Sun Belt Football Preview

Big Questions

  • Will Georgia Southern stun again and repeat as champs?
  • Can UL Lafayette go 9-4 for the fifth straight season?
  • Are the Red Wolves hungry enough to get to a fifth straight bowl?
  • Do Appalachian State’s 20 returning starters equal 10 wins?
  • Does Texas State get to a bowl after being overlooked last season?

Big Games

  • 9/5 – Georgia Southern at West Virginia (Could the Eagles pull off the upset?)
  • 9/26 – Arkansas State at Toledo
  • 10/20 – UL Lafayette at Arkansas State
  • 10/22 – Georgia Southern at Appalachian State
  • 10/29 – Texas State at Georgia Southern
  • 11/5 – Arkansas State at Appalachian State
  • 11/21 – Georgia Southern at Georgia (Eagles could be 9-0 going into this game)
  • 11/28 – UL Lafayette at Appalachian State
 Big-Impact Newcomers
  • RB: Dami Ayoola – South Alabama (Transfers from JC after being dismissed from Ill)
  • QB: Cody Clements – South Alabama (Transfers from UAB, started 11 games in 14)
  • WR: Dezmon Epps – Idaho (Returns after being dismissed by team in 2013)
  • WR: Derek Keaton – Georgia Southern (Speedster, transfers from Arkansas State)
  • DT: Matt Ramando – Troy (Transfers from Michigan State, started 3 games in ’13)
  • ILB: Kaleb Ringer – Georgia State (Transfers from Michigan)
 Team-by-Team Previews

Appalachian State – The Mountaineers had a successful first season as an FBS team in 2014, reeling off six straight wins at the end of the year to post a winning record at 7-5. In 2015, the Mountaineers return a whopping 20 starters from last years team (10 on offense and another 10 on defense) including Sophomore QB Taylor Lamb (Sun Belt Freshman Player of the Year) and standout RB Marcus Cox (1,415 yards and 19 TDs in ’14). The non-conference stretch for the Mountaineers includes very winnable games against Howard, Old Dominion and Wyoming, but a tough road game at Clemson is also on the schedule. They do have an advantage in conference play getting Georgia Southern, Arkansas State and UL Lafayette all at home, all crucial games in the Mountaineers stretch to a potential Sun Belt Championship. I expect a great year from the Mountaineers and double-digit wins isn’t out of the realm of reality, but stringing together wins will be a major key in their quest to make their first bowl game.

 Arkansas State – The Red Wolves strung together a fourth straight winning season under their fourth different head coach after posting a 7-5 regular season record before losing 44-63 in their bowl game to Toledo. The Red Wolves return 15 starters in ’15 including star QB Fredi Knighten (4,056 yards of total offense and 35 total TDs in ’14) and RB Michael Gordon (1,100 yards and 13 TDs in ’14). The Red Wolves also return their top three WRs, starting TE and star D-Ends Chris Stone and Ja’Von Rolland Jones (15.5 combined sacks in ’14). The Red wolves non conference schedule is rough opening with a gameat USC, before home games against Missouri and Missouri State before finishing up non-conference play on the road in Toledo. The Red Wolves avoid Georgia Southern in conference play in ’15 and their toughest game in conference play will be against Appalachian State on November 5th. Expect another stellar season from the Red Wolves and their fifth straight bowl appearance.

Georgia Southern – The Eagles were 9-3 in their first year of FBS play last season and claimed the Sun Belt championship in their inaugural year of Sun Belt play (went 8-0 in conference!). Led by the dynamic rushing attack of QB Kevin Ellison (1,096 yards, 12 TDs in ‘14) and RB Matt Breida (1,485 yards, 17 TDs in ‘14), GSU should see continued success in ’15. The Eagles travel to Morgantown to play West Virginia in their opening game of the season, and an upset could be on the horizon if the rushing attack GSU brings to the table overwhelms the Mountaineers. From there,  the Eagles see a relatively easy schedule until they travel to play another set of Mountaineers in Appalachian State on October 20th in a game that could decide the Sun Belt Championship. The biggest test for the Eagles will be traveling to play their in-state rivals, the Georgia Bulldogs, in what should be an entertaining game. I expect another great season for the Eagles, their second Sun Belt championship and their first ever bowl game.

Georgia State – In their second season as an FBS team, the Panthers went a disappointing 1-11 with their only win coming late against Abilene Christian. The record was deceiving as GSU lost three games by three points, and led at Washington 14-0, albeit losing 14-45. The Panthers return 17 starters from that ’14 team including Senior QB Nick Arbuckle who threw for 3,283 yards and 23 TDs (along with 17 INTs) and could put up even better numbers in ’15. Receivers Donovan Harden (885 yards; 7 TDs) and Robert Davis (732 yards; 2 TDs) return to help an offense that seemingly always has receivers but up great numbers. On the defensive side, ILB Kaleb Ringer transfers from Michigan to lead a defense that will need to vastly improve from last seasons performance where they allowed 43.3 PPG. Expect the struggles of years past to continue this season for the Panthers, but they should pick up wins in the opener against Charlotte and in week five when they host FCS opponent Liberty.

Idaho – The Vandals posted another disappointing season in ’14 going 1-10 and not having played at Florida which could have resulted in a 1-11 season. The Vandals have gone 5-42 over the past four seasons and are in dire need of a turnaround under third year HC Paul Petrino. The offense gets Sophomore QB Matt Linehan (2,540 yards 18 TDs/11 INT’s in ’14), Senior RB Elijhaa Penny (589 yards and 12 TDs in ’14) and a returning WR in Dezmon Epps who returns after being dismissed from the team in ’13. Epps was great for the offense in ’13 posting 79 receptions for 980 yards and 4 scores and figures to be the main weapon for Linehan in ’15. The Vandals open the season at home against Ohio before traveling to USC in week two while hosting Wofford in week three. Expect another losing season from the Vandals as their defense that allowed 37.3 PPG in ’14 just won’t be able to hang with the top Sun Belt offenses, but they could very well triple their win total from ’14.

Louisiana Lafayette – The Cajuns put together a fourth straight regular season record of 8-4 and won a fourth straight New Orleans bowl in ’14. One loss in conference play to Appalachian State at home cost the Cajuns their second straight Co-Sun Belt Championship and they will be hungry to reclaim the title in ’15. The Cajuns will have to do this while losing the schools second all-time leading passer in the now graduated Terrence Broadway. The Cajuns will look to either Junior Brooks Haack, redshirt Junior Jalen Nixon or redshirt Freshman Jordan Davis to replace Broadway. The rushing attack will be lead by Junior tail back Elijah McGuire who ran for 1,264 yards and 14 TDs in ’14 while being a great receiving RB. The Cajuns open the season at Kentucky before hosting Northwestern State and Akron before ending non-conference play at Louisiana Tech. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Cajuns end up going 8-4 again this season before accepting a fifth straight New Orleans bowl bid.

Louisiana-Monroe – The Warhawks are coming off a 4-8 season in ’14 after starting the season 3-1 before dropping seven of their final eight games of the season. Despite the disappointing record, the Warhawks lost five games by less than a touchdown including a five point loss at Texas A&M and a six point loss at Georgia Southern. They lose transfer QB Pete Thomas to gradation and will turn to either Senior Brayle Brown who’s started two games in ’12 or redshirt freshman Garrett Smith who had a very good spring according to head coach Todd Berry. Whoever takes the reigns at QB will get the benefit of a talented duo WRs in Ajalen Holley (863 yards; 7 TDs in ’14) and Rashon Ceasar (872 yards; 3 TDs in ’14). The Warhawks get the unfortunate 13-game schedule in ’15 and get brutal road games at Georgia and Alabama and only five games at home all season. Expect the Warhawks to improve on last years win total and hold their own in conference play against the top teams of the Sun Belt.

New Mexico State – The Aggies disappointed in 14 again by going 2-10 for the second consecutive year under second year HC Doug Martin. Despite another poor year from the Aggies, they return 18 starters from a team that showed improvement last season and should prove even better this year. Junior QB Tyler Rogers returns, and despite throwing for 2,779 yards and 19 TDs last year, he also threw 23 INTs. The standouts on this NMSU offense are undoubtedly Sophomore RB Larry Rose who ran for 1,102 yards and 9 TDs as a true freshman in 14, and Junior WR Teldrick Morgan who caught 75 passes for 903 yards and 7 TDs in 10 games last season. The Aggies open the season on the road at Florida followed by winnable homes games against Georgia State and UTEP before finishing the non-conference slate against rival New Mexico and Ole Miss. The Aggies should be improved, but don’t expect a bowl bid just yet as they are about a year away.

South Alabama – The Jaguars went 6-6 for the second consecutive season in ’14 and made their first bowl appearance in school history, only to lose 28-33 to a good Bowling Green team on a late TD. The bad news for the Jaguars is they return a mere five starters from that ’14 team, but get a number of transfers thanks to the disbanding of UAB football. Cody Clements will take charge at QB for the jaguars after coming over from UAB (2,227 yards, 14 TDs in 11 starts at UAB), Dami Ayoola takes over the RB duties after transferring from JC, and transfer receivers DJ Vinson (UAB) and Marvin Shinn (Alabama) figure to be key factors in the receiving game. The Jags open the season at home against Gardner-Webb before a tough road stretch at Nebraska and San Diego State while finishing non-conference play home against NC State. With only five starters and a ton of transfer, it’s tough to gauge how the Jaguars will be in this year, but a winning season is not out to the question if the offense produces and the defense plays more consistently.

Texas State – The Bobcats put together a respectable 7-5 record in 2014, but did not receive a bid to a bowl game. The Bobcats return a solid 14 starters in 15 including their steady QB Tyler Jones who threw for 2,670 yards and 22 TDs and added 539 yards and 6 TDs on the ground. The running attack will be commanded by Robert Lowe who, despite an injury filled 2014, ran for 1,091 yards and 12 TDs. The defensive side will need to see major improvement for the Bobcats in 2015 as they gave up 27 points or more in nine of their games last season. The Bobcats get an unfavorable road schedule in 2015 with games at Florida State, Houston, UL Lafayette, Georgia Southern and Arkansas State, but a fairly easy home schedule could get the bobcats right back to 7-5 in 2015.  If the Bobcats cn manage to go 7-0 or 6-1 at home, they should get the first bowl bid in school history.

Troy – The Trojans went 3-9 in 2014 and posted a fourth straight season of six wins or less, after making three straight bowl games in 2008-10. The Trojans bring in new head coach Neal Brown in an attempt to put the program back on the right track and return 13 starters from last years squad. Sophomore QB Brandon Silvers was decent in 11 starts last season throwing for 1,836 yards and 11 TD’s with only 3 INT’s (along with 5 TDs on the ground) and will need to put up bigger numbers both through the air and on the ground in ’15 for the offense to be productive. Running backs Brandon Burks and Jordan Chunn combined for 1,089 yards and 9 TDs last season and should continue to see split time in a RB-by-committee offense. The Trojans road schedule is unfavorable in ’15 as they travel to NC State, Wisconsin, Mississippi State, App State and UL Lafayette and wins will be tough to come by. Expect the Trojans to struggle this season under a new HC, but also expect them to show improvement on offense and defense throughout the season.

Predicted Standings

  • Georgia Southern; 10-2 (8-0)
  • Arkansas State; 8-4 (7-1)
  • Appalachian State; 9-3 (6-2)
  • Louisiana Lafayette; 8-4 (6-2)
  • Texas State; 7-5 (5-3)
  • Louisiana-Monroe; 6-7 (4-5)
  • South Alabama; 4-8 (3-5)
  • New Mexico State; 4-8 (2-6)
  • Idaho; 2-10 (1-7)
  • Troy; 2-10 (1-7)
  • Georgia State; 2-10 (0-8)
Projected Sun Belt Champion: Georgia Southern

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