Sun Belt


#108 South Alabama Jaguars





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.

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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.

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#93 Texas State Bobcats





HEAD COACH: Dennis Franchione, 36-34 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Conway, Mike Schultz | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Thompson

Despite picking up seven wins, Texas State did not receive a bowl invite last season. The Bobcats could be in the same position in 2015, as Dennis Franchione welcomes back 12 starters, including his key playmakers on offense. If the offense can carry the team early and the defense finds it footing, Texas State could force its way into the bowl conversation this season.

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Previewing Texas State’s Offense for 2015

A year removed from one of the biggest changes Texas State head coach Dennis Franchione has made during his second stint in San Marcos, the Bobcats are in a much better position on offense. Texas State’s switch to an up-tempo attack last season paid dividends for the Bobcats, who improved in most statistical categories. Texas State averaged 77 plays per game last season (up from 64 in 2013), racked up 33.8 points per game (23.9 in 2013) and amassed 464.3 yards of total offense per game (326.3 in 2013). “The balance we had was great,” Franchione says. “I felt like the plan we devised in the offseason was a good one. The numbers seem to bear that out.”

With junior quarterback Tyler Jones and senior tailback Robert Lowe back in the fold, Texas State could be poised to take another leap on offense. What could hold the Bobcats back this season, however, are some unknowns, especially at wide receiver.

Senior slot receiver C.J. Best turned in a breakthrough campaign last season, but Texas State needs more from wideouts Brandon Smith, Demun Mercer and Jafus Gaines to become an elite offense in the Sun Belt. 

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

Previewing Texas State’s Defense for 2015

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.

The Bobcats experienced just as much upheaval — if not more — on this side of the ball last season as John Thompson brought a new scheme to Franchione’s team. While this season will mark Year 2 under Thompson, Texas State experienced plenty of turnover in the offseason: Thompson lost his four best defenders, including linebacker David Mayo, who was named the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year.

If the Bobcats are going to find a groove, it will likely come down to the front seven. Texas State has targeted its defensive line as an area it must strengthen to compete against the likes of Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette. With that in mind, the Bobcats will look for the emergence of sophomore Jeff Banks and junior Roosevelt Pearson as edge rushers and senior Mershad Dillon as a run stopper in the middle.

Even so, Texas State could be in line for an uphill battle on defense, especially early in the season, as Thompson tries to find the right mix of players. The Bobcats have to find someone to replace Mayo, which figures to be a difficult task when you consider that the linebacker had a monster season despite not having a consistent running mate alongside him to provide support. 

Previewing Texas State’s Specialists for 2015

A stellar campaign from kicker/punter Will Johnson notwithstanding, special teams were a mess for Texas State last season. And with Johnson out of the mix (he exhausted his eligibility), the Bobcats will head into this season with a bevy of unanswered questions when it comes to special teams. Texas State inked James Sherman before last season and added Lumi Kaba in its most recent recruiting class. At the moment, it appears that Sherman will take over punting duties, while Kaba will be the Bobcats’ placekicker. Look for this unit to be a work in progress. 

Final Analysis 

Texas State has been knocking on the door for a bowl game during the past two seasons. In fact, the Bobcats were the only 7–5 bowl-eligible team not to receive a postseason invite last season. To secure its first bowl berth in program history, Texas State will likely ask its offense to carry the torch early in the hope that its defense will flourish toward the end of the season. The Bobcats have a favorable home schedule but must face league powers Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and UL Lafayette on the road. If Texas State can sweep its home slate and steal one or two games on the road, Franchione’s team should finally bust down the bowl door.


#90 Appalachian State Mountaineers





HEAD COACH: Scott Satterfield, 11-13 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dwayne Ledford, Frank Ponce | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nate Woody

Coming off of a seven-win season, Appalachian State is now finally eligible to enjoy the full benefits of being a FBS member. That could mean a bowl bid and possible Sun Belt championship for the Mountaineers, as Scott Satterfield's team returns 10 starters on each side of the ball. Plenty of experience and a favorable home schedule should produce six wins, if not more, in 2015.

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Previewing Appalachian State’s Offense for 2015

Six games into last season, Appalachian State had one win and loads of excuses. The Mountaineers were in their first season on the FBS level, and with freshmen or sophomores filling 14 of the 22 spots in the starting lineup, there was youth everywhere. If the season had gone off the rails, it would have been easy to pinpoint why. But it didn’t. Appalachian State closed the year winning six straight, thanks in large part to an offensive renaissance built around a sturdy running game. In the final six games, the Mountaineers’ rushing average jumped by 99 yards per game.

Four of the five offensive linemen who powered that improvement return, led by senior center Jesse Chapman. The guards are Parker Collins and Colby Gossett, and right tackle Beau Nunn is also back. Davante Harris, who started the first five games a year ago, is penciled in at left tackle.

After rushing for 1,415 yards and earning a spot on the All-Sun Belt second team, running back Marcus Cox is back as well. According to coach Scott Satterfield, the junior won’t have to shoulder as much of the load, as sophomore Terrence Upshaw and freshmen Jalin Moore and Josh Boyd are ready to contribute.

Sophomore quarterback Taylor Lamb, son of longtime Furman coach and current Mercer head man Bobby Lamb, will continue to pilot the offense after breaking the freshman passing record held by Mountaineers great Armanti Edwards. His top four receiving targets from last season are all back, meaning the offense that blossomed late last season should be able to keep its momentum going.

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

Previewing Appalachian State’s Defense for 2015

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.

With 10 starters back, Appalachian State’s defense should be up for whatever the Sun Belt throws at it.

Satterfield expects senior defensive end Ronald Blair — who racked up six sacks as a junior — to be the next Mountaineer to reach the NFL. The three-year starter leads a defensive front that’s long on experience.

Junior linebacker John Law led the team in tackles last season. He’ll be surrounded by proven talents such as inside linebacker Eric Boggs and outside linebackers Devan Stringer and Kennan Gilchrist.

Senior defensive back Doug Middleton picked off a team-high four passes last year and will anchor an experienced secondary. Corner Brandon Pinckney is a new starter, but Satterfield says he has full faith in the sophomore.

Previewing Appalachian State’s Specialists for 2015

After averaging 40.7 yards per punt, junior Bentlee Critcher has a firm grip on a starting spot. Senior Zach Matics is expected to once again handle the kicking duties. Satterfield expects seniors Bobo Beathard and Simms McElfresh to join sophomore Isaiah Lewis on return duties.

Final Analysis

The transition from FCS powerhouse to Sun Belt newcomer was likely a jarring one for Mountaineers fans who fondly recall the heady days of winning national titles and authoring an all-time great upset at Michigan. But this season should provide them with a pleasant taste of their new normal.

By finishing third in the Sun Belt last season, the Mountaineers showed they could compete. With loads of experience back and plenty of confidence banked from last year’s strong finish, there’s no reason to believe this season can’t be even better.

Throw in the fact that the Mountaineers could now earn a bowl invite — they were barred from it last season — and have a schedule that features home games against league heavyweights UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State and longtime Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern, and life on the FBS level should begin to feel just right.


#87 UL Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns





HEAD COACH: Mark Hudspeth, 36-16 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jay Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Charlie Harbison, Melvin Smith

In each of Mark Hudspeth's four seasons, UL Lafayette has gone 9-4 and finished the year playing in the New Orleans Bowl. This year's Ragin' Cajuns could keep each of these streaks alive, but to do so it will need to rely on new starters at key positions, including quarterback, as well as a new defensive coaching staff.

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Previewing UL Lafayette’s Offense for 2015

Certainly the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offense wasn’t prolific a year ago. It finished 10th in the Sun Belt in passing offense, fourth in rushing offense and sixth in total offense. But it was efficient, finishing No. 1 in the league in red-zone offense. This season, with the departures of quarterback Terrance Broadway, leading receiver James Butler and bruising running back Alonza Harris, Louisiana-Lafayette will ask another player to lead the way — running back Elijah McGuire, the 2014 Sun Belt Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year.

McGuire won’t have to share the ball with Harris, and he’s expected to continue to catch passes out of the backfield after he was second on the team in receiving yards last season. He’s even going to be the punt returner. While he shared the spotlight a year ago, the Cajuns’ offense will be geared toward getting him the ball as often as possible this year.

Yet if the Cajuns are to excel offensively, others must step forward, especially at quarterback. Three players who appeared in just six games combined last season — juniors Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon and redshirt freshman Jordan Davis — will battle to replace Broadway. There is talent at wide receiver in Al Riles, Jamal Robinson and C.J. Bates. And while the offensive line is looking for two new starters, All-Sun Belt candidates Mykhael Quave and Grant Horst return. 

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

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Defense for 2015

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.

This unit will have a different look. That’s because there are some new faces on the defensive staff, led by co-defensive coordinators Charlie Harbison (outside linebackers) and Melvin Smith (defensive backs), both of whom make their way to Lafayette from Auburn. They bring along Levorn Harbin to coach the defensive line, and the trio has helped instill a different mindset and approach on that side of the football, one that showed signs of improvement in spring drills.

The defense didn’t dominate the Sun Belt stats, but it placed well in areas that mattered such as second in scoring defense and No. 1 in red-zone defense. The Cajuns allowed 405.8 yards per game, including a league-worst 263.6 passing yards, and improving those numbers has been a point of emphasis.

The Cajuns are loaded at linebacker with Dominique Tovell, Tre’maine Lightfoot and Otha Peters. The problem area is on the defensive line, where standouts Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton have moved on. Chris Prater and Miami transfer Jacoby Briscoe will be expected to step forward there. The secondary, also missing some key players from a year ago, will lean on Troy McCollum and T.J. Worthy.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Specialists for 2015

The return game will have experience, with McGuire expected to be used on punt returns and Montrel Carter back on kickoff returns. The concern from an experience standpoint is with the kicking duties. Dylan Scheurich and Stevie Artigue will battle for the placekicking job in preseason camp. At punter, Australian Steven Coutts caught the attention of coach Mark Hudspeth in spring drills, and the job appears to be his.

Final Analysis

This is a program that has thrived under Hudspeth’s leadership, and the Cajuns are expected to continue to enjoy success again this year. They have posted four consecutive 9–4 records and four straight New Orleans Bowl appearances. While competition will be strong, Lafayette is expected to contend for the Sun Belt title once again. There is concern based on inexperience at a couple of key positions, most notably quarterback and on the defensive line, but there is also a confidence among those in the program based on recent success.


#77 Georgia Southern Eagles





HEAD COACH: Willie Fritz, 9-3 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Ruse | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jack Curtis

Georgia Southern made the transition to the FCS level with ease, winning nine games and claiming the Sun Belt title with a 8-0 record. The Eagles were ineligible for the postseason last season, but that's not the case for Willie Fritz' team in 2015. The Sun Belt's top scoring offense and defense returns 10 starters, as Georgia Southern's productive triple-option attack (381.1 rushing ypg) looks to prove that 2014 was no fluke.

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Previewing Georgia Southern’s Offense for 2015

Georgia Southern threw more often and more effectively in Willie Fritz’s first season as head coach, incorporating some spread principles he brought from Sam Houston State into the more traditional triple-option the Eagles ran so effectively at the FCS level. But Fritz believes there’s even more room for the passing game to grow in 2015 while maintaining dominance in the rushing attack, which generated 381.1 yards per game.

“We led the nation in rushing, but we were subpar as far as throwing the ball,” Fritz said. “That’s a point of emphasis for us.”

Having a second year in Fritz’s system should benefit junior quarterbacks Kevin Ellison, who ran for 1,096 yards, and Favian Upshaw, who played well when Ellison was sidelined with minor injuries. Junior running back Matt Breida also returns after averaging 8.7 yards per carry.

An overhaul on the offensive line, however, raises some questions. The Eagles return a potential all-conference anchor at left guard in Darien Foreman and added UAB transfer Roscoe Byrd at right guard. But they will have to replace five seniors who made their rushing success possible. Fritz is counting on newcomers and sophomores who played backup snaps last year to be more adept at pass protection, but he acknowledges that some offensive line positions won’t be won until fall camp. 

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

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Defense for 2015

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.

Georgia Southern led the Sun Belt in scoring defense (23.4 ppg) and was third in total defense (388.1 ypg), but Fritz wants the Eagles to generate more turnovers (20 last season).

“This will be my 23rd year as a head coach, and when we’ve been plus-1 or better in turnovers, we’ve won 91 percent of our games,” Fritz said.

With 16 contributors returning from last season, the Eagles have enough depth to take another step defensively. They will, however, undoubtedly miss middle linebacker Edwin Jackson, who accounted for 100 total tackles, and four-year starter Deion Stanley at safety/nickel back.

Senior Deshawntee Gallon, who moves from a backup to starting role, and senior Antwione Williams should give the Eagles one of the league’s better linebacking corps. They’ll work behind a defensive line that returns nine contributors and its two most productive players in end Bernard Dawson and nose tackle Jay Ellison.

Georgia Southern gave up 234.4 passing yards per game last year and will need to play better on the back end, which is why Fritz signed a slew of defensive backs.

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Specialists for 2015

In an otherwise great year, this was a sore spot. Primary kicker Alex Hanks missed seven extra points and made just one of his last four field goals after starting 9-of-10. If his accuracy doesn’t improve, the Eagles may look to junior Younghoe Koo, who made five field goals in 2013 but none last season. There’s also room for improvement in the punting game. 

Final Analysis

Georgia Southern’s first year as an FBS member could hardly have gone better, as the Eagles went 8–0 in the Sun Belt and came within a couple plays of knocking off NC State and Georgia Tech. Don’t count on the Eagles getting complacent either, as NCAA rules governing FCS-to-FBS transitions prevented them from playing in a bowl game.

“We deserved a chance to go,” Foreman says. “We felt like it wasn’t fair, but that’s a big motivation for us this offseason.” Georgia Southern should only get more potent as Fritz molds and recruits players who fit his offense. If the defense plays at the same level or improves, the Eagles could easily repeat as conference champs. 


#76 Arkansas State Red Wolves





HEAD COACH: Blake Anderson, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Walt Bell, Glen Elarbee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Joe Cauthen

Blake Anderson maintained Arkansas State's streak of winning seasons and bowl berths in his first year at the helm. The Red Wolves went 7-6 under their rookie head coach, stretching both their string of winning seasons and bowl appearances (all of them to the GoDaddy Bowl) to four. Anderson has his sights set even higher in 2015, as Arkansas State enters the season the favorites in the Sun Belt on the strength of an offense that returns nine starters.

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Previewing Arkansas State’s Offense for 2015

Senior quarterback Fredi Knighten and eight other starters return after setting ASU records for points and total offense in their first season in Blake Anderson’s fast-paced system. Speed makes Knighten dangerous on the move, and he was an accurate passer in his first year as a starter, completing 62 percent of his attempts and accounting for 4,000-plus yards of total offense.

Injuries cost senior running back Michael Gordon two games last season, yet he finished with 1,100 yards while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Sophomore Johnston White was dependable in a backup role, but the Red Wolves missed Gordon’s big-play ability when he was out. A freshman will have an opportunity to play his way into the rotation.

The top six receivers return, led by Tres Houston, J.D. McKissic and Dijon Paschal. One of the Sun Belt’s most dynamic players, McKissic was hampered by injuries last fall after catching 185 passes in his first two seasons. Houston and Paschal are tall targets on the perimeter, while 6'5" tight end Darion Griswold provides versatility at his position.

The Red Wolves spent spring practice shuffling their offensive line, especially at the interior positions. ASU didn’t run the ball effectively enough in short-yardage or goal-line situations to suit Anderson, who stressed a more physical approach in the spring.

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

Previewing Arkansas State’s Defense for 2015

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.

ASU’s defensive line deficiencies were exposed in the second half of the season. Opponents scored 28 rushing touchdowns over the final seven games, including seven by Toledo in the GoDaddy Bowl, while averaging 283 rushing yards during that span. The Red Wolves are counting on transfers Robert Mondie, Waylon Roberson and Jake Swalley to help sophomore Chuks Ota shore up the interior line. Mondie joined his brother Devin, a starting offensive lineman, at ASU when UAB dropped football. Roberson and Swalley are junior college transfers who also moved up the depth chart quickly in the spring. ASU has proven talent at end with senior Chris Stone and sophomore Ja’Von Rolland-Jones, who combined for 15.5 sacks last season.

Xavier Woodson, the Red Wolves’ second-leading tackler last year with 95, moves into a leadership role at linebacker with the departure of All-Sun Belt linebacker Qushaun Lee.

While the secondary suffered significant losses, the Red Wolves return two safeties (Chris Humes and Charleston Girley) who were starters before suffering injuries early last season. Rocky Hayes could be among the league’s best cornerbacks, and junior college transfers Cody Brown and Allen Sentimore will contribute at safety.

Previewing Arkansas State’s Specialists for 2015

Extra points and field goals were an adventure for the Red Wolves, who missed eight PATs and made only 61 percent of their field-goal attempts. Luke Ferguson (8-of-15 last season) and several newcomers will compete for the job in the fall. Ferguson was more consistent as a punter, averaging 41 yards while placing 22 punts inside the 20-yard line. Blaise Taylor took over on punt returns as a true freshman, averaging 8.1 yards, and is one of several possibilities on kickoff returns.

Final Analysis 

The Red Wolves’ depth chart started to show the effects of four coaching changes in four seasons last fall. ASU was critically thin in key areas, starting with the defensive line, before a rash of season-ending injuries made matters worse. Still, there was enough talent on hand to pull out seven victories and make a fourth straight bowl trip. Anderson’s second season starts with a difficult non-conference schedule, but ASU won’t face defending Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern in conference play. While the Red Wolves should put up plenty of points, they will have to improve defensively to maximize their potential.