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TGS 2013 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE SUN BELT
After all of movement of the tectonic plates beneath college sports over the past few years, the Sun Belt remains standing. Though not unaffected by the rampant conference shifting, with a trickle-down effect altering league membership, the Belt can at least count itself as a survivor.

What really continues to endear about the Belt, however, is that it gladly accepts its role at the end of the FBS food chain. Somebody has to be willing to fill all of those non-conference, open scheduling dates for the BCS schools. Somebody has to be willing to play in the lower-level bowls. In those regards, the Belt selflessly serves its purpose in the college football world without complaining about it.

The Belt also performs its unofificial duty as the Ellis Island of college football, with numerous programs using the league as the entry point into the FBS level of competition.

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While showing admirable pluck, the Belt also remains in a rather precarious position, sitting as far away as it does from the BCS conferences. Those sorts are rattling their sabers about a "Division 4" in which games would be limited among the teams from the five major conferences. The many non-league trips to SEC and Big 12 venues that help support the Belt programs could become endangered by such a move by the big boys. Stay tuned for more developments.

In the meantime, the Belt has a different look than last year, and will continue to change its composition in the near future. Following is a review of what has happened in the Belt since last season and where it fits in the college football landscape entering this fall.

Who left: Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and North Texas all abandoned ship and floated to Conference USA.

Who arrived: Texas State escaped from the disintegration of the WAC and provides a central Texas presence for the loop. Georgia State joins this season as it attempts to upgrade its infant football program; the addition of an Atlanta-based team, playing in the Georgia Dome no less (although, a la the Oakland A's at their O.Co Coliseum, the facility reduces to a 28,000 capacity for Panthers games) helps enhance the footprint of the league. Texas-Arlington also joins as a non-football member this school year, bringing the Belt into the Metroplex, and discussions are ongoing regarding the resurrection of the Movin' Mav football program that has been dormant since 1985.

What’s still to come: Western Kentucky is out next year, transferring to Conference USA. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, longtime FCS football powers, upgrade and come aboard next year as they jump to the FBS level. And current gridiron orphans Idaho and New Mexico State, affiliated with the WAC from 2005-12 and now campaigning as FBS independents this season, come back to their former league as associate members in football for 2014 after a nine-year absence.

Better or worse? Hard to say that the Belt has improved in the short-haul with all of the poaching from CUSA, which has also taken the league out of Florida until further notice. But the Belt has at least maintained quality commissioner leadership in transitioning from the underrated Wright Waters to former WAC chief Karl Benson last year.

Winner or loser? Short-term, the Belt is probably a loser, although merely staying afloat in the current environment is admirable (just ask the WAC). As long as the BCS conferences don't act upon their Division 4 threats to keep all games amongst themselves, the Belt figures to remain viable. Remember, flourishing (as defined at least by most FBS members) isn't necessarily the objective of Belt football; it's all about survival. In that regard the Belt is doing okay, and down the road, perhaps the additions of App State and Georgia Southern will upgrade the product and solidfy the Belt's presence for the long haul.

Following is our preview of Belt football for this fall, provided by Senior Editor Chuck Sippl. Teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with last year's straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" marks included...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor



SUN BELT PREVIEW


by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor


ARKANSAS STATE (2012 SUR 10-3; PSR 9-4; O/U 6-6)...ASU has finished 10-3 each of the last two seasons (winning the Sun Belt Conference each time) under two different coaches. After 2011, the Red Wolves saw head coach Hugh Freeze depart for Ole Miss. After 2012, ASU saw native Arkansan Gus Malzahn leave for Auburn. The team’s third coach in three years is now Bryan Harsin, the co-offensive coordinator and QB coach at Texas each of the last two seasons. Before that, Harsin--a former Boise State QB--spent a decade as an assistant at the Idaho power, including being the offensive coordinator for the Broncos’ marquee Fiesta Bowl wins over Oklahoma after the 2006 season and over TCU after the 2009 season.

Obviously, Harsin brings a track record of some success to his first head coaching job at a program that was left in pretty good shape overall by Freeze/Malzahn, with the latter having little idea the Auburn job would be opening so soon, luring him to the SEC, the nation’s premier college football league.

Harsin is not the major unknown this season in Jonesboro. That top question mark would be the team’s QB for this season following the departure for 3 ½-year starter Ryan Aplin, twice the Sun Belt Player of the Year. Harsin is expected to choose between 6-5 sr. Adam Kennedy (a transfer from Utah State who was 4-1 subbing for injured Chuckie Keeton in 2011), sr. Phillip Butterfield (the team’s backup the last two years with a history of knee problems), 6-4 soph Stephen Hogan (a versatile 6-4 type who played both WR & QB in high school), and 5-10 soph Fredi Knighten (a quick dual threat who was 3 of 5 passing LY).

The team is deep at RB, where sr. David Oku ran for 1061 YR and 16 TDs in 2012. Big-play soph RB Rocky Hayes (538 YR, 9.3 ypc) is expected to be primarily a CB this year, especially after soph RB Michael Gordon shined in spring. Quick soph J.D. McKissic (103 recs. LY) became the go-to guy shortly into his first season last year and heads a promising receiver group. The OL, engine of the offense, returns four starters.

Only five starters are back in the team’s 4-2-5 defense, but four of them are standouts--310-pound sr. DT Ryan Carrethers, sr. DE Eddie Porter (a one-time LB with 2 ½ sacks and 4 forced fumbles LY), jr. LB Oushaun Lee (100 tackles LY), and jr. S Sterling Young (2 ints. LY as a soph). Thanks to improved recruiting in Jonesboro under Freeze/Malzahn, this year’s new starters on defense have plenty of promise, including athletic CB/RB Hayes and key nickel safety Charleston Girley. Returning kicker Brian Davis hit 17 of 21 FG attempts LY.

Unless the creative Harsin comes up with a surprise at QB, ASU’s uptempo, no-huddle offense is likely to dip a bit from its impressive 2012 stats of 35 ppg, 47% on third down, +9 in turnovers, and only 15 sacks allowed in 2012. The Red Wolves will have another good team this season. But several Sun Belt teams appear ready to take a step forward in 2013, while a third straight 10-3 overall record and conference title for the Red Wolves seems less likely.

Be aware that Ark. State’s second game is at Auburn vs. 2012 Red Wolves’ HC Gus Malzahn, a fact that has been long noted by the Red Wolves’ players.


LOUISIANA-MONROE (SUR 8-5; PSR 8-5; O/U 9-4)... Is this the year that Todd Berry--whose woeful record of 5-35 in 3½ seasons at Army was literally a national embarrassmen--regains a major measure of respect? It might be, as his Warhawks appear on the verge of winning the Sun Belt Conference championship in Berry’s fourth season at the school. With a proven clutch playmaker in mobile lefty QB Kolton Browning (64%, 29 TDs, only 10 ints.; 488 yards & 7 TDs rushing), a veteran OL (4 of 5 starters back), a versatile receiving crew, and 10 (or more) starters back on defense, 2013 could be a banner year in northeast Louisiana.

Browning flashed onto the national scene in ULM’s first game last season when he led the Warhawks (30½-point underdogs) to a 34-31 overtime victory over Arkansas of the mighty SEC. One week later, Browning nearly pulled the same trick at Auburn, failing on a missed FG in overtime. In Sun Belt play, the Warhawks were 6-0 when the slippery Browning was healthy; 0-2 when he was injured (in key games vs. Lafayette & Ark. State). With several key players now returning from 2012's injuries, ULM figures to be in the Sun Belt race into the final week.

Among those returning is top RB Jyruss Edwards (438 YR; missed five games LY), who has put on 20 pounds. HC Berry also says his seasoned OL is bigger and stronger, which should boost the team’s ground game and make Browning’s life easier. So also should 6-4, 233 physical WR Je’Ron Hamm (62 recs. LY). Last year’s modified spread offense produced 34 ppg, 291 ypg passing, and a +7 turnover margin.

Already very seasoned on defense (the top six DLmen are back), Monroe welcomes back three starting stoppers who were lost to campaign-ending injury last season. Those three are sr. NT Kentarius Caldwell (lost in the fifth game LY), sr. LB Cameron Blakes (lost in the third game LY; now 241 pounds and moving from OLB to the middle), and hard-hitting soph S/LB hybrid Mitch Lane (lost in the eighth game). The rest of the five-man secondary returns intact, including sr. ballhawk S Isaiah Newsome (4 ints. LY). If all the returning vets are healthy, look for Monroe to increase its pass pressure, decrease its 29 ppg allowed, and increase its 16 interceptions. It must be pointed out, however, that the Warhawks converted only five FGs in 2012 (third fewest in the nation). That can be a problem in close games.

The Warhawks have only five home games this season. And trips to Oklahoma and Baylor figure to be very tough challenges, especially if the Sooners and Bears take note of ULM’s visits to Arkansas & Auburn LY. But the Warhawks’ Sun Belt slate is favorable to a shot at the title, with the Western Kentucky and Ark. State contests in Monroe. Will ULM’s season finale vs. rival ULL at Lafayette decide the Sun Belt championship?

ULM was in four OT games last season, winning and covering three. Note that the Warhawks are 6-1 in their last 7 games as an underdog.


LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (SUR 9-4; PSR 8-4-1; O/U 7-5)... Mark Hudspeth (a native of Mississippi) has found a home in Lafayette. How long the Ragin’ Cajuns can keep him there is likely to become a continuing issue. In two years at Louisiana, Hudspeth has established a solid program, posted an 18-8 straight-up mark (17-8-1 vs. the spread), has led ULL to bowl games each season, and has won both (each time with vocal backing at the New Orleans Bowl). What Hudspeth hasn’t yet done is win the Sun Belt Conference. And achieving that goal appears within reach in 2013 now that two-time defending champion Arkansas State has lost two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin and is breaking in its third coach in three years.

Offensively, the Cajuns (35.5 ppg in 2012) seem well set to make a solid run at the title. Terrance Broadway, a Baton Rouge native who was lured by then-HC Kevin Sumlin to operate Houston’s volatile spread attack, returns to give Louisiana one of the top dual-threat QBs in the country. Broadway played in every game last season (starting nine), passing for 2842 yards and running for 769 more. The speedy Cajuns are three-deep at RB (Alonzo Harris led the way LY with 881 yards), return three starters in their OL (plus impressive early enrollee juco right tackle Johnny Kight), and have an experienced receiving corps, including a pair of proven senior TEs and sr. WR/PR/KR Darryl Surgent. The confident, balanced, veteran, well-coached, wide-open Cajuns will put up plenty of points once again.

However, with only three starters returning on defense, it might be best to hold up just a bit on Sun Belt title talk. One thing the knowledgeable Hudspeth has done during his stay in Lafayette has been to make ULL more physical. For example, a trio of 300-pounders, including jr. Justin Hamilton (3 sacks LY) will alternate in the middle, which helps explain Louisiana’s relatively good standing (42nd in the country; allowed only 4.0 ypc) against the run last season. Jr. DE Christian Ringo had 7 sacks, while stalwart 232-pound LB Justin Anderson had 105 tackles. But the Cajuns are under-sized elsewhere on the stop unit, and defense was a major priority in recruiting. Juco CBs Cedrick Tillman and Corey Trim are expected to push early for starting jobs in a totally-rebuilt secondary that will targeted early and often in 2013.

The team has also lost ultra-valuable punter and clutch kicker Brett Baer, who nailed 20 of 23 FG attempts last season and inspired great confidence among his teammates. It’s also not good that three of the Cajuns’ first four games are on the road (two of them at Arkansas and K-State) and that important Sun Belt clashes vs. Western Kentucky and Arkansas State are also away. In fact, ULL has only five home games all season. Yes, the offense is there for a Sun Belt title run. But the defense, schedule, and new kicking game engender a good deal of skepticism. Listed as an early co-favorite to capture the Sun Belt crown, it’s more likely the Cajuns’ come up a bit short once again.

Note that Louisiana under Hudspeth is 11-1 as an underdog, with covers the last two seasons vs. the likes of Oklahoma State, Arizona, and Florida. The offense-oriented Ragin’ Cajuns are 16-9 OVER the total under Hudspeth.


WESTERN KENTUCKY (SUR 7-6; PSR 8-5; O/U 7-5)...Coach Bobby Petrino returns to college football with two goals. He says it’s only one--to win the Sun Belt Conference in Western Kentucky’s final season in the league before joining Conference USA in 2014. But there is an unspoken second goal for the 52-year-old former Louisville Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons and Arkansas Razorbacks coach--to re-establish himself as a respectable, and respected, head coach after his nasty and embarrassing shenanigans and ouster at Fayetteville during April of 2012.

Back in familiar territory in the state of Kentucky, Petrino is seeking redemption amid the hilltops of Bowling Green. And, fortunately for Petrino, he inherits a team from former HC Willie Taggart (now at South Florida) that appears primed for a major run at the conference title.

The biggest question mark for the Hilltoppers on offense is at QB, but that position has nearly always been a major strength for Petrino teams. And, by and by, it is likely to be a strength again this season. Kawaun Jakes (44 starts the last four years) and mates produced 28 ppg in 2012 and Western Kentucky’s first bowl game (a 24-21 late loss to Central Michigan in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl in Detroit). The 2013 offense is loaded with returning playmakers and a veteran OL if Petrino and (offensive coordinator and former Louisville QB Jeff Brohm) “coach up” the QB talent on hand. The leader after spring was 6-3 jr. Brandon Doughty (knee injury in 2011), followed by 6-7 soph pocket passer James Mauro (12 of 18 LY), and soph dual-threat QB DaMarcus Smith (a Louisville high school product who originally signed with UCF).

The proven weapons include prime-time RB Antonio Anderson (1728 YR; 3161 all-purpose yards in 2012) and soph RB caddy Leon Allen (317 YR), who each motored for 5.7 ypc. WR Willie McNeal (43 recs., 6 TDs LY) is a proven go-to target, while soph Austin Aikens (27.1 yards per catch on 8 receptions) is a big-play threat. Converted 6-5 WR Tyler Higbee joins jr. Mitchell Henry at TE, a position that gets lots of action in the Petrino offense. The OL returns three starters and is expected to go with four seniors. That’s useful seasoning up front.

The defense returns one of the more experienced back sevens in the nation. A senior LB group includes MLB Andrew Jackson (122 tackles LY), OLB Xavius Boyd (79) and brother OLB Bar’ee Boyd (3½ sacks LY). The DBs include safety Jonathan Dowling (6 ints. LY), safety Kiante Young (83 Ts), CB Cam Thomas (3 ints.), CB Tyree Robinson (33 career starts), and sr. nickel Arius Wright. New defensive coordinator Nick Holt (one-time Southern Cal & Washington d.c.; HC at Idaho) has moved quickly to rebuild the front four, which lost all of 2012's starters. DE is not as much of a concern as DT, where jucos Raphael Cox (an early enrollee) and Maurice Bennett will be counted upon immediately.

Petrino--disgraced in Atlanta and then in Arkansas--has been accessible to fans and local communities since his hiring. If this isn’t his last good chance, it’s close to it. And the Jim Harbaugh-trained Taggart had steadily elevated the talent level at WKU. The Toppers’ schedule is very friendly toward a run at the SBC title, including home games vs. fellow contenders Louisiana, Troy, and Arkansas State. Look to “go with” when Petrino’s young QBs begin ascending.

[Note that WKU’s season opener is in Nashville vs. big brother University of Kentucky, which was upset by the Toppers 32-31 in OT last season on a gutsy throw-back pass to the QB for a two-point conversion.]


TROY (SUR 5-7; PSR 6-6; O/U 7-5)...Troy had won or shared five straight titles in the Sun Belt through 2010. So back-to-back losing seasons of 3-9 in 2011 and 5-7 in 2012 are not only a bit of a mystery, but also a clear disappointment. Especially since prolific 6-1 sr. QB Corey Robinson is going into his fourth year as the triggerman of the Trojans’ well-established four-WR spread passing game. Robinson, who missed some time last year due to a concussion, is already the Sun Belt’s all-time leader in completions and yardage. Moreover, his backup is solid 6-0 sr. Deon Anthony, who hit 70% with 9 TDs and only 3 ints. LY, while adding a running dimension good for 390 yards and 8 TDs on the ground. Truly, Troy is set at QB. And the receiver position has quality starters in 6-1, 216 NFL prospect Eric Thomas (55 recs. LY), 5-9 WR/KR/RB Chandler Worthy, and 6-2 jr. B.J. Chitty.

Elsewhere, however, 22-year Troy HC Larry Blakeney has major rebuilding to do after losing his top 3 RBs and 4 of 5 starters in his OL. Moreover, the lone returning OL starter--jr. T Terrence Jones--is switching from RT to LT this season. The starting RB after spring was quick but small 5-6 jr. Khary Franklin, a one-time WR. Last year, Troy averaged 499 ypg and 30.6 ppg. Blakeney (using backup QB Anthony and others) will likely find a way once again to cobble together a credible rush attack to somewhat balance the Trojan offense. But there is no doubt that foes will come with lots of pressure at QB Robinson and his re-made OL until those foes get burned a few times on the ground.

Only three starters return on defense. Last year’s unit allowed 30.5 ppg and 4.7 ypc, while collecting only 13 sacks and 6 interceptions. So this year’s rebuilt unit can hardly be much of a drop off. Tasked with improving the situation at Troy is “new” defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt (d.c. of the Trojans for six years until 2002), who is back with Blakeney after stints at UAB, Iowa State and Auburn. Bolt is going with a spread-offense-countering 4-2-5 base that will best utilize the speed of Troy’s still-undersized defensive unit. One positive will be the return of sr. DT Shermane TeArt, who was lost to injury after the fifth game LY. 6-2, 230 jr. Mark Wilson (44 tackles LY) emerged toward the end of last season, as did 5-8 soph CB Chris Davis. The strongest position appears to be safety, where Chris Pickett (61 Ts LY) & Camren Hudson are well-experienced, and where jr. nickel-back Jeremy Spikner was redshirted LY.

Troy, which has sent defenders such as DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, Leodis McKelvin and Sherrod Martin to the NFL in recent years, has rarely been short of athletes on its stop unit. So, while this year’s rebuilt defense isn’t likely to be as strong as some of Blakeney’s in the past, it isn’t likely to be an abject disaster either. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Troy is facing improved competition and coaching in the Sun Belt in recent seasons. In past decades, Blakeney was able to enjoy success by flooding the field with athletic defenders, sometimes without full regard to their size or position. Now, after going 8-16 the last two seasons, the 65-year-old mentor is feeling some heat. Troy’s potent offense and the presence of recent Sun Belt newcomers (South Alabama, Texas State, Georgia State) might give the Trojans a shot at .500 in 2013. But a run at the title hardly seems likely.

TEXAS STATE (SUR 4-8; PSR 7-4-1; O/U 4-7)... Two years ago, Texas State (of San Marcos, TX) was in the FCS subdivision. Last year, in its transition to the Bowl Subdivision, the Bobcats played in the WAC (now defunct), going 2-4 in league play and 4-8 overall. Now, Texas State is a member of the re-shuffled Sun Belt, and the fit seems to be a good one.

Dennis Franchione (former New Mexico, TCU, Alabama, and Texas A&M head coach) is in his second stint in San Marcos (he first served there in 1991 & ‘92 when the school was Southwest Texas State), and he appears to have the Bobcats on an ascending path. He has accelerated recruiting, with this year’s class including 10 jucos and eight players who were one-time three-star prospects. Also coming on line are a couple of proven defenders who transferred after running into trouble at their previous four-year schools.

That defensive help will be much appreciated, as Texas State was overrun for 5.7 ypc, 33.5 ppg, and 485 ypg last season, when the Bobcat pass rushers collected only 12 sacks. While 7 starters return from that overpowered platoon, they are happy to be getting help from former TCU starting DT D.J. Yendrey (dismissed from the Horned Frogs following the drug bust at TCU in February of 2012) and from former Colorado State starting LB Michael Orakpo ( brother of the NFL’s Brian), suspended by the Rams after an off-campus fight in April of 2012. Also, returning to action will be Bobcats’ sr. LB David Mayo (41 tackles in seven games LY before a knee injury), and heads-up CB Craig Mager, who had 4 ints. in 2012. Six seniors are slated to be in the DL rotation of the Bobcats’ 4-2-5 defense, which also adds 280-pound juco Will Trevillion.

On offense, there is some skill-position rebuilding to do after starting QB Shaun Rutherford (65%, 15 TDs vs. 5 ints. LY) and starting RB Marcus Curry (685 YR, 6.1 ypc, 10 TDR) have completed their eligibility. But the rest of the unit is in pretty good shape, including 3 of 5 starters in the OL, and an experienced receiver corps that includes sr. Isaiah Battle and receiver/returners Andy Erickson and Jafus Gaines.

Sr. Tyler Arndt (only 22 of 56 passing LY for 39%, but eight career starts in 2010-11) will get the first shot at QB, with RS frosh Jordan Moore waiting for his chance. There is less uncertainty at RB, where there appears to be both depth and talent. Soph Tim Gay had 279 YR in 2012 on just 27 carries. Jr. Terrence Franks had 269 YR and 5 TDs. 5-10, 200 soph Robert Lowe impressed in spring. C.J. Best was among the top JC RBs last season. And 220-pound frosh Jamel James was once a commit to Notre Dame. Franchione’s run-first offense (5.2 ypc LY) should be able to mush the ball with enough authority this season to offer better protection for its defense, now girded with some seasoned incoming talent.

Texas State has some questions at QB with the 6-4 Arndt taking over. But, otherwise, the Bobcats appear improved overall in their second year at the FBS level. As usual, Franchione has his program very well organized off the field. Yes, he’s taken in some risky transfers and newcomers this season. But the Bobcats were 7-4-1 vs. the spread (5-3 as a dog) in their FBS debut in 2012, including a 30-13 opening-week shocker at Houston. Texas State isn’t likely to win the Sun Belt this season, but the rising Bobcats are likely to be a pest for just about every top contender.

SOUTH ALABAMA (SUR 2-11; PSR 4-9; O/U 5-7)... More big plays on offense. More size on defense. But eligible for the bowls. Those are the essential things to remember about the 2013 South Alabama team, now in just its fifth season overall and second at the FBS level. The Jaguars usually fought hard, if not always so well, last season in its transition season from the FCS, defeating only Nicholls State 9-3 and Florida Atlantic 37-34 in OT. Not that it mattered, but USA was then ineligible for the Sun Belt crown or any bowl game.

That latter restriction is removed this year. But HC Joey Jones (who once played for Bear Bryant at Alabama) says it is imperative for the pedestrian Jaguar offense (only 18.5 ppg LY) to generate more big gainers and for his hard-fighting defense (allowed more than 40 points only once) to add more big men. Says the coach, “We were smaller than everybody last year.” To help remedy that problem, Jones has added nine juco candidates to his 4-3 hybrid defense this season, including four juco DLmen and 6-4 twin safeties Steven & Steffon Fuller. The newcomers should fit well with sr. DE Alex Page (6 sacks LY), sr. “jack” LB Pat Moore (4½ sacks), sr. MLB Enrique Williams (105 tackles LY), and sr. CB Tyrell Pearson (4 ints. LY). If the jucos come through as expected, the Jags should have a very competitive defense.

Eight starters return on the offense, including sr. QB Ross Metheny and his top five receivers. Metheny (only 55%, 12 TDs, 12 ints.) had 10 starts last year, exhibiting some rust after sitting out a season following his transfer from Virginia. Metheny will be expected to demonstrate better judgment and accuracy this season. Last year’s offense had too many “threes”--only 3.3 ypc, only 333 ypg, 33 giveaways, and 33 sacks allowed. Had the transitioning Jags been listed in the regular NCAA stats last year, they would have been 103rd in offense and 116th in scoring. To help extend his QB’s life, HC Jones has brought in three new RBs, those being jucos Jay Jones & Cristobal Dinham, and true frosh Kaleb Blanchard.

In South Alabama’s de facto first full season in 2012, the Jaguars were outscored 239-111 in the first half. Thanks to this year’s heavy influx from the JC ranks, USA clearly has more talent and size on hand. It’s probably still too early in the life of the program for the Jags to realistically think about the postseason. However, a quick look at USA’s conference schedule shows that top Sun Belt contenders ULM, ULL, Arkansas State, and Western Kentucky ALL have to travel to Mobile to play the Jags this season. It would be no surprise to see Joey’s boys--pretty consistent in the effort department last season--insert themselves as a key spoiler in the SBC race.


GEORGIA STATE (SUR 1-10; PSU 1-1; O/U—)...First year for Georgia State at the FBS level, and fourth year for the Panther football program overall. Georgia State played its first two seasons (6-5, 3-8) as an Independent, then last year (1-10) as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. The Panthers’ only victory in 2012 was a 41-7 rout at Rhode Island. As satisfying as that might have been for GSA, it should be duly noted that URI went a “smooth” 0-11 in 2012. In only one other game did Georgia State hang within 21 points.

The first three seasons for the Panthers were directed by former NFL center and Alabama-Georgia Tech-Kentucky head coach Bill Curry, an Atlanta-area native and one-time star at Georgia Tech under the legendary Bobby Dodd. But taking over for the start of the school’s run in the “big time” of the Sun Belt is Trent Miles, a former Ty Willingham assistant at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington. Miles has spent the last five years resuscitating his alma mater of Indiana State, going from 0-12 in 2008 to 7-4 last season. When he took over the Sycamores, Indiana State had gone 1-32 the previous three years. So, if nothing else, Miles has experience elevating a program from virtually nothing.

Georgia State (32,000 students) has ambitious plans for the future, with its home field of the Georgia Dome. And the new offensive coordinator is Jeff Jagodzinski, the former Boston College head coach who also has lots of NFL experience. He’ll need it, as the Panthers were outscored 344-115 in the first three quarters last season before opponents relented. Versus its final slate at the FCS level, Georgia State was -20 in turnovers last season and -18 in sacks. In two games facing FBS foes, the Panthers lost 51-13 at Tennessee and 38-14 vs. UTSA.

As one would expect of the fundamental-oriented Curry, however, he had been building the team from the inside out, and all starters in the Panther OL return this season, including 6-8 sr. NFL prospect LT John Ulrick. The defense is switching to a 3-4 base, and the strength could be the front seven, led by returning DTs Theo Agnew, Terrance Woodard, juco DT George Rogers, and transfer NT Dermin Delic (via Kentucky).

The offensive star is clearly sr. WR/KR Albert Wilson, with 48 recs., 7 TDC, and one KR TD. Juco Gerald Howse is expected to capture the RB job, while soph QB Ben McLane (10 TDs, 11 ints. in 9 starts LY) is viewed as a game-manager type who will have to hold off 6-4 juco early enrollee Clay Chastain. QB-turned-WR Kelton Hill might also get a shot.

Judging from where Georgia State is coming from after 1-10 in 2012, to say the Panthers have a long way to go would be a massive understatement. Nevertheless, a foundation has been laid. And, despite being mostly overmatched again in 2013, there are enough reasons to expect a few covers (if Miles’ players can survive likely early hammerings at West Virginia and Alabama).


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