Sun Belt

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#126 Georgia State Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#126

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#10

HEAD COACH: Trent Miles, 0-12 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Jagodzinski | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jesse Minter

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. 126 Georgia State.

Previewing Georgia State’s Offense for 2014:

If there was one bright spot in an otherwise brutal transition to the FBS level, it’s the production Georgia State got out of quarterback Ronnie Bell. The transfer from Ohio threw for 2,573 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. But just because Bell has experience doesn’t mean he’ll be under center for the Panthers’ opener. In hopes of increasing competition across the board and jolting an offense that averaged a Sun Belt-worst 18.8 points per game, coach Trent Miles brought in three-star recruit Nick Arbuckle, who threw for 2,852 yards and 26 touchdowns at Pierce (Calif.) College, and Emiere Scaife, who has good size and arm strength for a true freshman.

Georgia State comes in with plenty of question marks after losing six offensive linemen to graduation as well as productive receiver Albert Wilson, who accounted for nearly 1,200 yards. Still, identifying a quarterback will be the No. 1 priority for an offense that converted a league-worst 33 percent of its third downs and gave up 32 sacks.

Besides offensive line, where the Panthers signed three junior college players in hopes of a quick makeover, the biggest concern will be depth at wide receiver, where they had just three scholarship players go through spring practice. Miles hopes Michael Harrison, a 5'7" running back/slot receiver who accounted for 1,536 yards last season in junior college, can provide some playmaking pop.

Previewing Georgia State’s Defense for 2014:

Lack of size and strength was noticeable on the defensive side of the ball last season, and particularly up front, where the Panthers allowed a league-worst 221.2 rushing yards per game. That wasn’t a surprise, however, given that the Panthers’ most talented players were true freshmen. A full offseason in the weight room has done wonders for sophomore defensive linemen Shawayne Lawrence and Tevin Jones, who Miles expects to provide a foundation for future success in the trenches.

Sophomore Mackendy Cheridor and junior Joseph Peterson, who was honorable mention All-Sun Belt after a 103-tackle season, bring plenty of starting experience to the linebacking corps. The question mark will be in the secondary, where Georgia State lost eight defensive backs and will try to fill in gaps with junior college talent — cornerback Marcus Caffey was highly-rated coming out of Iowa Western — and by moving junior Tarris Batiste to safety after recording 77 tackles at linebacker last season.

Regardless of who plays in the secondary, generating more turnovers will be crucial for a unit that snagged just six total interceptions, and only four by defensive backs, in 346 passing attempts last season.

Previewing Georgia State’s Specialists for 2014:

Former walk-on punter Matt Hubbard had no problem making the transition from FCS last season, earning third team All-Sun Belt honors after averaging 42.0 yards on 78 punts. Placekicker Wil Lutz also returns after making 8-of-12 field goals last season, including a 53-yarder against Alabama.

Final Analysis 

Entering its fifth year of existence overall and second as an FBS program, Georgia State has experienced very little success, winning just once over the past two seasons. As players who were recruited for the FCS level cycle out of the program — including 27 seniors last season — the opportunity exists for Miles to upgrade the roster’s size, speed and depth. Still, the Panthers are probably two recruiting classes away from getting their numbers up to par, and in the meantime will have to rely heavily on underclassmen for production.

The Panthers were competitive at times in 2013, losing three times in conference play by a touchdown or less, but they’re still closer to the beginning than the end of a long rebuilding process.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#122 Georgia Southern Eagles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#122

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Willie Fritz, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Ruse | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jack Curtis

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. 122 Georgia Southern.

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Offense for 2014: 

When Jeff Monken left for Army, Georgia Southern elected to move away from the triple-option offense in hiring Willie Fritz, who took Sam Houston State to the FCS title game in 2011 and ’12. Though Fritz will keep elements of the same scheme to fit the personnel he’s inheriting, Georgia Southern will look much more like a spread-option team. The Eagles will throw between 15 and 25 times per game as opposed to the 79 total passes returning quarterback Kevin Ellison attempted last year.

“The guys we have here definitely can run our system,” Fritz says. “Ellison has shown me a lot, and he can throw the football. I see a lot of ability out on the perimeter for a team that hadn’t thrown the ball very much, and we’ve got some excellent players along the offensive line. The unknown is our running back position.”

Though there’s never an easy transition from FCS to FBS, the Eagles have enough size and experience up front to compete offensively right away. Besides Ellison, Georgia Southern returns a trio of two-year senior starters on its offensive line and a pair of receivers in Zach Walker and BJ Johnson. Fritz also is high on the abilities of 6'2", 255-pound junior Nardo Govan, who is moving from fullback to tight end.

Though Ellison is only a sophomore, his proven ability as a runner (127 attempts for 886 yards and eight touchdowns) will make the Eagles tough to defend if he can pick up the new offense quickly.

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Defense for 2014:

The only coaching holdover from Monken’s staff is defensive coordinator Jack Curtis, whose unit was solid but not spectacular last season. Though the Eagles return five starters, they are going to be undersized and not particularly deep, especially up front. That’s not a great combination as they transition to a tougher FBS schedule.

Fritz knows they have two capable linebackers in Edwin Jackson and Antwione Williams, but whether Georgia Southern can find more capable backers will determine whether they play more 4-3 or 4-2-5. The defensive backfield should be a strength as starting safeties Matt Dobson and Deion Stanley return after combining for five interceptions last season. Senior cornerback Valdon Cooper has “big-time ability,” according to Fritz, but he needs to play more consistently.

Georgia Southern only generated 12 total turnovers last season, including a mere two fumble recoveries, so improving those numbers will be paramount to its defensive success in 2014.

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Specialists for 2014:

Fritz plans to tweak Georgia Southern’s coverage and return schemes, and he’ll also have three placekickers to evaluate in the fall. Sophomore Younghoe Koo made 5-of-6 field goals last season, while junior Alex Hanks handled kickoffs but was the primary placekicker in 2012. Connor Tierney also returns after going 14-for-14 on extra points but 0-for-2 on field goals.

Final Analysis

In an otherwise average 2013 season, Georgia Southern received significant attention on Nov. 23 for beating Florida, 26–20, in its first-ever victory over an FBS opponent. Though some at Georgia Southern might have seen that performance as validation for the school’s decision to move up to FBS, there are still significant challenges ahead. It will also be a new experience for Fritz, who has moved up the ladder from junior colleges to Division II Central Missouri, where he went 97–47, to his wildly successful run at Sam Houston State.

Though the Eagles had a solid structure in place before making the move, there are plenty of unknowns. “Instead of slaying one dragon a year,” Fritz says, “we’ve got to do it with great consistency. We’ve got to get a lot better.”




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.




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#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.




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.




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