T1. Arkansas State
What You Need To Know About The Offense: The offense that exploded throughout last year finishing 18th in the nation in scoring should be even more dangerous. The running game gets everyone of note back with the running back tandem of Michael Gordon and Johnson White dangerous, and QB Fredi Knighten a do-it-all playmaker who’s devastating on the move and with a good deep arm. J.D. McKissic is an all-star target for a passing game that gets back the top nine pass catchers, and it all works around a good line that welcomes back three starters.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: The secondary was okay, but the run defense was destroyed in all the big games. The hope is for experience to translate into production with four of the front six returning, and that doesn’t even include pass rushing terror Ja’Von Rolland Jones, who’s trying to return from a knee injury. Three of the top four tacklers are gone and three starters are gone in the secondary. However, there’s plenty of experience coming back among the reserves to fill in the gaps in a hurry. This won’t be a rock of a D, but it just needs to be able to hold serve while the O rolls.
T1. Georgia Southern
What You Need To Know About The Offense: The devastating offensive attack should keep on rocking and rolling with one of the nation’s best ground games. QB Kevin Ellison and RB Matt Breida should once again combine for over 2,500 yards on the ground, and there’s more production where that came from in the triple-option attack that works out of the Pistol formation. The receiving corps just makes a few big plays a game, and the options are there to do that even after losing two of the top three targets. The big concern is the line that loses four starters and could need a little while before the timing is down.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: Overall, the defense held up well. It needs the offense to control the game and the clock, and it’s not going to be great against the better passing teams, but it should be more consistent with eight starters returning. The pass rush should be okay with the production coming from several different spots, and the run defense has the potential to be more consistent with four of the top five tacklers back. Overall, this was young group building the depth across the board last season – now it should payoff.
3. Appalachian State
What You Need To Know About The Offense: All of a sudden, the offense kicked it into high gear thanks to an outstanding ground attack. Star RB Marcus Cox is back, so the offense has its man to work everything around, and QB Taylor Lamb’s return helps, too. OT Kendall Lamm is done, but the other four starters are back up front to what should be a fantastic ground game, and the receiving corps should be dangerous with three senior starters back in Simms McElfresh, Malachi Jones and Montez McGuire.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: It was hardly a rock of a D, but it was solid in Sun Belt play and did what it needed to do to allow the offense to do its thing over the second half of the season. Ten starters are back on a defense that only loses CB Joel Ross. All-star pass rusher Ronald Blair is back on the defensive line, and the top six tacklers – and 11 of the top 12 – return. John Law returns to patrol the linebacking corps from his spot in the middle, and Kennan Gilchrist and Eric Boggs are back on the outside. The safety tandem of Doug Middleton and A.J. Howard should be solid.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: The attack has to replace quarterback Terrence Broadway and key runner Alonzo Harris, but Sun Belt Player of the Year Elijah McGuire is back to work the offense around. The line, as always, should be among the best in the conference, and the passing attack should be a bit more productive – maybe. Top targets Jamal Robinson is back after missing most of last year hurt, combining with Al Riles to give the Ragin’ Cajuns a dangerous tandem, but who will throw to them? Brooks Haack has the experience as the backup behind Broadway, but it’ll be a battle for the starting gig.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: As always, the D needs to try holding serve for the O, but it could be a bit rockier this year. The front seven needs work after losing top pass rusher Christian Ringo and key part Justin Hamilton, and now the line has to find ways to get into the backfield. Dominique Tovell is a nice veteran linebacker, but he needs help around him with two starters gone. The secondary that’s been such a problem needs to be a strength early on with three starters back, but it has to start keeping passing games under 200 yards and has to find ways to make more big plays.
5. Texas State
What You Need To Know About The Offense: The offense was far, far better last season with a more efficient passing game and a balanced attack that ran as well as anyone in the nation. Expect more of the same with Tyler Jones back under center and almost all of the top receiving weapons returning. The Bobcats are about the ground game, though, and they should be stellar once again with Robert Lowe back leading the way behind a line with three returning starters. Can the offense control the clock a little better against the top teams? That’s the only knock.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: The run defense has to be stronger, but that comes with the opponents – TXST dealt with a slew of high-powered ground games. The pass rush should still be fine despite the loss of Michael Odiari and LB David Mayo, and the secondary should be terrific with David Mims II the star of the show now that Craig Mager is off to the NFL. The linebacking corps has a good blend of speed, athleticism and toughness, but the run D starts on the inside with the tackle combination of Dallas McClarty and Mershad Dillon a great one to work around.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: After finishing 106th in the nation in offense and 123rd in rushing, can the offense balance things out better? It was all about the passing attack last season, but not the line has to do far more for a ground game that came up with a mere 834 yards. Expect more rushing out of the quarterback – depending on who rises up from an interesting race – and expect more out of Tyler Cain behind a veteran line. ULM will still throw the ball with Rashon Ceaser and Ajalen Holley two of the Sun Belt’s better targets.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: Excellent throughout last season, the defense that finished 14th in the nation in pass defense and allowed just 373 yards per game overall. With nine starters back, expect even more out of the 3-3-5 alignment. The line will be a strength with Gerrand Johnson in the interior and good options on the ends. The top four tacklers return and six of the top seven are back, with the quickness and experience to be terrific against the run. The pass rush should be terrific, and there should be activity from the eight on a consistent basis.
7. South Alabama
What You Need To Know About The Offense: Only three starters return with most of the key skill parts gone, but don’t be shocked if the offense is better. The passing game that struggled so much at times last season should be better and more explosive with UAB transfer Cody Clements at the helm. There’s depth behind him pushing for the job, but whoever gets the gig should have a solid receiving corps to work with. The rushing attack will be a rotation type of committee system working behind a decent line.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: Only two starters are back from a group that had some terrific moments last year, but started to falter late. The line is the big question mark with more pass rushing help needed around Jimmie Gipson III at one end and with little depth to rely on. The secondary is young but shows promise and potential around big-hitting safety Roman Buchanan, who should be a lock for all-star honors. As a whole, the defense has to come up with more big plays and has to be more consistent against the run, but this is an athletic group. It’s just young and needs work.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: Co-offensive coordinators Kenny Edenfield and Matt Moore will try to ramp up an attack that had a few nice moments, and was careful with the mistakes through the air, but wasn’t explosive enough. Head coach Neal Brown knows how to get an offense moving, and he shouldn’t have any problems doing that with nine starters returning including rising star QB Brandon Silvers and several good targets. Brandon Burks and Jordan Chunn form a strong 1-2 rushing punch, while all five junior starters up front have to be good now.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: Can defensive coordinator Vic Koenning do what he’s known for doing and get the woeful pass rush to work? Six starters return to a defense that did nothing against the run and wasn’t nearly disruptive enough. Tyler Roberts is a good defensive end to start with, while safety Montres Kitchens should be among the Sun Belt’s best defensive backs – those two have to be all-stars while the other pieces start to improve. Getting to the quarterback might be Job One. No. 2 will be to get off the field and not allow so many long, sustained drives.
9. New Mexico State
What You Need To Know About The Offense: There weren’t enough points, and the consistency wasn’t there, but there were signs of a major upgrade with more pop to the passing game to go along with a dangerous rushing attack. Larry Rose turned into a weapon running the ball, and QB Tyler Rogers had his moments, even though he threw too many interceptions. Four starters are back on what should be a stronger line, but the strength could be a rising receiving corps that should improve.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: A complete and utter disaster, the Aggies were dead last in college football against the run thanks to a front seven that would’ve been small by 1970s standards. However, it’s a really, really young group that has quickness, but needs a strong rotation to hold up better. Can there be more of a pass rush? Can there be more big plays? Nine starter return, but even though the emphasis will be on the run defense, it’s hardly going to be a rock.
T10. Georgia State
What You Need To Know About The Offense: After a good season, the Panthers will come up with even more pop and explosion with QB Nick Arbuckle back along with almost all the top receiving weapons. The Panthers finished 25th in the nation in yards, partly because they had to keep up thanks to a defense that gave up points in bunches. The balance should be there as long as the score doesn’t get out of hand early. Marcus Caffey is a good back working behind an experienced enough line to be stronger.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: There’s a ton of returning experience, but the production needs to follow. Ten starters return, but it’s a defense that finished dead last in the nation in scoring D and was a disaster when it came to takeaways, run defense, and coming up with a meaningful stop. Seven of the top eight tacklers are back, and most of the production from the meager pass rush returns. This isn’t going to be a brick wall, but there’s too much promise and potential not to be better. The D can’t be any worse.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: The offense has the promise and potential to be far better. It starts with a veteran line that was porous in pass protection and didn’t do enough for the run, but has the pieces to quickly be far better. Matt Linehan is a promising young quarterback who should put up huge yards, but he has to cut down on his interceptions. The receiving corps could be one of the team’s biggest strengths with several options – the passing game will roll. It’ll have to with a defense that will continue to give up points in bunches.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: A disaster over the last several years, there’s hope to be far more disruptive with a move to the 3-4. The Vandals got destroyed for 34 points or more in every game but one – the win over New Mexico State – but at least they’ll be more dangerous this season. The line is bent on getting to the quarterback on a more regular basis, and the secondary has to do something, anything, to stop getting bombed on deep. There’s experience, but now the production has to come.