by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

We continue our 2018 TGS College FB previews with a look at the West half of the Sun Belt.  As always, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" records included...

Arkansas State (2017 SUR 7-5; PSR 6-6; O-U 5-7)...Arkansas State has the top returning triggerman in the league back and is 21-3 SU in league play over the past three seasons, making HC Blake Anderson’s team a heavy favorite to get to the league’s freshly minted championship playoff game.

Sr. QB Justice Hansen has thrown a TD pass in 17 straight games and was named the Sun Belt offensive player of the year last season as a junior after throwing for 3967 yds. and setting eight new ASU records. In 2017 the Red Wolves ranked 10th in the nation in total offense and 5th in passing, scoring 38 ppg. Hansen has top RB Warren Wand (5.2 ypc) returning along with the best receiving corps in the conference at his disposal. The talented set of targets is led by 6-6 WR Justin McInnis, who gained 800 yds. on his 49 receptions in his first season playing for Arkansas State after transferring from Arkansas and sitting out 2016. The OL could be a dominant unit, relative to the SBC opposition. Sr. left tackle Lanard Bonner was first-team all-Sun Belt Conference in 2017.

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While the offense is a loaded gun, Arkansas State has some questions on defense. Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen welcomes back three of his top four tacklers, but will be replacing five players who made the all-SBC team. Losing that many Sun Belt stars indicates a small step backwards for a unit that was a respectable 40th in pass efficiency defense, 56th in scoring defense and 33rd against the run. Some of the holes and depth issues were addressed by transfers and juco players who should step into the depth chart immediately on the stop side. Most notably ex-Ball State DT Kevin Thurmon and 336-lb. juco NT Tony Adams are strong candidates. Cauthen’s defenses held foes to 370 ypg and 3.6 ypc over the past two years, when they also had to make up for graduated talent.

Short of an injury to Hansen, it’s difficult to see a scenario where the Red Wolves don’t at least win the SBC West and get to the conference title game. They avoid Troy and host App State from the East, and will play West challenger La.-Monroe in the friendly confines of Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro. Pointspread note: Anderson’s Red Wolves are 21-14 as a favorite in his tenure in Jonesboro, 7-3 in the last 10 chances as road chalk.

Louisiana-Monroe (2017 SUR 4-8; PSR 6-6; O-U 8-4)...ULM hasn’t won more than four games in a season since 2013. HC Matt Viator, entering his third year in Monroe, is finding it difficult to reproduce the success he had at McNeese State, as has teams have gone 4-8 in each of his first two years in the FBS after never having had a losing season in the FCS. With SEC reps Texas A&M and Ole Miss on the schedule along with 2017 bowl team Southern Miss, it will be hard to get back to four or five wins, and it will take a great deal of luck to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2012.

The top weapon on offense is jr. Warhawk QB Caleb Evans, who generated 3451 all-purpose yards and accounted for 30 TDs last season. If his spring performance is an indication, he will improve on those numbers in 2018. Evans triggered the nation’s 21st-best offense, a unit that generated 458 ypg. Viator said Evans improved his decision making and is much more familiar with the entire playbook after spring workouts. Evans is just one of nine returning offensive starters for ULM, including the team’s top rusher, sr. Derrick Gore, and sr. WR Marcus Green, who led the team with 54 catches. Green is also the league’s top veteran return man. The offensive line has essentially five starters returning after shifting LT Devin Jackson to G to fill in, while LT will be taken by soph Trace Ellison, who started five games in 2017, four at LT after Jackson moved to G. The offense appears fully capable of equaling last season’s 34 ppg.

The defense has eight returning starters, but after giving up 40 ppg (125th) over the last two years, d.c. Mike Collins might still have trouble sleeping at night. His unit yielded 532 ypg in 2017, ranking 128th in that category. A handful of 2017 starters were bumped down the depth chart during spring work, as the front seven needed to address giving up 5.6 ypc a year ago, and the vet secondary needed to get bigger after playing a pair of 5-9 corners last season. The DBs ranked 127th in giving up 299 ypg passing. Seventeen of the top 20 tacklers return this season, so there is adequate returning experience. But the quality might be an issue.

Viator has reason to be positive overall. His offense will ring up numbers in Sun Belt play, and ULM ran into some tough luck a year ago, losing five games by 11 points or fewer. His defense will improve, and, in his third season, most of his players were recruited by his staff. Propping up the defense is a priority, but the tough non-conference schedule could prepare the Warhawks for a run at six wins. Bowl eligibility could come down to avenging last season’s double-OT loss to arch-rival La.-Lafayette in the regular-season finale, but a postseason trip isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Pointspread note: ULM is just 6-13 in its last 19 chances as a home favorite.

Louisiana-Lafayette (2017 SUR 5-7; PSR 4-8; O-U 8-4)...New HC Billy Napier inherits some decent talent and experience, and recruited a handful of jucos and grad transfers who can fill in some gaps. Napier has a solid resume after spending six seasons under Nick Saban at Alabama and was a success as the offensive coordinator with Arizona State last season. He has boosted the staff in Lafayette, convinced the school to pump more money into the program and has modeled it all after Saban’s Alabama dynasty, including hiring several staff members who worked in Tuscaloosa.

Offensively, Napier can be optimistic about the prospects of maintaining or improving on the 28 ppg output from 2017. Eight starters return on the attack side, including the leading rusher (soph Trey Ragas; 5.7 ypc, 9 TDs) and the team’s top seven receivers. The QB situation was clouded when holdover starter Jordan Davis transfered after spring. That’s not a major loss, however, as sr. Andre Nunez and soph Levi Lewis both had a better passer rating last season than did Davis. TE Chase Rogers was third-team all-SBC in 2017 as a true frosh, and the offensive line is experienced.

The Ragin' Cajuns return just three starters from a horrible defense that gave up 40 ppg (123rd) and 493 ypg (also 123rd). Possible improvement could come from added depth, as most of the incoming recruiting class lines up on defense. But this will be one of the least experienced defenses in the league, learning a new system from a new coaching staff. Ole Miss graduate transfer Garrald McDowell might help shore up the Ragin’ Cajun defensive line, and juco MLB Lorenzo McCaskill has been penciled in as a starter as well, but those addition won’t move the needle. The CBs are both new, on one side Nevada graduate transfer Kendall Johnson gets a starting shot, and on the other is a converted WR, Michael Jacquet. Clearly, Napier is rebuilding the defense as fast as he can.

Napier and his Louisiana side will get a good look at where it stands in the overall jungle of college football in September, when the Ragin’ Cajuns visit Alabama and Mississippi State. (Perhaps that’s where the extra money to prop up the staff and support crew is coming from.) Louisiana has a tough schedule, as, aside from ‘Bama and Mississippi State, they play the top three Sun Belt sides (Arkansas State, Troy and App. State), and New Mexico State was a bowl team last year, so that’s no gimme homecoming match. La.-Lafayette will likely need to win at archrival ULM in order to have a shot at bowl eligibility, but it could happen if Napier can train a QB quickly. Pointspread note: The Ragin’ Cajuns have covered just 14 of their last 37 chances as a home favorite.

South Alabama (2017 SUR 4-8; PSR 6-6; O-U 3-9)...The Jags have a new head coach in the person of FCS veteran Steve Campbell. Former USA HC Joey Jones, the man who launched the football program 11 years ago, threw in the towel after the team was eliminated from bowl contention in its 52-0 loss at Georgia Southern late last season. This is Campbell’s first FBS head coaching job after honing his skills with stops at Auburn, Middle Tennessee, and Mississippi State as an assistant and Mississippi Gulf Coast JC and Central Arkansas as a HC.

Campbell, who has been an OL specialist at several of his stops, will set to work fixing a South Alabama offense that ranked 117th in scoring (19.8 ppg), 125th in rushing (97.3 ypg ; 3.1 ypc) and 111th in total offense. On paper, six starters return, but one of them is QB Cole Garvin, who is in a battle with 6-5 RS frosh Cephus Johnson and sr. Evan Orth, and he might lose the starting job. Garvin completed 53%, threw for 1490 yds. with a 7-7 TD-int. ratio and his QB rating was worse than that of Dallas Davis, who shared starting duties with Garvin last season. Davis transferred to UAB, so the writing on the wall says the untested Johnson will get the call. Only one of the top four rushers returns this season. And four starting offensive linemen are gone as well from a unit that gave up too many sacks and didn’t open many holes for the run game. Campbell will have to coach up the inexperienced front five. The top five receivers return, a group that combined for 159 catches for 2173 yds., although just 10 TDs.

Jaguars weren’t terrible defensively last season (26.5 ppg allowed) and ranked 46th against the run (152 ypg rushing), but were 113th in passing yards allowed. With 10 of the top 13 tacklers returning, the “D” figures to improve, and might get a boost from a handful of jucos and transfers that were around in spring. It is, by default, the strength of the team.

The strength of the team might lie in the fact that the Jaguars have the top pair of kickers in the Sun Belt. South Alabama PK Gavin Patterson made 16 of 19 FGs and P Corliss Waitman had a 45.2 gross and 41.7 net as the Jags ranked 7th in net punting. Both were named first-team all-SBC last season.

With a coach who’ll be learning on the job a bit in moving up to FBS, an inexperienced QB and OL on offense and a defense that’s far from a finished product, can’t put South Alabama on the board for much improvement. Still, five of the Jag losses a year ago were by eight points or fewer, so an improvement to five wins this season is possible. However, with six 2017 bowl teams on the slate, it’s unlikely. Pointspread note: USA is just 6-13-1 vs. the points in its last 20 games on the road and 8-17 vs. the number at Ladd-Peebles Stadium since 2014.

Texas State (2017 SUR 2-10; PSR 5-7; O-U 6-6)...Everett Withers is 4-20 SU in his first two seasons on the job, and it appears as if Texas State will finish at the foot of the standings this year as well. The schedule doesn’t present many prospects for moving beyond the two-win level. The Bobcats open at Big Ten representative Rutgers, play their two most winnable Sun Belt games on the road, 2017 victim Coastal Carolina is off the slate in 2018, and the season closes with November dates against the Belt “big three” of App State, Troy and Arkansas State.

The offense returns seven starters, but that unit scored just 17 ppg and ranked 122nd in the country and last in the Sun Belt in that department. In fact, the team has scored fewer than 18 ppg in the two seasons with Withers in charge. The attack might improve in the run game this season after finishing 117th in yards per rush last year, considering the top five rushers return along with four starting offensive linemen for the Bobcats. The leading returning starter up front is jr. T Aaron Brewer, who’s been a third and second team all-SBC selection in his first two seasons. Soph QB Willie Lee Jones got his feet wet but didn’t produce much in spot duty in 2017. Even if he approaches graduated QB Damian Williams’ 2017 production (2174 yds. in total offense), which is a leap, the Bobcats don’t figure to put up more than 21 ppg.

The Texas State defense, which yielded 38 ppg over the last three seasons, has a new coordinator, as Chris Woods, formerly at Oklahoma, takes the job. On the surface, the Bobcats were solid against the run, yielding just 3.7 ypc. On closer review, the secondary was so easy to beat, why bother running? Texas State ranked 126th in passing yards allowed (297 ypg). The Bobcats gave up 321 ypg passing in Sun Belt play last season, and the defense didn’t intercept a pass all year! The lack of interceptions contributed heavily to a 125th rank in turnover margin on the season. Seven starters return, including four of the top five tacklers, led by jr. LB Bryan London. It’s an experienced defense, but that experience isn’t a positive if the it continues to fail as it has the last three seasons.

Withers’ team will get a bit of a bump from the fact that he has 14 starters returning and he’s in his third season on the job. Still, there’s no indication the talent level is up to challenging for bowl eligibility. Pointspread note: The Bobcats are just 4-8 vs. the points at home in the last two seasons.

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