Tag Archives: Appalachian State Mountaineers

25 Predictions for the 2017 College Football Season: 25 Through 21

Army broke a 15 year drought against Navy. What will they do for an encore in 2017? (Rob Carr/Getty Images North America)

25 Predictions for the 2017 College Football Season: 25 Through 21

The 2017 College Football season is right around the corner and that means it is prediction season. We will do something different than last year. In 2016, we made 5 predictions for each conference for a total of 55 predictions. The final total was 30.5 predictions correct for 55.5% hit rate.

This year we will make a total of 25 predictions with five each week starting with this article. The predictions will range from conference winners to team win totals or bowl games to individual player performances. We will start with the mid-major conferences (predictions 25-16) before ending with the predictions for the Power 5 conferences (predictions 15-1).

Below is the schedule for the 25 predictions.

Predictions 25-21: July 26 (Sun Belt, C-USA, Independents)

Predictions 20-16: August 2 (MAC, MWC, AAC)

Predictions 15-11: August 9 (Big 12, Pac-12)

Predictions 10-6: August 16 (Pac-12, ACC, SEC)

Predictions 5-1: August 23 (SEC, Big 10)

Predictions 25 Through 21

25. Appalachian State will win the Sun Belt – We start with  a team that has done very well since moving up from FCS to FBS. The Mountaineers went 4-8 in 2013 (their final FCS season), however, their three seasons in the FBS have resulted in winning records. 2014 saw them go 7-5, they went 11-2 in 2015, and went 10-3 in 2016. App State tied for the Sun Belt title last year with Arkansas State after both teams went 7-1 in conference.

This year, the Mountaineers return 7 starters on both offense (scored 29.2 points per game) and defense (allowed 17.8 points per game). The real key is their schedule: no Arkansas State, no Troy, and no South Alabama. Their biggest test is at home versus Louisiana in the final week of season.

24. (Sun Belt) New Mexico State’s bowl drought will extend to 57 years – We made the same prediction last year and sure enough the Aggies did not disappoint going 3-9. There are some positives with 7 starters back on offense and 9 back on defense, which makes them the 12th most experienced team in the FBS.

The real reason for putting this prediction here is the brutal schedule New Mexico State faces. In the non-conference slate, the Aggies play Arizona State, New Mexico, and Arkansas on the road and also take on UTEP at home. In the Sun Belt, NMSU has App State (away), Georgia Southern (away), Arkansas State (home), Louisiana (away), and South Alabama (home). If the Aggies manage to get to 6 wins, it will be a well deserved bowl appearance.

23. (C-USA) The four teams wearing green will not win 25 games combined – Here we have an out of the box prediction. The four teams that wear green are Marshall, Charlotte, North Texas, and UAB. UAB is back to playing football after a 2 year hiatus. The other three teams went a combined 12-25. So this is a slam dunk, right? Not so fast, though we are confident the four teams will not average over 6 wins per team.

Marshall went 3-9 last year in their first losing season since 2010 when Doc Holliday was in his first season. The Herd are one of the favorites in the C-USA East division and could manage hit 10 wins in 2017. Charlotte is an intriguing team because they are in their third full season of FBS football. They went 2-10 and 4-8 the first two years while returning 6 starters on both offense and defense. A similar pattern of progression might move them close to the 6 win mark, but that will take a big improvement on defense (allowed 34.6 points and 453 yards per game).

Over in the West division we have North Texas and UAB. North Texas went 5-8 last year and, thanks to an oversupply of bowl games, they were able to play a 13th game despite being 5-7. 2016 was the first year of Seth Littrell and year two has 6 starters back on offense and defense. The Mean Green could contend for a bowl game if they can pull a few in-conference upsets.

For UAB, they have the uphill battle of assembling a competitive team. As one would expect, they have very few starters still around with only 4 returning and all of them on defense. Their most winnable games will be versus Alabama A&M, Ball State, and Coastal Carolina. Beyond that, with no competitive games in three years, it is tough to envision them getting close to 6 wins.

We think the four teams mentioned about will end up with roughly 20 wins. With a few upsets, or a big surprise from a team not named Marshall, all four teams they might come close to 25 wins,

22. (C-USA) Both FAU and FIU will make a bowl game – The two Florida schools in C-USA welcome new coaches though both men have previous head coaching experience. Lane Kiffin is now leading Florida Atlantic while Florida International welcomes Butch Davis to the helm. What both teams have going for them is a bevy of returning starters.

FAU has 9 starters back on offense and 8 back on defense. Despite returning their 2016 starting quarterback, the Owls have former Florida State player De’Andre Johnson. He should do well in the Kendal Briles system as should the rest of the offense. Defense is a bit more of question mark as they return 8 starters off a squad that allowed 39.8 points and 514 yards per game. Having a lot of starters back on a porous defense is not always a good thing. If they can improve 10 points and 100 yards per game then they have a decent chance of making a bowl game assuming the offense takes a big step forward in the new system.

FIU has 7 starters back on offense and 8 on defense. All the skill players return on offense except for the #2 receiver, but there is more than enough depth to replace him. The defense has 8 starters back after allowing 34.8 points and 434 yards per game (5 starters back). They should improve on those numbers even with a new defensive coordinator.

Both squads will probably need an upset to reach 6 wins, but both are more than capable of doing so. C-USA East looks very competitive, which means the potential for both teams to exceed (or miss) the expectations.

21. (Independent) Army will reach a second straight bowl game – Last year we liked Army to beat Navy and win at least 6 games. They did both as they defeated Navy for the first time in 15 years while finishing 8-5 with a bowl win over North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

The schedule sets up pretty well again for Army to reach a second straight bowl. The open with Fordham and Buffalo before back-to-back road games at Ohio State and Tulane. Their next four games are versus UTEP, Rice, Eastern Michigan, and Temple with only the Rice contest taking place on the road. The first 8 games will take place without a bye week.

The final four games will be completed over 6 weeks starting with a road game at Air Force on November 4. Duke goes to West Point the following week before another road game at North Texas. The final game is, of course, the annual title versus Navy on December.

What really helps Army this year is the plethora of returning starters with 9 on offense and 7 on defense. The offense put up 29.9 points and 414 yards per game with the points being the most since 1996. The defense allowed 19.8 points and 291 yards per game and part of that was due to the easier schedule. However, the confidence should be high on both sides of the ball in their fourth year under Jeff Monken.

With the combination of experience and a manageable schedule, Army looks poised to reach a second straight bowl game. That would mark only the second time in school history that Army reached back-to-back bowl games (1984-85).

That concludes the first five predictions for the 2017 college football season. Check back next week for predictions 20-16.

Under The Radar Games For College Football Week 11

Despite three straight losses in SEC play, Tennessee is still alive in the SEC East division. Their opponent in week 11, Kentucky, is also still alive to win the SEC East. (Tyler Lecka/Getty Images North America)
Despite three straight losses in SEC play, Tennessee is still alive in the SEC East division. Their opponent in week 11, Kentucky, is also still alive to win the SEC East. (Tyler Lecka/Getty Images North America)

Under The Radar Games For College Football Week 11

We are closing in on the end of the season with about a month until we find out the four teams that will comprise the College Football Playoff. Week 11 is not the best week for games with the best ones being #25 Baylor at #9 Oklahoma, #11 West Virginia at Texas, Pittsburgh at #3 Clemson, #19 LSU at Arkansas, Minnesota at #21 Nebraska, and USC at #4 Washington.

We will focus on games that may not appear to offer much at first glance. These games might not have a national impact, but they could affect a team’s bowl chances or a conference title race. Note that these games are listed in order of when they will be played and all times listed are Eastern.

1. Eastern Michigan at Ball State (11/8 at 7 PM) – Some Tuesday MACtion kicks off the week and this column. This game is all about bowl implications with both teams still looking for 6 wins.

Eastern Michigan is sitting at 5-4 and have lost 3 of their last 4 games after starting a strong 4-1. The Eagles will want to win this game because their next two are against the suddenly hot Northern Illinois Huskies and Central Michigan. Both of those games are at home, but the pressure will build the longer the season goes. In addition, both of those teams are still alive for a bowl berth.

Ball State is currently 4-5 and their road (literally) is just as tough. After this game they face both Toledo and Miami (OH) on the road. Miami (OH) is still alive for a bowl berth at 4-6 while Toledo has a chance at winning the MAC West. This game is big for both schools in terms of a bowl bid.

2. Kentucky at Tennessee (11/12 at 12 PM) – The SEC East is still wide open, which is why this game is crucial. Kentucky still has a glimmer of hope, but needs a lot to go their way to win this division. They own losses to Florida and Georgia, but a win here would put them at 5-3 in conference, in a bowl game, and two Florida SEC losses from a conference title game. Imagine that.

Tennessee’s path is clearer and they just need Florida to lose once in SEC play while the Vols need to win out. The Vols end the season with Missouri (home) and Vanderbilt (away) with the latter being the tougher of the two.

For as crazy as the SEC East has been this year, are there still a few twists left in the plot?

3. Cincinnati at Central Florida (11/12 at 12 PM) – Bowl hopes are on the line here and both teams are facing a must win. Cincinnati is 4-5 with losses in 4 of their last 5 games while their final two games are against good AAC West foes in Memphis (home) and Tulsa (away).

Central Florida, against the backdrop of a horrendous 0-12 season in 2015, sit just one win away from a bowl. They are 5-4, but their final two games are just as difficult as Cincinnati’s. They face Tulsa (home) and AAC East contender South Florida (away).

This game is big, but there is the possibility Cincinnati wins this game and both teams lose their final 2 games to finish 5-7. That would be a disaster for the American Athletic Conference.

 4. Tulsa at Navy (11/12 at 12 PM) – There is not much on the line here except the outright lead in the AAC West. Both teams have already hit the six win mark with Tulsa at 7-2 and Navy at 6-2. Both teams control their destiny in this division with identical records of 4-1 and Navy could hold a commanding lead with a win over Tulsa.

Outside of getting blasted by Ohio State, Tulsa has played well in every game. They lost by a touchdown to Houston, but also went to overtime against Fresno State and SMU. Since that 38-31 loss at Houston, Tulsa has won their last three games by an average of 24.3 points per game. That loss to Houston also means they need to win out against Central Florida and Cincinnati or get another loss from Houston in addition to two more losses by Navy.

Navy is coming off their 28-27 win against Notre Dame and they have already beaten Houston this year. Navy needs a win this week and one win in their final two AAC games against East Carolina and SMU to clinch the AAC West Division.  Both of those games will be on the road, which may be a little cause for concern because that is where they had their two losses this season (at Air Force and at South Florida).

This could be a high scoring affair as both teams have been putting up points. Then again, Navy could just do what they did against Notre Dame and allow only 2 possessions for Tulsa in the final 30 minutes. This should be a good game.

5. North Carolina State at Syracuse (11/12 at 12:30 PM) – Here are two 4-5 teams that will still need quite a lot to go their way if they win. A win will push one team to 5-5 and the other 4-6, but both teams’ final two games will be hard to win.

NC State started 4-1 this year, but have lost four in a row including three games by a touchdown or less (Clemson, Boston College, and Florida State). They end with Miami (FL) at home and North Carolina away. If they can get enough offense, they may be able to sneak into an upset, but they must beat Syracuse first.

For Syracuse, they have had an up and down season. The offense has looked good at times, though last week against Clemson was terrible. The defense has not been great, but has shown some improvement at times. Both sides will need to be in sync with games against Florida State (home) and Pittsburgh (away) to end the season.

6. UT-San Antonio at Louisiana Tech (11/12 at 3:30 PM) – The C-USA West Division will be on the line here. UTSA is 5-4 overall and 4-2 in C-USA while Louisiana Tech is 7-3 overall and 5-1 in C-USA.

UTSA is playing really well the last five games with a 4-1 record and their lone loss was a 52-49 to UTEP that went to five overtimes. Their win against Middle Tennessee last week was impressive as they won by 20 points on the road and considering UTSA has struggled away from home this year. A win here puts them in their first bowl game in their short history and in first place of the C-USA West.

Louisiana Tech has been on fire the last six weeks, which have all been wins. Five of those games have been blowouts and the close game of those was a 55-52 win over Western Kentucky. Even their 1-3 start is deceiving because they lost 21-20 at Arkansas, demolished FCS South Carolina State, lost 59-45 at Texas Tech, and lost 38-34 at Middle Tennessee. A win here does not completely clinch the C-USA West because Southern Miss has only 2 losses in conference play.

7. Appalachian State at Troy (11/12 at 3:30 PM) – What a game we have here in the Fun Belt. 7-2 Appalachian State (5-0 in SBC) and 7-1 Troy (4-0 in SBC) meet in one of the biggest conference games of the year.

Appalachian State has a strong defense and they will be put to the test against Troy’s offense that averages 39.4 points per game and have scored at least 31 points in six of their eight games (6-0 in those games). Appalachian State’s defense has given up 19.6 points per game and just 8.4 points per game in Sun Belt games.

A win for Appalachian State would pretty much put them in position to win the Sun Belt or at worst tie for the title. Their final two games are against UL-Monroe (home) and New Mexico State (away).

Troy’s final four games are daunting. They face Appalachian State, fellow Sun Belt undefeated Arkansas State (home), Texas State (away), and Georgia Southern (away). Keep an eye on this game to see which side can gain the upper hand.

8. South Florida at Memphis (11/12 at 7 PM) – The third AAC game to make an appearance this week and this one also has possible conference title game implications. South Florida is 7-2 overall while Memphis is 6-3 overall.

South Florida, which already holds a loss to Temple, is 4-1 in the AAC East and needs Temple (5-1 in the AAC) to lose another game while winning out to win the AAC East. They face SMU (away) and Central Florida (home) in their final two games so their last three games in total will not be easy wins.

Memphis is 3-2 in the AAC and are a long shot to win the AAC West division having lost to both Navy and Tulsa already this year. Still, this is a solid team that could ruin South Florida’s AAC hopes if they are at their best. Memphis also faces Cincinnati (away) and Houston (home) to end the year so this could be a chance to build momentum heading into the bowl season.

Check back next week for the week 12 edition of Under The Radar Games. In addition, you can find the previous columns below.

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8

Week 9

Week 10

Under The Radar Games For College Football Week 9

Brett Rypien (#14 above) and the Boise State Broncos have a big clash against the Wyoming Cowboys in Week 9. The winner of this game will be in control of the Mountain West's Mountain Division. (Loren Orr/Getty Images North America)
Brett Rypien (#14 above) and the Boise State Broncos have a big clash against the Wyoming Cowboys in Week 9. The winner of this game will be in control of the Mountain West’s Mountain Division. (Loren Orr/Getty Images North America)

Under The Radar Games For College Football Week 9

We are entering the final weekend in October and there are some huge games on the horizon this week and beyond. For week nine the big games are #10 West Virginia at Oklahoma State, #14 Florida at Georgia, #4 Washington at #17 Utah, #7 Nebraska at #11 Wisconsin, and #3 Clemson at #12 Florida State.

We will focus on games that may not appear to offer much at first glance. These games might not have a national impact, but they could affect a team’s bowl chances or a conference title race. Note that these games are listed in order of when they will be played and all times listed are Eastern.

1. Appalachian State at Georgia Southern (10/27 at 7:30 PM) –  This is a massive game for both teams as well as the Sun Belt title picture. Appalachian State sits at 5-2 overall and 3-0 in conference while Georgia Southern is 4-3 overall, but 3-1 in the Sun Belt.

Georgia Southern started the year 3-0 before three straight losses including a 27-26 loss to Arkansas State on the road. They rebounded to defeat New Mexico State last week 22-19 in what was their fourth straight road game.

Appalachian State had that excellent defensive game versus Tennessee to start the season and have only had one stumble and one hiccup since then. They were crushed at home by Miami (FL) 45-10 and played a thrilling 45-38  game at Akron, which they won. Their defense will have a test against the Georgia Southern triple option.

Both teams still have to face fellow Sun Belt contender Troy later this year. Appalachian State travels to play them on 11/12 while Georgia Southern faces them at home on 12/3. This game could make the Appalachian State-Troy game the Sun Belt decider if Georgia Southern cannot get the win.

2. Connecticut at East Carolina (10/29 at 12 PM) – This game will probably determine which team finishes at the bottom of the AAC East. Currently, Connecticut is at 1-4 in AAC play and East Carolina is 0-3.

Connecticut has been a tough customer this year in almost every game. However, they only have a 3-5 record to show for it with five of their games determined 8 points or less (2-3 record). East Carolina has not been so tough with just a 2-5 record overall and five straight losses. Only the loss at South Carolina (20-15) has been less than a touchdown with the other four losses all by 12 points or more.

This game also has potential bowl implications. A win for Connecticut would still keep their hopes alive with three difficult, but winnable games to end the season. A win for East Carolina would keep their bowl hopes alive, but still leave them a lot of work to do with Tulsa, SMU, Navy, and Temple to end the season. A loss for either team leaves zero margin for error the rest of the season.

3. Duke at Georgia Tech (10/29 at 12 PM) – Neither of these two squads will win the ACC Coastal, but they both have legitimate hopes for reaching a bowl game. And both teams need to win this game when looking at their final four games.

Let’s start with Duke’s final five games: Georgia Tech (away), Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh (away), and Miami (FL) (away). For Georgia Tech it is Duke, North Carolina (away), Virginia Tech (away), Virginia, and Georgia (away).

With Duke currently at 3-4, this win would put them at .500 and the Blue Devils would need two wins. Given their last four games, they would have to be two upsets, which are possible with this team, but would also be a very tall order. Georgia Tech would move to 5-3 with a win and they would need one win to reach a bowl game with Virginia their best chance to win.

4. Kentucky at Missouri (10/29 at 12 PM) – Here is a contest that could elicit quite a bit of offense. Missouri’s decent start to the season has completely dissipated with the defense giving up 44.3 points and 580 yards per game over their last three games. Kentucky’s offense put up 554 yards on Mississippi State in their 40-38 win last week.

Kentucky is in much better shape to make a bowl game with their 4-3 record. After Missouri, they will face Georgia, Tennessee (away), FCS Austin Peay, and Louisville (away). A win here and they are very likely to hit 6 wins this year at minimum. Missouri needs a lot of help sitting at 2-5, but a win here helps somewhat. They finish with South Carolina (away), Vanderbilt, Tennessee (away), and Arkansas.

5. Army at Wake Forest (10/29 at 3:30 PM) – No conference implications here, but there are bowl implications. Army started 2016 quite well going 3-0 before losing back-to-back games on the road to Buffalo and Duke by a combined 10 points. They crushed Lafayette before last week’s blowout loss to North Texas at home 35-18. At 4-3 there are plenty of chances let for this team to get to 6 or 7 wins and this could be a game they can steal.

Wake Forest has been a surprise team this year and are currently at 5-2. Their losses have been to North Carolina State and Florida State on the road, but this defense has been good. Their hands will be full as their defense allows 119.3 rushing yards per game and will face Army’s top ranked rushing attack that averages 366.8 yards per game.

Army finishes the season with the trio of Air Force, Notre Dame, and Morgan State at home before the finale against Navy. If Army can steal a win here, they will be in solid shape. On the flip side, a win here for Wake Forest will put them in their first bowl game since 2011 when they lost the Music City Bowl to Mississippi State 23-17.

6. SMU at Tulane (10/29 at 4 PM) – Here is another potential basement battle (in the AAC West), but both teams still have a shot at making a bowl game despite identical 3-4 records.

SMU is coming off their blowout win at home over #11 Houston 38-16 and a close loss the week before on the road at Tulsa (43-40). SMU will be facing Memphis, East Carolina (away), South Florida, and Navy to end the season so a win against Tulane would still require an upset or two in order to become bowl eligible.

Tulane has lost two in a row against Memphis (24-14 at home) and Tulsa last week (50-27). Their final four games are Central Florida (away), Houston (away), Temple, and Connecticut (away). A win here and they would have a decent chance of beating both Central Florida and Connecticut to become bowl eligible, but those are both away games.

7. Boise State at Wyoming (10/29 at 7 PM) – The Mountain West’s Mountain division title could be on the line here. Both Boise State and Wyoming sit at 3-0 in conference play though a win could be far more important for the Broncos.

Boise State is 7-0 overall, but their last two games have not been easy. Two weeks ago they led Colorado State 28-3 with 5 minutes left in the game and held on for a 28-23 win. Last week’s game against BYU saw the Broncos commit 5 turnovers including two interceptions returned for touchdowns, but a fourth quarter rally and strong defense in the final 15 minutes saw them eke out a 28-27 win.

Wyoming is currently 5-2 overall and there is a distinct pattern to their wins: they score a lot of points. In each of their 5 victories they have put up at least 35 points while in their two losses they have averaged just 20.5 points. They may have to score 35 or more points if they want to win this game and take control of the Mountain Division.

A win here for Boise State would likely wrap up the division for them with four games to play. The Broncos face San José State, Hawaii (away), UNLV, and Air Force (away) in the final four games and it is difficult to see them losing more than one game, if they even lose any at all. The Broncos can still overcome a loss but would need help from Wyoming’s final four opponents: Utah State, UNLV (away), San Diego State, and New Mexico (away). That is possible, but the Broncos have their sights set on a possible big bowl game and they can only do that by winning out.

8. Middle Tennessee at Florida International (7 PM) – Both of these squads are part of the wide open C-USA East division race. Middle Tennessee stepped out of conference play to defeat the SEC East’s Missouri Tigers. Florida International lost their first conference game last week to Louisiana Tech at home 44-24.

Middle Tennessee looks like the better team on paper, but that is not where games are played. Their two losses are to Vanderbilt on the road (47-24) and Western Kentucky at home in double overtime (44-43). That loss to WKU has already put them a bit behind the Hilltoppers and MTSU still has to play UT-San Antonio, Marshall (away), Charlotte (away), and Florida Atlantic. The UTSA game is clearly the most difficult, but they cannot overlook their road games.

FIU started 0-4 before winning three straight against Florida Atlantic, UTEP, and Charlotte. As previously mentioned, they lost to Louisiana Tech and the competition becomes harder with MTSU this week followed by Western Kentucky (away), Marshall, and Old Dominion (away) to end the season. FIU still has a chance to win this division, but it will not be easy and they must win this game.

Check back next week for the week ten edition of Under The Radar Games. In addition, you can find the previous columns below.

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8

Under The Radar Games For College Football Week 4

P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan had a great start to the 2016 season. Will it continue in week four against Georgia Southern? ( Michael Hickey/Getty Images North America)
P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan had a great start to the 2016 season. Will it continue in week four against Georgia Southern? ( Michael Hickey/Getty Images North America)

Under The Radar Games For College Football Week 4

Week four of the college football season will see some non-conference games drop off and big conference tilts become the focus. The big games this week are #12 Georgia at #23 Ole Miss, #11 Wisconsin at #8 Michigan State, #19 Florida at #14 Tennessee, Oklahoma State at #16 Baylor, and #17 Arkansas at #10 Texas A&M.

We like to focus on the games off the national radar keeping an eye on both this week and possibly down the road with their impact on the season. Let’s take a look at some of the under the radar games for week four. Note, these games are listed in order of when they will be played.

1. Central Michigan at Virginia (9/24 at 12:30 PM EST) – Normally there is not much to a 3-0 versus 0-3 matchup, but this would be another big win for Central Michigan and the MAC if it happens. The MAC already owns wins over two Big 12 opponents (CMU over Oklahoma State and Ohio over Kansas) as well as two wins over Big 10 opponents (Western Michigan over both Northwestern and Illinois). A fifth win over a Power 5 opponent would be great for the MAC. The Chips are 3-0 thanks to wins over Presbyterian, Oklahoma State, and UNLV.

Virginia is 0-3 with losses to Richmond at home along with Oregon and Connecticut on the road. This is their last game before opening ACC play in October and the last eight games do not offer many apparent wins. Can Central Michigan keep their great start going against another power five team?

2. Syracuse at Connecticut (9/24 at 1 PM EST) – Is this game getting confused for the hardwood? Nope, but this matchup would be great to see on an annual basis in basketball. The Orange were on this list last week to see how they would handle South Florida after getting trounced 62-28 against Louisville. The answer: Great for 15 minutes, terrible that last 45. Syracuse led 17-0 after the first quarter and lost 45-20.

Connecticut likes to keep their games close (no game decided by more than 4 points), but are still 2-1 on the year. This test will be interesting because the Syracuse offense has shown explosiveness averaging over 500 yards per game. Unfortunately, the defense has nearly yielded that same amount (481 per contest thus far). The Huskies’ defense gives up 355 yards a game while the offense puts up 310.3 yards per game. Both teams need this win if they want to have a hope of making a bowl game this season.

3. Appalachian State at Akron (9/24 at 3:30 PM EST) – Appalachian State (1-2) started with that great defensive effort against Tennessee in the 20-13 overtime loss, but were blitzed last week in a 45-10 loss at home to Miami (FL). Akron is 2-1, but what really put them on this list was their 65-38 win over Marshall last week. The Zips trailed 21-7 after 15 minutes, but a 34 point outburst by the offense in the second quarter made it 41-21 at half.

Prior to the 2015 season, Akron had not been competitive in the MAC since their 2005 Championship winning year. This game, against what is expected to be a solid defense, is a great test going into conference schedule. For Appalachian State, this game is a chance to get their confidence back and possibly prepare for some of the passing offenses they will see in the Sun Belt.

4. Wake Forest at Indiana (9/24 at 3:30 PM EST) – How many people had these two teams coming into this contest undefeated? Wake Forest is 3-0 and they have played solid defense giving up just 12.7 points per game. Indiana is 2-0 and they too appear to have gotten better on defense (16.5 points per game). Not many will probably think much of this undefeated matchup given the teams, but there are implications.

Let’s look at what a win would mean for each team. Wake Forest would be 4-0 with games left against Army, Virginia, and Boston College all at home. A win for Indiana would make them 3-0 with games against Northwestern (away), Maryland (home), Rutgers (away), and Purdue (home). Will Wake Forest be able to score enough points and hold Indiana’s offense in check?

5. Colorado at Oregon (9/24 at 5:30 PM EST) – Colorado opened the season with two blowout wins against Colorado State and Idaho State. They had an amazing start to their game at Michigan taking a 21-7 lead after the opening quarter. The Buffaloes did take a 28-24 lead very early in the third quarter on Sefo Liufau’s 70 yard pass to Shay Fields, but it was all Michigan after that in the 45-28 loss.

Oregon started with two wins against UC Davis and Virginia at home before a road contest against Nebraska. They lost 35-32 despite playing without Royce Freeman for most of the contest and going 1 of 5 on their two point conversion attempts. The defense has looked suspect in the first three weeks of the season as well.

If Colorado has Sefo Liufau for this game and Oregon is missing Royce Freeman it could be a close game. If the reverse is true, then this may not be a game to keep an eye. As of this writing, Liufau will be a game-time decision while Freeman’s participation is up in the air.

6. Georgia Southern at Western Michigan (9/24 at 7 PM EST) – Two top mid-major teams in 2016 collide here with both teams at 3-0. Georgia Southern has a perfect record on the heels of their defense, which has allowed only 10 points per game this season. They needed a late field goal block to defeat Louisiana-Monroe to get the win.

Western Michigan is undefeated with two victories over Big 10 opponents Northwestern and Illinois on the road. They did not have much trouble with the Illini as they went out to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and cruised from there.

This will be a fun game to watch two really good mid-major teams. Western Michigan is a longshot to make one of the big bowl games, but they need to win all of their games to even be considered.

Check back next week for the week five edition of Under The Radar Games. In addition, you can find the previous columns below.

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Five Predictions For The Sun Belt Conference In 2016

Marcus Cox leads a powerful Appalachian State offense. How are the Mountaineers predicted to do in 2016? (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)
Marcus Cox leads a powerful Appalachian State offense. How are the Mountaineers predicted to do in 2016? (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)

Five Predictions For The Sun Belt Conference In 2016

The 2016 College Football season is right around the corner and that means prediction time. Below are five predictions for the Sun Belt Conference for the 2016 season. Some predictions will be right, some predictions will be wrong, and some will be spectacularly awful by the end of the season.

There are no changes to the teams in 2016 as all eleven teams will be the same from 2015. Those 11 teams are Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Idaho, Louisiana Lafayette, Louisiana Monroe, New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State, and Troy.

Here are five predictions for the Sun Belt Conference in 2016:

1. Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida will lead the Sun Belt in rushing – This is going out on a bit of a limb as there are some very good running backs in the Sun Belt. Breida was the #2 rusher in the SBC last year (#10 in the FBS) with 1,608 yards. He still has to contend with the Larry Rose III of New Mexico State who was top rusher in the SBC as well as #8 in the FBS with 1,651 yards. Outside of Breida and Rose, Marcus Cox of Appalachian State (1,423 yards) and Elijah McGuire of Louisiana Lafayette (1,058 yards) are capable of leading the conference in rushing. Breida and Georgia Southern are switching coaches, but the offensive scheme is staying the same with the triple option. This will be a fun race to watch as to who will end up with the most rushing yards in the Sun Belt for 2016.

2. Arkansas State or Appalachian State will win the Conference – Alright, this is not going out on a limb at all. When looking at this conference, it is hard to envision that one of these teams will not capture the crown. Arkansas State loses the duo of quarterback Fredi Knighten and running back Michael Gordon but Pittsburgh graduate transfer Chad Voytik comes in to give the Red Wolves a very good replacement. Overall, Arkansas State has 13 starters back with six on offense and seven on defense.

For Appalachian State, they went 11-2 last year and return 15 total starters with 6 on offense and 9 on defense. They have Cox at running back returning (see above) as well as quarterback Tyler Lamb, who threw for 2,387 yards with 31 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. The defense gave up only 19.1 points and 314 yards per contest in 2015 and may approach those numbers again this year.

There is also the convenient scheduling quirk that Arkansas State and Appalachian State do not face each other in 2016. The other logical Sun Belt contender is Georgia Southern, but they have to face both Arkansas State (away) and App State (home).

3. Texas State will not win more than 3 games in 2016 –  The Bobcats look to have a rough 2016 season ahead of them. They have a new head coach in Everett Withers after five seasons of Dennis Franchione (2011 through 2015). Franchione led the Bobcats to a 26-34 record as they went from the FCS in 2011 to full time FBS members. It was a respectable job done by him, but both sides of the ball regressed in 2015 and he resigned after the season. For 2016, Texas State has 10 total starters returning with four on offense (26.9 points and 414 yards per game) and six on defense (39.2 points and 522 yards per game allowed). Their non-conference schedule has what appears to be just one winnable game against FCS Incarnate Word while also facing Ohio (away), Arkansas (away), and Houston. They do face fellow SBC dwellers Louisiana Monroe, New Mexico State, and Georgia State, but all three of those games are on the road.

4. New Mexico State’s bowl drought will extend to 56 years – This seems like a no-brainer, but at least one person thinks otherwise. The Aggies do have some talent like the aforementioned Larry Rose and also add in the very talented Tyler Matthews (was previously at TCU and Southern Miss). The defense will be coached by former Boston College Head Coach Frank Spaziani, but he has a lot of work to do. The 2015 defense gave up 45 points and 522 yards per game with 8 starters back. Now seven return in 2016 and it is not always a good thing to have that many back from a defense that poor. Yes, Spaziani will make strides, but to get a group like this to be competitive enough off the 2015 season is asking a lot.

New Mexico State also has a tough schedule in 2016 to reach a bowl game. They face UTEP (away), New Mexico, Kentucky (away), and Texas A&M (away). In conference, the Aggies will face Louisiana Lafayette, Georgia Southern, Arkansas State (away) and Appalachian State. Their winnable games are against Idaho, Texas State, and perhaps South Alabama. It is difficult to foresee both sides of the ball improving enough to get to 6 wins in 2016, especially on defense.

5. Idaho will make a bowl game – This is more of a sentimental/hope it happens prediction. Idaho is slated to leave the FBS after the 2017 season and join the Big Sky Conference of the FCS in 2018. That leaves Idaho two last chances to make their third bowl game in school history after playing in the Humanitarian Bowl twice in 1998 and 2009 (won both games). There are legitimate reasons to think Idaho can make a bowl game starting with the offense. Under Paul Petrino, Idaho has improved their points and yardage output per game each year with 2015 at 30.3 points and 428 yards per game. Quarterback Matt Linehan (2,972 yards on 63.1% completions with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions) will have three of his top four receivers back and four of the offensive linemen return as well. The offense will continue to move along.

The real issue is on defense for Idaho as their best season performance under Petrino was in 2014 when they surrendered 37.3 points and 463 yards per game. Those numbers only give opposing offenses more confidence. There are six starters back from 2015, but that is not always a good thing when they perform as poorly as they did last year. They are under the second year of Defensive Coordinator Mike Breske, which may explain some of the drop from 2014.

Idaho does have a solid chance to reach the six win plateau. The open with Montana State, Washington (away), Washington State (away), and UNLV (away). Their conference foes consist of winnable games versus Louisiana Monroe (away), New Mexico State, Texas State, (away) South Alabama, and Georgia State. They also face Troy, App State (away), and Louisiana Lafayette (away) in games that appear to be likely losses, but an upset could happen (that is why they play the games, right?). If Idaho can beat Montana State and UNLV out of conference, they should have a good chance at reaching 6-6 with their conference schedule.

The Prediction Schedule

With the Sun Belt Predictions above, there are now predictions for two conferences in the books. Below are the predictions completed and what is next.

July 17 – FBS Independents

July 17 – Sun Belt

July 23 – C-USA

July 24 – MAC

July 30 – American Athletic

July 31 – Mountain West

August 7 – Big 12

August 13 – Atlantic Coast

August 14 – Pac-12

August 20 – Big Ten

August 27 – SEC

2015 College Football Preview: Sun Belt

The duo of Fredi Knighten (#9) and Michael Gordon (#34) are hoping to continue Arkansas State's reign as the best team in the Sun Belt over the past five years. (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)
The duo of Fredi Knighten (#9) and Michael Gordon (#34) are hoping to continue Arkansas State’s reign as the best team in the Sun Belt over the past five years. (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Sun Belt

Part eight of Sports Enthusiasts 2015 College Football Preview will look at the 11 teams in the Sun Belt Conference. In addition, the FBS Independents Preview can also be seen here in this double release. Below is a schedule of the conferences that have already been previewed and which ones are still ahead.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is a look at each of the Sun Belt teams and their outlook for 2015.

1. Arkansas State Red Wolves

Arkansas State has finally found a bit of stability in their head coach after seeing four different coaches in four seasons from 2011 through 2014. Blake Anderson came in for the 2014 season and led Arkansas State to a 7-6 record and 5-3 in the Sun Belt. 2015 is looking pretty good for Arkansas State as well.

2014 saw only three starters back for the Red Wolves on offense, but that was not an issue as they put up 36.7 points and 476 yards of offense. Quarterback Fredi Knighten will lead another high powered attack after throwing for 3,277 yards with 24 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He also ran for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns and he will have his main workhorse running back returning as well. Michael Gordon ran for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns making this backfield incredibly dangerous in the Sun Belt. ASU had three receivers with at least 35 catches and 600+ yards in 2014 and all three are back (Tres Houston, Dijon Paschal, JD McKissic). It is scary to think that ASU could put up even higher numbers in 2015 with nine starters back, but it is a strong possibility with one of the best, if not already the top, offense in the Sun Belt.

The defense returns six starters after surrendering 30.5 points and 421 yards per game last year. Three defensive linemen are back after giving up 205 yards rushing per game including Chris Stone. Stone had 48 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2014 and will need to have a strong year again. ASU lost their top linebacker from a year ago, but do return the other two. The secondary has only one starter back in Money Hunter and will possibly struggle back there. The Red Wolves may struggle at times, but should have a similar season defensively that they produced last year.

Arkansas State opens with a road game at USC before back-to-back home games against Missouri and Missouri State. They travel to face Toledo before entering conference play. They have some tough games in the Sun Belt with Appalachian State and UL-Monroe on the road as well as UL-Lafayette and Texas State at home. They are the team to beat in the Sun Belt with this offense.

2. Texas State Bobcats

Texas State has been part of the FBS since 2012 and head coach Dennis Franchione has been with them since 2011. The Bobcats have not been bad by any stretch of the imagination as they have three seasons of 6-6 or better. 2015 is a great chance for them to make their first bowl game in school history.

The offense will return eight starters from a unit that put up 33.8 points and 464 yards in 2014. Tyler Jones threw for 2,670 yards with 22 touchdowns and 7 interceptions while rushing for another 539 yards and 6 touchdowns. Running back Robert Lowe ran for 1,091 yards and 12 touchdowns while the return of Chris Nutall could give the Bobcats an excellent 1-2 punch. Bradley Miller was the top receiver last year with 44 catches for 431 yards, but the second, third, and fourth leading receivers from 2014 return and could have a better year of production. The offense will continue to do well for Texas State.

The defense was respectable last season with only four returning starters back. They gave up 27.7 points and 446 yards per game and now return six starters for 2015. Three starters are back on the line while linebacker will have to replace the monster in David Mayo. Mayo recorded 154 tackles in 2014 and it will fall to Trey McGowan to lead the unit (80 tackles in 2014 as the team’s second leading tackler). Two starters are back in the secondary and should see some steady improvement over 2014. The defense should be no worse than they were a year ago even with Mayo gone.

Texas State has Florida State on the road to start the season while they will then play the duo of Prairie View and Southern Miss at home. They will face Houston on the road to close out the non-conference portion before facing UL-Lafayette on the road with that game sandwich between two bye weeks. Other games that will be a test include Georgia Southern (road), UL-Monroe )home), and Arkansas State (road) in the final week of the season. That final game could determine which team is the winner of the Sun Belt in 2015.

3. Georgia Southern Eagles

Georgia Southern’s first year in the Sun Belt in 2014 was simply amazing. They went undefeated in conference play at 8-0 and finished the year at 9-3. They lost by a grand total of five points to North Carolina State and Georgia Tech on the road as well. Thanks to an NCAA rule prohibiting transitional teams from the FCS to make bowl appearances, they were not in the post-season. Could 2015 provide Georgia Southern with a second straight championship?

The offense was spectacular in 2014 with 39.1 points and 488 yards of offense produced per game. The main core of the offense is back with five starters returning. Kevin Ellison threw for 1,001 yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions while finishing second on the team in rushing at 1,096 yards and 12 touchdowns. The top running backs all return led by Matt Breida. He had 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns while Alfred Ramsby (691 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Favian Upshaw (385 yards and 2 touchdowns) are returning as well. The number one and three receivers depart, but BJ Johnson led the Eagles in catches with 23 for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns. The passing game is not the focus of the offense, but there is only one starter back on the line. The offense will still be potent in 2015, but it may not reach the same heights it did last year.

The defense performed quite admirably in 2014 by allowing 23.4 points and 388 yards per game in the Eagles’ first full FBS season. The entire defensive line returns intact after giving up 154 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Linebacker is the weak spot with only Antwione Williams back after recording 65 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss and the loss of Edwin Jackson will be tough (100 tackles to lead team). The secondary returns three starters from a group that allowed 58.5% completions. The defense will be solid again in their second year of FBS play.

The Eagles will open the season on the road at West Virginia before back-to-back home games versus Western Michigan and The Citadel. They open conference play after that with back-to-back road games against Idaho and UL-Monroe. Their final non-conference game is in late November at Georgia. They will have to face the likes of Appalachian State (road) and Texas State (home), but avoid Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette. Georgia Southern should be in their first bowl game (they are eligible this year) and should finish high in the Sun Belt.

4. Appalachian State Mountaineers

Like Georgia Southern, Appalachian State was in their first full FBS season in 2014. They had an awful start going 1-5 before winning their final six games to finish 7-5. Also like Georgia Southern, they were not eligible for a bowl game.

The offense returns a whopping 10 starters after averaging 35.7 points and 462 yards per game last year. Taylor Lamb threw for 2,381 yards with 17 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while also rushing for 483 yards and 4 touchdowns. The top two rushers, Marcus Cox (1,415 yards and 19 touchdowns) and Terrence Upshaw (573 yards and 4 touchdowns) are back as well. The top five receivers also return though the top two receivers, Malachi Jones and Simms McElfresh, will need to have better production. Jones caught 36 passes for 585 yards and 3 touchdowns while McElfresh had 42 catches for 484 yards and 5 touchdowns. Four starters return on the offensive line as well, which only helps. This offense looks scary and could be even scarier if the passing game improves.

The defense is a mirror image of the offense in that ten starters return. The defense gave up 27.3 points and 348 yards per game with the top six tacklers back. The entire line remains intact after allowing 152 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Ronald Blair will be at one of the end spots after recording 43 tackles, 6 sacks, and 7 tackles for loss. All four linebackers are returning as well in this 3-4 scheme. John Law led the team in tackles with 91, but also recorded 2 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception. The secondary has three of the four starters back after giving up 195 yards and allowing 59% completions. The defense should be just as good this year.

App State will face FCS Howard opening week before going on the road to face Clemson. They will have a bye week before facing Old Dominion on the road and Wyoming at home to end their non-conference schedule. App State has several tough games in conference that may prevent them from winning the title. They have UL-Monroe (road) and Georgia Southern (home) in a span of five days from October 17 to October 22. They also have to face Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette, but get both of those at home. It is tough to pick App State fourth with the amount of experience returning, but they should make their first bowl game in school history at the very least.

5. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Louisiana-Monroe has been to only one bowl game in school history and that was a 45-14 loss in 2012 to Ohio in the Independence Bowl. The Warhawks have gone downhill since then with a 6-6 record in 2013 and 4-8 record in 2014. This season must provide a better result if Todd Berry hopes to stick around for 2016.

The offense returns six starters from a unit that produced only 20.1 points and 349 yards per game. The rushing game was abysmal with only 70 yards per game. Both the top passer and rusher are gone, but the running back production is easy to replace given the awful stats put up. Brayle Brown is expected to be the starting quarterback , but he went 14 of 24 for 172 yards with a touchdown and interception in backup duty. Brown will have two of the top receivers back in Rashon Caeser (77 catches for 872 yards and 3 touchdowns) as well as Ajalen Holley (57 catches for 863 yards and 7 touchdowns) to help him out. Three starters are back on the line and assuming the running game has better production (how can they not?) the offense will be better even with a new quarterback.

The defense will have eight starters back after a solid season in 2014 when they gave up 26.3 points and 373 yards per game. Two of the three defensive linemen return and the guy to watch out for is Gerrand Johnson. As a nose tackle, he led ULM with 93 tackles while also recording 6 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Three of the four linebackers return in Mitch Lane, Hunter Kissinger, and Michael Johnson, which is a good sign because they were the second, third, and fourth leading tacklers respectively last year. The secondary also has three starters back with Trey Caldwell at one of the cornerback spots. He was was solid with 42 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 8 pass breakups, and an interception. The ULM defense should be one of the best in the Sun Belt.

Louisiana-Monroe has five non-conference games spread over the course of the season thanks to a trip to Hawaii. They open with a road game at Georgia before a home date against Nicholls State. A bye week leads into a game at Alabama before conference play commences. ULM will travel to face Tulsa (Oct. 10) and Hawaii (Nov. 28) later in the season. The Warhawks have quite a few tough in-conference games with Georgia Southern (home), Appalachian State (home), UL-Lafayette (road), Arkansas State (home), and Texas State (home) all on the slate. That daunting schedule may keep them from finishing higher in the Sun Belt.

6. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns

Since Mark Hudspeth took over Louisiana-Lafayette in 2011 there have been two constants each year: a 9-4 record for the year and a win in the New Orleans Bowl. Will 2015 be a carbon copy of the first four years under Hudspeth?

The offense has six starters back, but the loss of Terrance Broadway will hurt the team. Brooks Haack threw for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns in backup duty last year and will probably not match the ability of Broadway. Elijah McGuire is back after running for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns and will be the main back in this offense. McGuire is also the top leading receiver returning after having 45 catches for 468 yards and 2 touchdowns. The top returning wide receiver is Al Riles who had 34 catches for 354 yards and a touchdown. Three offensive linemen also return, but the offense will struggle at times with many new personnel at the skills positions.

The defense also has six starters back after allowing 26 points and 406 yards per game in 2014. Only the second and seventh leading tacklers return from the top eight.The defensive line has only Jacoby Briscoe back from last year, but he started just four games. Dominique Tovell was the second leading tackler last year with 67 stops, 2.5 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss and will be leading the linebackers. Two starters are back in the secondary and should improve on their 65% completions allowed. The defense will probably allow similar numbers to last year.

ULL will open the season with a road game against Kentucky and then welcome Northwestern State home. After a bye, ULL will face Akron at home and then play Louisiana Tech on the road. In conference, ULL has several tough games to start conference play. They face Texas State at home and then take on Arkansas State on the road. They also have UL-Monroe (home) and Appalachian State (road). UL-Lafayette will be looking for a fifth straight bowl game and have a good shot at getting there.

7. New Mexico State Aggies

New Mexico State was a member of the Sun Belt from 2000 through 2004 before joining the WAC for the 2005 season. They rejoined the Sun Belt in 2014 and went 2-10 in both of Doug Martin’s first two seasons. 2015 provides Martin with his most experienced team.

The offense made good strides in 2014. They put up 24.5 points and 421 yards per game with eight starters back in the fold. Eight starters are back in 2015 including the top skills players. Quarterback Tyler Rogers threw for 2,779 yards with 19 touchdowns, but had an incredibly high 23 interceptions as well. Larry Rose ran for 1,102 yards and 9 touchdowns despite missing time due to a sprained MCL. Teldrick Morgan caught 903 yards and 7 touchdowns on 75 receptions and will the be the top target once again. With four starters back on the offensive line as well, the Aggies can expect to have another improvement in the offensive numbers in 2015.

The defense has not been good for Martin in his first two years. In 2013, the unit allowed 44.6 points and 550 yards per game, but did improve in 2014 to 39.1 points and 484 yards per game. 2015 will have ten starters back for the defense with the only loss on the line. The line produced only five sacks in 2014 and will need to improve on that. The linebackers return and that is good thing for the Aggies because Rodney Butler (119 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss), Derek Ibekwe (102 tackles and 4 tackles for loss), and Dalton Herrington (85 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 tackles for loss) were the team’s top three tacklers. The secondary was not too bad last year giving up 175 yards and 62.5% completions. The defense should continue to improve overall, but could make a big step forward if the line surprises with better rush defense.

The Aggies will open with a road game at Florida before starting Sun Belt play in week two against Georgia State at home. They will face rival UTEP at home in week three and complete their non-conference schedule after a bye week with road games at New Mexico and Ole Miss. In conference, they will have to face Georgia Southern (road), Texas State (road), UL-Lafayette (road), Arkansas State (home), and UL-Monroe (road). The Aggies are a young team and should be able to continue improving while winning more than two games in 2015.

8. South Alabama Jaguars

South Alabama has been a member of the Sun Belt since 2012 and made their first bowl game last year against Bowling Green in the Camellia Bowl. Joey Jones has been with South Alabama since they started back in 2009 while 2015 will probably be the most interesting season to date with only five total starters returning.

South Alabama has only three starters back on offense, but have a few UAB transfers coming in as well. Quarterback Cody Clements is one of those UAB transfers and he will also have his offensive coordinator coming over as well. Clements threw for 2,227 yards with 14 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 2014. The duo of Xavier Johnson (438 yards and a touchdown) and Terrance Timmons (403 yards and 4 touchdowns) are returning at running back, but may be beat out by Dami Ayoola. The top wideout is also gone, but Danny Woodson (former Alabama player) caught 30 passes for 382 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The UAB duo of DJ Vinson and Josh Magee are looking to team up with their former quarterback. There is another UAB transfer on the offensive line, which returns only two starters. The offense averaged 22.5 points and 376 yards last year and will probably be able to at least match that in 2015.

The defense has only two starters back from a unit that allowed 26.4 points and 399 yards per game. The defensive line is bereft of experienced starters with none back. The linebacker unit is the same, but does add in UAB transfer Kalen Jackson as well as Texas Tech transfer Blake Dees. The two starters back on defense reside in the secondary with Roman Buchanan and Antonio Carter. Buchanan was third on the team in tackles with 74 while also recording 3.5 tackles for loss and 7 pass breakups. The defense has little experience and will likely struggle to meet last year’s numbers.

South Alabama opens their season with Gardner-Webb at home before embarking on a two game road trip against Nebraska and San Diego State. They wrap up conference play against North Carolina State. They have a tough games in Sun Belt play against Arkansas State (home), Texas State (road), UL-Lafayette (home), Georgia Southern (road), and Appalachian State (home). South Alabama appears headed for a down year with only five starters back.

9. Troy Trojans

Troy has not been to a bowl game since 2010 when the destroyed Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl 48-21. Larry Blakeney had been head coach of Troy since 1991, but they have opted to move on and take Neal Brown in as their top man.

Troy was not very good on offense last year with only 21.8 points and 363 yards per game. Seven starters return in the first year under Brown’s offense. Brandon Silvers threw for 1,836 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions while completing 70.5% of his passes. The top two running backs also return with Brandon Burks and Jordan Chunn. Burks ran for 584 yards and 3 touchdowns while Chunn ran for 505 yards and 6 touchdowns. The top wideout is also back in Bryan Holmes (34 catches for 474 yards and 5 touchdowns), but the production will need to improve from that unit. There are two starters back, but the offense should be able to match last year’s production at least in 2015.

Six starters are back from a unit that allowed 36.2 points and 454 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line has three starters back, but gave up 246 rushing yards per game in 2014. End Jamal Stadom was third on the team in tackles with 55 while also recording 4.5 sacks and 2 tackles for loss. The three starting linebackers are gone from last year’s team, but Terris Lewis was able to start three games en route to recording 25 tackles despite playing only five games. The secondary returns two starters in JaQuadrian Lewis and Montres Kitchens while also adding in UAB transfer LaMarcus Farmer. The secondary should be solid again in 2015 after allowing 208 passing yards per game in 2014. The defense should improve in 2015 despite a new head coach.

Troy does not have an easy non-conference schedule. They open with a road game at North Carolina State, come home to face FCS Charleston Southern, and then goes on the road again to Wisconsin. They also face Mississippi State in Starkville on October 10. In conference, Troy will face Appalachian State (road), UL-Monroe (home), Georgia Southern (home), and UL-Lafayette (road). They also take on South Alabama (home) and New Mexico State (road) that could determine how high they finish. Troy should see improvement in 2015, but not good enough to make a bowl game.

10. Idaho Vandals

Idaho has not had sustained success since the 1990s and have only two bowl game appearances in school history. Their last, a 43-42 win over Bowling Green, came in the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl. Paul Petrino took over a very bad team and has gone a combined 2-21 in his first two years.

The offense will have six starters back from a unit that improved between 2013 and 2014. The offense put up only 18.2 points per game in 2013, but saw that number increase to 25 last year. Quarterback Matt Linehan threw for 2,540 yards with 11 touchdowns, but also threw 18 interceptions. Elijhaa Penny ran for 589 yards and 12 touchdowns while splitting the carries and is likely to earn the number one reps. The wideouts see the top three depart from 2014, but back on the team is Dezmon Epps. Epps had 980 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2013. There are three starters back on the line and the Idaho offense should continue to improve.

The defense also has six starters back. Like the offense, they have also improved in Petrino’s first two seasons. They allowed 46.8 points and 529 yards per game in 2013 while dropping those numbers to 37.3 points and 463 yards per game. The two interior linemen return led by Quinton Bradley. Bradley had 52 tackles, 6 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss last season. Two linebackers return including 2014’s leading tackler Marc Millan. Millan had 102 tackles, 2 sacks, and 13 tackles for loss. The secondary has Jayshawn Jordan at cornerback and Russell Siavii returning. The defense will continue to improve this year, but may hold the Vandals back from doing even better.

Idaho will open their season with Ohio at home before a road game at USC and then another home game against Wofford. They will also face Auburn on the road on November 21. In conference, they have a very tough schedule with games against Georgia Southern (home), Arkansas State (road), UL-Monroe (home), Appalachian State (home), and Texas State (home). Idaho should be able to easily match two wins in 2015, which is the total number of wins under Petrino entering the season.

11. Georgia State Panthers

Georgia State started their football program in 2008 and played their first season in 2010. They went 9-13 in their first two season facing mainly FCS competition. Since joining the FCS’ Colonial Athletic Association in 2012 and then the Sun Belt in 2013, they have a combined record of 2-33. Trent Miles will be in his third season at the helm of Georgia State in 2015.

Miles will eight starters back on offense, but that is only the second highest number of returning starters on offense under his regime (9 in 2013). Nick Arbuckle won the starting job and threw for 3,283 yards with 23 touchdowns and 17 interception. He will be back to throw the ball all over the yard, but could use help from his tandem of running backs in Marcus Coffey and Kyler Neal. Coffey only ran for 354 yards and 3 touchdowns while Neal ran for 209 yards and a score (Neal suffered an MCL injury that caused him to miss the last 8 games. Those two were also the leading rushers on the team. Arbuckle will have his top two receivers from 2014 back with Donovan Harden (60 catches for 885 yards and 7 touchdowns) and Robert Davis (50 catches for 732 yards and 2 touchdowns). The offense put up 22.7 points and 375 yards per game in 2014. If the running game improves even slightly, they should easily surpass those numbers.

The defense was bad last year with only four returning starters. The unit gave up 43.3 points and 497 yards per game. Miles will have his most experienced defense in 2015 with nine starters returning. The entire defensive line is back including the entire two deep in this 3-4 defense. After giving up 303 yards rushing per game, it is safe to say GSU can only improve there. At linebacker, Joseph Peterson is back after leading the team in tackles with 93. He also added 3 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, and an interception. He will be joined by former Michigan player Kaleb Ringer. The secondary has all four starters back, but was not as bad as the numbers would indicate. They gave up only 194 passing yards per game, but did allow 68.1% completions against them. The defense should get better in 2015 compared to 2014.

Georgia State does have a chance to win a few games in 2015. They open with Charlotte at home before back-to-back road games at New Mexico State and Oregon. They face Liberty at home and then also face Ball State on the road to close out their non-conference schedule. The conference portion of their slate is daunting with the likes of Appalachian State, Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette, Texas State, South Alabama, Troy, and Georgia Southern. Georgia State will need an upset or two in order to break their three year double digit loss column streak.

Overview

The Sun Belt Conference is shaping up to be a wide-open race in 2015. Arkansas State, Texas State, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana-Lafayette could come out and win the conference. New Mexico State and South Alabama will look to finish in the middle of the pack while Troy, Idaho, and Georgia State will battle it out for the bottom spot. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Arkansas State

2. Texas State

3. Georgia Southern

4. Appalachian State

5. Louisiana-Monroe

6. Louisiana-Lafayette

7. New Mexico State

8. South Alabama

9. Troy

10. Idaho

11. Georgia State

Be sure to check out the FBS Independents preview as well as the next preview on Friday. We will be looking at the Big 12 Conference then.