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.
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.
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
7. New Mexico State
8. South Alabama
11. Georgia State