By Michael Leese
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off a 9-4 season, highlighted by a victory over East Carolina in the New Orleans Bowl. Head Coach Mark Hudspeth welcomes back seven starters from an offense that averaged 35.5 PPG last year. They’ll be led by quarterback Terrance Broadway who had an outstanding season throwing for 2,842 yards and 17 touchdowns. He completed 65% of his passes and rushed for 861 yards. Running back Alonzo Harris is also back, after leading the team in rushing with 914 yards and 10 scores. The Cajuns must replace two starters up front, but have eight of the top 10 linemen back. I expect the Cajuns to improve on last years 35.5 PPG and they should have the best offense in the conference! On defense, six starters return to a defense that allowed 28.1 PPG. The defensive line losses two starters from last year, but two big-time transfers, Jalen Fields from Georgia and Marquis White from South Florida, should step-in and make the line a team strength. They’ll be joined by DE Christian Ringo who led the team with seven sacks. I see no reason the Cajun defense won’t continue to improve. Tough road games against Arkansas and Kansas State start the season, but I believe they’ll run the table in Sun Belt play.
- KEY GAME….. OCTOBER 15 AT WESTERN KENTUCKY
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH….. DE Jalen Fields, DL Marquis White, WR Devin Figuro
- MY PREDICTION – 10-2 OVERALL, 7-0 CONFERENCE
LOUISIANA-MONROE The Warhawks played in their first ever bowl game last year. With seventeen starters returning, hopes are high for a repeat performance. Head Coach Todd Berry welcomes back eight offensive starters including dual-threat QB Kolton Browning, who led the team with 670 yards rushing and passed for a hefty 3,049 yards and 29 touchdowns! Four starters return to the front wall, which should allow for a better running game this year. The only big loss is leading receiver Brent Leonard who caught 104 passes. I would expect improvement over last year’s 33.8 PPG. Nine returning starters are back on defense including the entire secondary. The defense allowed 29.2 PPG last year, but with a brutal non-conference schedule that includes Oklahoma, Wake Forest and Baylor, those numbers might be higher at season’s end. Even with the tough schedule, the Warhawks should play in their second bowl game this December!
- KEY GAME….. NOVEMBER 30 AT LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (COULD BE FOR LEAGUE TITLE)
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..LB Austin Moss, WR Colby Harper, LB Cameron Blakes
- MY PREDICTION 8-4 OVERALL, 6-1 CONFERENCE
WESTERN KENTUCKY Willie Taggart leaves after putting the Hilltoppers on the college football map with back-to-back winning seasons. In steps Bobby Petrino who brings in tons of experience, after leading such programs as Arkansas and Louisville to BCS bowl games! First thing on the agenda for Petrino, will be to find a replacement for QB Kawaun Jakes. The new QB will be able to rely on RB Antonio Andrews, who returns for his senior season after leading the conference with 1,784 yards rushing! Also back are six out of the top seven receivers. But I think it will be tough with new schemes and an inexperienced QB to come close to last years 28.2 PPG. On defense, Petrino has hired Nick Holt to take over as defensive coordinator. Holt, has held similar positions at both USC and Washington. He will have seven returning starters to work with, including the top six tacklers from last years squad. The entire defensive line will need to be replaced, including Quanterus Smith who had 12 sacks last year! If the Hilltoppers can somehow find adequate replacements upfront, they could improve on last years 25.5 PPG. The Hilltoppers have a friendly home schedule as they host Lafayette, Arkansas State and Troy.
- KEY GAME….. OCTOBER 26 HOSTING TROY
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH….. WR Jerrell Moore, DT Calvin Washington, DT Maurice Bennett
- MY PREDICTION – 7-5 OVERALL, 5-2 CONFERENCE
ARKANSAS STATE The coaching carousel at Arkansas State continues after Gus Malzahn left after one year at the helm, to return to Auburn. The year before, Hugh Freeze left after one season to take the same head coaching position at Ole Miss. This year, Bryan Harsin steps in, and will immediately be faced with the task of replacing four-year starter Ryan Aplin. If appears Adam Kennedy will get the first shot under center. He actually has starting experience when he was at Utah State in 2011, and he won’t have to do it alone. It looks like the offense will be centered around RB David Oku who led the Red Wolves in rushing last year with 1,105 yards and 16 touchdowns. Wide receiver J.D. McKissic also returns, having led the team with 103 receptions and 1,022 yards. The offensive line looks like a strength as four linemen return from last years squad. The defense suffered big losses across the board. Three of the top four tacklers have departed and the Red Wolves have holes to fill along the defensive line and linebacker corps. The Red Wolves allowed 24.5 PPG last year and I expect that number to grow significantly this season as they play a very tough non-conference schedule including road games at Auburn, Missouri and Memphis.
- KEY GAME…..THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 12, HOSTING TROY
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Adam Kennedy, DE Chris Stone, LB Kyle Coleman
- MY PREDICTION – 5-7 OVERALL, 5-2 CONFERENCE
TROY The Trojans are coming off a disappointing 5-7 season, which saw them lose four of their last five games. The Trojans have only four returning starters on offense including QB Corey Robinson who completed 66% of his passes good for 3,121 yards. The bad news is that four of five offensive linemen need to be replaced, along with both the leading rusher and receiver! It will be difficult to repeat last seasons success of 30.6 PPG. The news isn’t that much better on the defensive side of the ball as only five starters return. Gone are the top three tacklers from last years squad. They do get a couple transfers, who I expect to step in immediately. Head coach Larry Blakeney is in his 23rd year here and he has been here before. He always seems to coach-up his team, but the schedule is tough as the Trojans have non-conference road games at Mississippi, Mississippi State and Duke and I expect another losing season.
- KEY GAME…..AUGUST 31, HOSTING ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Daron White, DB Keion Payne, DE Marty Stadom
- MY PREDICTION – 4-8 OVERALL, 3-4 CONFERENCE
TEXAS STATE The Bobcats, guided by head coach Dennis Franchione, are moving from the Western Athletic Conference to the Sun Belt. Seven starters return from an offense that put up 28.6 PPG. The strength of the offense figures to be the offensive line, where four starters are back. The task for Franchione will be replacing QB Shaun Rutherford, and finding a capable running back. Tyler Arndt, looks to get the early nod under center, but he could be challenged by Tyler Jones. I believe the offense will sputter with the loss of several key players and the move to the Sun Belt taking a toll. On the defensive side of the ball things are much brighter. Eight starters return, including the entire defensive line. Finding replacements at linebacker, as the two leading tacklers have departed. I think the defense will hold up well and improve on last years 33.5 PPG. The schedule is manageable, as they get Monroe, Western Kentucky and South Alabama at home.
KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 12, HOSTING LOUISIANA-MONROE
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH,,,,,RB C.J. Best, DE Kingsley Ike, QB Tyler Arndt
MY PREDICTION – 4-8 OVERALL, 2-5 CONFERENCE
SOUTH ALABAMA The Jaguars hired Joey Jones to be their head coach when they began playing football in 2009 and he has slowly but surely built the program. The Jags could actually surprise this year, after going only 2-11 last year. The team is loaded with experienced players and 11 seniors should start, QB Ross Metheny will guide the offense after passing for 2,148 yards last season with 12 scores. Leading rusher, Demetre Baker, a Georgia transfer, returns at RB, having lead the Jaguars with 609 yards last year. The Jags also have their top four receivers back, making this offense likely to put up much better numbers than the 18.5 per game from last year! On defense, coach Jones has eight starters back and I look for big improvement on this side of the ball as well. The Jags gave up 29.5 PPG, but that number should drop with all the experience coming back. The schedule will also help as only road games at Tennessee and Navy look to be daunting.
- KEY GAME…..9/14 HOSTING WESTERN KENTUCKY
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..LB Brandon Keel, DB Darius Morrow, NT Ceasare Johnson
- MY PREDICTION – 2-10 OVERALL, 1-6 CONFERENCE
GEORGIA STATE Trent Miles takes the the reins of a program that began in 2010, but quite frankly, could grow into something promising! Nine starters return from last years offense that averaged only 17.4 PPG. At the present time there is a three-way battle for the starting QB spot, with both Ben McLane and Robbie Bell, both with some starting experience, and highly touted transfer Clay Chastain hoping to enter the season as the starter. The entire offensive line returns, as does leading receiver Albert Wilson. Finding a starting tailback will also be key for Miles and the Panthers. Defensively, seven starters return including the top three tacklers Both Safeties will need to be replaced, but the Panthers do have a few big-time transfers ready to step in. The Panthers have road trips to Alabama and West Virginia, and I expect the Panthers to struggle in their first year of Sun Belt play.
- KEY GAME…..11/30 HOME VERSUS SOUTH ALABAMA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Travis Evans, TE Alex Smith, DE Melvin King
- MY PREDICTION – 3-9 OVERALL, 0-7 CONFERENCE