Sun Belt

More Stories:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#126 Georgia State Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#126

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#11

HEAD COACH: Trent Miles, 1-23 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Jagodzinski | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jesse Minter

Patience will need to be in ample supply for Georgia State. The Panthers have gone 2-33 during the last three seasons as the startup program has moved into the FBS ranks. Trent Miles rebuilt Indiana State but his lone win in two seasons at Georgia State is by one point over Abilene Christian to start last season. With 16 returning starters, including 10 on offense, and a growing roster of scholarship players, Miles will look to continue building the foundation.
 

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports
 

Previewing Georgia State’s Offense for 2015 
 

There weren’t many things Georgia State did reliably well last season except pass the ball, which allowed the Panthers to be competitive more often than they had been during a winless 2013. The good news is most of the key pieces that made Georgia State’s passing game respectable return with what should be a deeper and more talented supporting cast. 

But the Panthers still have a long way to go, and it’s unclear how much a bevy of new faces up front and at tailback will help a rushing attack that averaged just 3.0 yards per carry and 96.3 yards per game, which ranked next-to-last in the Sun Belt. “We still have some holes we can’t fill for a couple years, but we’re a lot closer,” coach Trent Miles says. 

Optimism starts with 6'1" senior quarterback Nick Arbuckle, a former junior college transfer who completed 60.4 percent of his passes and threw for 3,283 yards with 23 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. “He’s got good touch, and he usually knows where to go with it,” Miles says. “He tried to force some plays, which happens when you’re struggling as a team. But he’s relaxed a lot more, and I’m looking for a big year.” 

The Panthers should benefit from the return of tailback Kyler Neal, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in four games before getting injured, and most of a receiving corps led by Donovan Harden, who had 60 catches for 885 yards last season. “He’s a stud,” Miles says. “That’s one of our deeper positions.”

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Georgia State’s Defense for 2015 
 

Miles has a pretty simple assessment of Georgia State’s defense in 2014: “Horrible.” The Panthers allowed 303.4 rushing yards per game, had just 12 sacks, gave up 51.9 percent of third-down conversions and forced a paltry eight turnovers. Once again, though, there’s no quick fix for a roster that was bereft of talent, depth and size when Miles took over aside from recruiting and internal growth, particularly in the weight room. 

With some new personnel, there could be big changes on the defensive line. Julien Laurent, a 6'4", 325-pound Canadian, is poised to make a big impact after a year at New Mexico Military Institute. Georgia State is hoping a mix of junior college transfers, UAB transfer Alonzo McGee and players such as linebackers Michael Shaw and Niemus Bryant will supplement a couple solid returning pieces on the front seven. Linebacker Joe Peterson is a four-year starter and an All-Sun Belt selection, and sophomore Trey Payne had 88 tackles last season. 

Miles says the Panthers are “deeper than we’ve ever been” in the secondary with the addition of junior college safety Cloves Campbell and UAB transfer Bobby Baker, who played well for the Blazers before suffering an early season injury. Even if the Panthers’ front-line personnel is better, injuries and depth are going to be a major concern. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Georgia State’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Senior Wil Lutz didn’t get many scoring opportunities last season but made the most of them. He hit on 7-of-8 field goals and is 15-of-16 in his career inside of 40 yards. He will also handle punting duties after splitting time there last season. Miles hopes for more big plays out of the return game from Harden and new slot receiver Kameron Myers, who can really fly.

Final Analysis
 

This program has had a rough transition from FCS to FBS, and it’s going to take more time to turn it around. Still, the Panthers will have around 80 scholarship players this year, up from the mid-60s last season, and return all but four contributors. Though there are still major questions about physicality and size on both lines of scrimmage, the skill level is improving at nearly every position, which should be enough to see incremental strides in Miles’ third season.  




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#124 New Mexico State Aggies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#124

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#9

HEAD COACH: Doug Martin, 4-20 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Martin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Zane Vance

Optimism is not usually plentiful for New Mexico State, but that may be the case for the Aggies this season. New Mexico State improved on offense late last year, scoring 35 points in the finale at Arkansas State. If the defense with 10 returning starters can keep up, the Aggies might — might — be able to double last season’s win total (two).

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing New Mexico State’s Offense for 2015
 

The Aggies moved to an up-tempo, quick-passing game under offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon last season, and while it wasn’t a consistent success, it was an identity — something the program has sorely lacked in recent years. 

Brandon is gone (he replaced Bob Stitt as head coach at Colorado School of Mines), but New Mexico State returns the majority of an offensive roster that began to figure it out last year. 

Sophomore running back Larry Rose III amassed 1,102 yards (on a healthy 5.9-yard average) in his rookie season and will be the primary rusher in the single-back offense. Junior Teldrick Morgan will be the top option in the passing game and is looking to build on a breakout season. 

But the effort to find the man to take the helm of the offense is a battle that will likely play out deep into fall camp. Tyler Rogers held the position last season and at times looked like he was the man for the job. But Rogers’ 23-interception season kept the competition open, and South Florida product Nick Jeanty closed the gap in spring camp. Sophomore Andrew Allen is also part of the fray.  

Whichever quarterback wins the job will be playing behind one of the better offensive lines in the Sun Belt. The Aggies lose linchpin center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke to graduation, but guard Isaiah Folasa-Lutui and tackle Houston Clemente are a tremendous left side on a unit that allowed only 10 sacks last season.  

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing New Mexico State’s Defense for 2015
 

While the NMSU offense found a system that worked in 2014, the Aggie defense will enter 2015 in flux. The ’14 unit was young and small, and subsequently one of the worst defenses in the country. The Aggies had the nation’s sixth-best passing defense in terms of yards per game last year, but that’s because teams didn’t need to throw it against NMSU. The Aggies were dead last nationally in rushing yards against, allowing 309.9 per game. 

Size on the front seven is a major issue, as starting defensive linemen Kalei Auelua and Stody Bradley both played last year at about 240 pounds. The Aggies return only three sacks from 2014.

The vast majority of the defensive roster returns in 2015, and new coordinator Zane Vance is hoping that a year in the weight room will spark an improvement on the field. 

Despite the struggles of the Aggies defense in 2014, there were positives to be gleaned from the secondary and linebacking corps. Free safety Kawe Johnson was a diminutive wrecking ball, and linebacker Rodney Butler’s 7.5 tackles for a loss were impressive, considering how easy it was for opponents to get out of their own backfield. 

Scheme will play a major factor in the Aggies’ effort to turn around their defense. Vance will use more zone blitzes in an effort to mask the Aggies’ lack of size with deception and frenetic play.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing New Mexico State’s Specialists for 2015 
 

The Aggies’ special teams last year were terrible. Morgan is a threat on returns, but the lack of team depth made itself known on special teams, as the blocking was never there to break a return for a touchdown. Another year of experience for special teamers could bring improvement — and there’s nowhere to go but up. 

Final Analysis
 

The Aggies started to figure it out last year, and if the offense continues to progress, they’ll be able to stay competitive in conference games. If they are to be successful, the defense will need to make a big leap — a scheme change might facilitate that improvement. Games against UTEP and New Mexico will be measuring sticks for the program and the progress it’s made. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#118 Troy Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#118

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#8

HEAD COACH: Neal Brown, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kenny Edenfield, Matt Moore | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vic Koenning

For the first time since 1990, someone other than Larry Blakeney will coach Troy. Blakeney’s tenure, which coincided with the Trojans’ move to major college football, included five Sun Belt titles and five bowl games. He’ll be tough to replace, but Troy turns to a familiar face to replace Blakeney and — the Trojans hope — revitalize the program. 

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Troy’s Offense for 2015 
 

Old habits die hard, so it will come as little surprise that first-year Troy coach Neal Brown, a former offensive coordinator for the Trojans before moving on to the same job at Texas Tech and Kentucky, plans to continue calling plays in his new role. The offense will have his stamp on it, which means an emphasis on a faster pace of play and less rotation of players.

Brown’s task won’t be easy. While there are several starters returning, there are also holes that must be filled and, more important, consistency that must be established. The Trojans were 10th in the Sun Belt in both scoring offense and total offense last year.

Brown appears to have his quarterback in place, which is a nice start. Brandon Silvers set the NCAA record for pass completion percentage (70.5) by a freshman, but he was up and down. One positive: He threw only three interceptions in 271 attempts. Dallas Tidwell and perhaps incoming freshman Gardner Minshew will try to impress the new staff in the fall, but the job appears to be Silvers’ to lose.

Running back is perhaps the deepest position on the offense, though Brandon Burks and Jordan Chunn combined to barely top 1,000 yards rushing in 2014. Josh Anderson, a 260-pound fullback, should have an impact. 

Bryan Holmes, K.D. Edenfield and Teddy Ruben return to the receiving corps, and if Brown has his way, the group should be far more productive this fall. 

The offensive line will be led by Antonio Garcia and Dalton Bennett, but improvement is needed there as well. This group will have to adjust to the faster pace of play that Brown intends to implement.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Troy’s Defense for 2015
 

In effect, the Trojans’ defense is being rebuilt from scratch. Brown hired Vic Koenning as defensive coordinator, a position he held at the school from 2003-04. The Trojans ranked near the bottom of the league in most key defensive categories in 2014, and they gave up at least 40 points five times in 12 games. 

Koenning will technically run a 4-2-5 alignment but will often switch the alignments in an effort to catch the opponent off guard. The aim is to use a swarming attack that takes advantage of speed and quickness off the edge. 

Up front, Troy has Tyler Roberts and former Arkansas Razorback Lonnie Gosha leading the way, with some expected added talent also set to contribute. At linebacker, junior college signees William Lloyd and Justin Lucas are expected to step in and play big roles right away. In the secondary, newcomers Jalen Rountree and LaMarcus Farmer should add experience and talent. Troy ranked a respectable fifth in the Sun Belt in passing defense last season.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Troy’s Specialists for 2015 
 

The placekicking duties are wide open, and the competition will continue right up until the start of the season. Ryan Kay will return as the team’s punter. The Trojans were average at best in the return game last season.

Final Analysis 
 

In many ways, this is a complete rebuild for Brown and his coaching staff. The once-proud Troy program had fallen on hard times in recent years; the Trojans have missed a bowl in four straight seasons after playing in the postseason four times from 2006-10.

A bowl game isn’t likely this fall, either. The Trojans have a difficult non-conference schedule that includes trips to NC State, Wisconsin and Mississippi State, and they play Sun Belt heavyweights Appalachian State and UL-Lafayette on the road.

Anything close to six wins should be considered a big success in Year 1 of the Brown era. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#125 Idaho Vandals

NATIONAL FORECAST

#125

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#10

HEAD COACH: Paul Petrino, 2-21 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kris Cinkovich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Breske

Idaho finished 2014 with its third consecutive one-win season, but, believe it or not, the Vandals made progress. Idaho was outscored by only 135 points in 2014. That sounds bad, but consider that the Vandals were outscored by 343 points in 2013 and 319 in 2011. For a team that’s lost 42 games in four seasons, any sign of real progress is notable.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing Idaho’s Offense for 2015
 

Coach Paul Petrino welcomes back the top rusher and passer from an offense that averaged 25 points and 417.5 yards per game, and the third-year coach is expecting even better numbers this season.

Quarterback Matt Linehan had his ups and downs during his redshirt freshman season when he started all 11 games and completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 2,540 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also threw 18 interceptions, a number that will need to dwindle if the Vandals are to show the improvement Petrino predicts.

The return of wide receiver Dezmon Epps should help the passing game. Epps was Idaho’s leading receiver in 2013 when he caught 79 passes for 980 yards and four touchdowns. He was kicked off the team last summer for an off-the-field incident and didn’t play last season. The senior received a second chance from Petrino for staying in good academic standing. Between Epps and junior tight end Deon Watson (37 catches in 2014), Linehan has two athletic playmakers at his disposal.

Senior running back Elijhaa Penny led Idaho with 589 yards and 12 touchdowns, and the 6'2", 254-pound bruiser is expected to spearhead the ground game again. Sophomore Aaron Duckworth is the speedier, change-of-pace back.

The biggest question comes up front. Petrino must replace four-year starter Mike Marboe at center and rebuild a unit that yielded 41 sacks. Junior Steven Matlock assumes the center spot and will anchor a young unit that has only one senior starter — guard Dallas Sandberg. If the O-line jells and can protect Linehan, Idaho’s offense should improve.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Idaho's Defense for 2015
 

After being one of the worst FBS defenses last year, the Vandals are changing to a 3-4 scheme designed to get more speed on the field. Idaho allowed 462.7 yards and 37.3 points per game, prompting Petrino to bring in five defensive backs in the offseason to help fortify the pass defense.

Senior cornerback Jayshawn Jordan (62 tackles) and junior safety Russell Siavii (52 tackles) are the top defensive backs returning, but competition will be fierce in the back end.

End Quinton Bradley (six sacks) and tackle Ryan Edwards (19 tackles) are the best up front. Linebacker Marc Millan led the team with 102 tackles last season, and several other contributors are back at that spot, but Petrino is very high on grayshirt Kaden Elliss, the son of former NFL Pro Bowler Luther Elliss.

Bottom line: For this unit to improve, it will have to generate more than the 18 sacks and 17 takeaways it did last season.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Idaho’s Specialists for 2015 
 

The kicking game is solid with junior Austin Rehkow, who handles the placekicking and punting duties. Rehkow is accurate from inside 40 yards but inconsistent from long range. As a punter, he’s averaged better than 47 yards on 119 career punts. The return of Epps solidifies the return teams, which haven’t produced a touchdown of any kind since 2012.

Final Analysis
 

Perhaps the best news since the end of last season was the NCAA lifting a bowl ban and sanctions limiting practice time because of poor APR scores. The Vandals need every bit of practice to try to become competitive and put together their first winning season since 2009.

The offense should be improved now that Linehan has a year under his belt and some proven playmakers. The real key for Idaho will be on defense. In Idaho’s 10 losses last season, it gave up 34 or more points. If the Vandals can slow down the opposition and give their offense a chance, this team can make a move in the Sun Belt.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#115 ULM Warhawks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#115

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Todd Berry, 27-34 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Todd Berry | DEF. COORDINATOR: Travis Niekamp, Adam Waugh

Todd Berry and the Warhawks have eight starters back on a veteran defense and five starters back on a questionable offense. The team should be more balanced in 2015 and with 13 games (including Hawaii), ULM could find itself in the postseason. Contending for a Sun Belt title, however, may be a much taller order.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing ULM's Offense for 2015  
 

ULM will try to reboot its offense with head coach Todd Berry taking over play-calling duties after a lopsided performance in 2014: The Warhawks led the Sun Belt in passing but ranked dead last in rushing, total offense and scoring.

Stability at quarterback is needed. Senior Brayle Brown has some experience (29 games, two starts) and a deep understanding of the scheme, but he is also injury-prone. Redshirt freshman Garrett Smith is rougher around the edges for now, but he touts an upside as a dual-threat quarterback.

Don’t be surprised if the competition stretches into the season, but the starter will be able to lean heavily on wideouts Rashon Ceaser and Ajalen Holley, the most productive returning receiver duo in the conference (134 receptions, 1,735 yards in 2014).

Sophomore Kaylon Watson and senior DeVontae McNeal, who missed last season with an injury, will share time at running back. It’s an inexperienced pair with only 57 career rushing attempts combined. Neither the ground game nor the new quarterback will be effective if ULM doesn’t answer lingering questions on the offensive line.

“We didn’t play well up front last year, just static and not productive, and we still have some challenges there,” Berry says. “So that quarterback has to have the ability of doing some special things and handle the tempo to help our offensive line.”

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing ULM’s Defense for 2015 
 

Six of ULM’s top seven tacklers from last season return to a unit that should come of age in 2015. And there are no discernible weak spots.

Nose tackle Gerrand Johnson, the first defensive lineman to lead ULM in tackles since 1980, will man the interior of the front. At linebacker, Hunter Kissinger was a first-team all-league performer last season, and Michael Johnson is the Sun Belt’s returning sack leader. Mitch Lane, another first-team All-Sun Belt selection, leads the secondary at the Hawk position of ULM’s 3-3-5 scheme.

“This is a senior-laden group that’s been in a lot of ball games,” Berry says. “Our linebacking corps is as good as any I’ve been around in a long time.”

The defense more than doubled its sack total over the last two seasons, and expect another increase in pressure with an athletic, experienced group coming back.

 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing ULM's Specialists for 2015  
 

The graduation of Justin Manton, an all-conference kicker and punter, leaves a large vacancy. Redshirt freshman Craig Ford will take over placekicking duties, while true freshman Chris Qualls will battle Ford at punter. Ceaser’s 9.5-yard average on punt returns would have led the Sun Belt had he had enough attempts to qualify. Speedster Tyler Cain is also back to return kicks.

Final Analysis
 

An NCAA scheduling exemption allows ULM to play a 13-game schedule because it involves a trip to Hawaii. That could increase the Warhawks’ bowl possibilities, but only if the veteran group weathers non-conference contests at Georgia and Alabama and 10 straight games without a bye week.

ULM has only five home games, but Berry’s teams have overcome the school’s scheduling challenges before with 6–6 and 8–5 seasons during the past three years. The Warhawks’ final five losses last season were each by seven points or fewer, and the same slim margin should be there again.

Expect ULM’s defense to be among the Sun Belt’s best, but the team will go only as far as the offense and a new starting quarterback can take it. Berry is an imaginative offensive coach with a knack for getting the best out of his quarterbacks, and his expertise will be tested in 2015.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#108 South Alabama Jaguars

NATIONAL FORECAST

#108

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Joey Jones, 37-28 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bryant Vincent | DEF. COORDINATOR: Travis Pearson

Joey Jones has done excellent work at South Alabama. The transition to the highest level of college football has been pretty smooth, considering the Jaguars have already reached a bowl game. However, a bizarre injection of game-ready players from defunct UAB could make summer camp interesting in Mobile.

Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter: @AthlonSports

Previewing South Alabama’s Offense for 2015  


To help restock an offense that returns only three starters, South Alabama snatched up instantly eligible UAB players after that program disbanded. And as a bonus, UAB offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent, a former USA quarterbacks coach, followed some of his players to Mobile to call plays for the Jaguars.

Quarterback Cody Clements, slot receiver D.J. Vinson and guard Cameron Blankenship, all UAB transfers, should start immediately. Clements, who sat out spring practice due to an injury, passed for 2,227 yards and 14 TDs last season. Vinson, an all-purpose threat, rushed for 670 yards at running back at UAB, but his services are needed more as a receiver at USA.

Blankenship is already among USA’s top linemen, and more UAB transfers could contribute or even start.

“Not only are they good players, but they have been in the system we’re running because of (Vincent) coming here,” USA coach Joey Jones says. “The learning curve is good for them, and they could be a good plus for our offense.”

Running back should be strong, as the returning duo of Terrance Timmons (403 yards) and Xavier Johnson (438 yards) is supplemented by junior college All-American Tyreis Thomas.

Right tackle Chris May is a returning anchor on the offensive line, but there are otherwise experience and depth concerns up front. Similarly, the wide receiving corps must develop role players into standouts.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing South Alabama’s Defense for 2015 
 

USA’s defense returns only two starters in safeties Roman Buchanan (74 tackles) and Antonio Carter (54 tackles). And six USA defensive players who earned some type of All-Sun Belt honors last season have graduated.

The secondary could be solid, but only if two cornerbacks and a nickel spot can be solidified. E.J. May should fill one of the cornerback roles well, but freshmen and junior college transfers will take turns trying to fill the rest. Texas Tech transfer Blake Dees and UAB transfer Kalen Jackson may be the best options at linebacker. Both have talent.

Defensive end Jimmie Gipson returns as a proven edge rusher after recording 6.5 tackles for a loss and a team-high seven QB hurries last season. But questions are stacked high up front, especially in the interior line, where Tre Alford and Caleb Butler, both backups as freshmen, enter the season as the best options amid an inexperienced group.

 
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing South Alabama’s Specialists for 2015  
 

Placekicker Aleem Sunanon and punter Brandon McKee are both back, providing a little relief for a roster with plenty of unknowns. Sunanon is the Sun Belt’s most accurate returning placekicker, making 15-of-18 field goals last season. Filling the kick returner and punt returner roles may be trial and error early on.

Final Analysis
 

The young USA program broke through last season with its first bowl appearance, but its evolution takes a curious turn with the instant influx of UAB transfers. Quick fixes will impact what would have otherwise been a rebuilding year. But Jones knows talent alone will not win games. “This will be a different year than we’ve had. We’ve lost 55 players (to graduation) over the last two years,” Jones says. “Some of our veteran guys are not here anymore. We probably have more talent now. But with so many new guys, we have to mold this thing together pretty quickly.”

Three straight September non-conference games — against Nebraska, San Diego State and NC State — could challenge a team lacking chemistry. Eight straight Sun Belt games follow to finish the year. If the Jaguars have any chance at snagging another bowl bid, they’ll have to make some noise in the league race again.




Pages