find a replacement for talented slot man Darryl Surgent as well as a new tight end.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Defense for 2014: 

The Cajuns struggled against throwing teams last year despite leading the Sun Belt in interceptions. They need more pressure from senior tackles Justin Hamilton and Christian Ringo. Hamilton led the down linemen in tackles (38) and sacks (four) last year and should stay fresher with added depth. Hometown product Jacoby Briscoe transfers back from Miami and could be a playmaker at end.

The Cajun staff went into spring drills looking for linebacker help with two-year tackle leader Justin Anderson gone, and came out with two spots locked down. Junior Dominique Tovell, the Cajuns’ second-leading tackler last year, started every game, and junior Chris Hill, a spot starter in ’13, had what Hudspeth called the best spring of any defensive player.

Senior safety Sean Thomas had 63 tackles and a team-high three interceptions. Senior Corey Trim is the only veteran at corner.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Specialists for 2014:

Stephen Brauchle returns but missed three of his last four field goals, and kickoff specialist Hunter Stover had the only field goal in the bowl win. Stover leads that battle entering the fall, while Australian punter Daniel Cadona returns after averaging 41.7 yards in his first season of football. McGuire is the likely candidate for kick returns as the Cajun staff looks to get the ball into his hands more often.

Final Analysis

With a healthy Broadway at the helm, UL Lafayette won eight straight games and earned a share of the Sun Belt title for the first time since 2005. With him out of the lineup, the Cajuns lost two in a row before Broadway returned — not at a 100 percent — to lead them to a win in the bowl game. His value can’t be overstated as the triggerman of what could be the Sun Belt’s most potent offense.
There are some issues on defense, especially against the pass, but this is still the most talented team in the Sun Belt. As long as Broadway remains healthy, the Cajuns are the overwhelming favorite to win the league.




Unpublished

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