TGS 2019 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE SUN BELT--PART II
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
We continue our TGS previews for the 2019 College Football season with a look at the East half of the Sun Belt. As usual, teams are listed in their predicted order of finish, with 2018 straight-up, spread, and over/under records included.
Appalachian State (SUR 11-2; PSR 8-3-2; O/U 7-6)...Longtime HC Scott Satterfield moved on to Louisville, so Appalachian State will be guided by former NC State o.c. Eliah Drinkwitz going forward. Drinkwitz has the most experienced team in the SBC and one of the most experienced in college football this year and the Mountaineers are clearly the favorites to repeat as SBC champions.
The offense alone boasts four first or second-team all-Sun Belt performers in jr. QB Zac Thomas (2039 YP, 21-6 TD-int., 504 YR, 10 rush TDs), jr. RB Darrynton Evans (1187 YR, 6.6 ypc), jr. C Noah Hannon and sr. LT Victor Johnson. Not a bad group among the 10 returning offensive starters. Sprinkle in the fact that big-play WR Corey Sutton (44 recs., 10 TDs, 17.6 ypc) leads a receiving crew that returns seven of the top eight pass catchers and backup RB Marcus Williams (553 YR, 4 TD LY). These guys are loaded offensively, returning 87% of their output from a season ago, when they outgained foes by 143 yds. per game. Drinkwitz, a well-regarded o.c. recently at Bosie State and NC State, oversaw a Wolfpack offense that ranked 25th in total offense in 2017 and 26th last year when they were 8th in the country in passing yards, and the App State attack has a chance to outperform those numbers. The vet offensive line has four starters back from a group that helped the team gain 5.8 ypc LY and has averaged yielding just 12 sacks a season and churning for 5.7 ypc over the past four years.
Defensively, ASU is in just as good of shape. Veteran d.c. Ted Roof (former HC at Duke and recently d.c. at Georgia Tech) will direct an aggressive, experienced group that has been the dominant defense in the conference for the last four years, allowing just 18.2 ppg over that span. The Mounties ranked 6th in the country in total defense last season, 4th in scoring defense and 3rd in pass efficiency. ASU yielded just 3.4 ypc thanks in large part to first-team sr. all-SBC LBs Akeem Davis-Gaither (105 tackles and 10 TFL) and Jordan Fehr (86 & 5½ sacks). They are joined by holdover starting sr. LB Noel Cook, who had 75 stops and 11½ TFL. Sr. safeties Josh Thomas and Desmond Franklin each had four interceptions in 2019. Foes scored just 15.5 ppg and gained just 4.4 yds. per play against ASU last season, and eight of their top 12 tacklers return, as well as a total of 14 players with double-digit stops.
The only fly in the ointment for the Mountaineers is the fact they must visit rival Troy in the regular-season finale, a game which will, in all likelihood decide the SBC East. However, note that ASU is 21-3 SU in conference games the past three years, winning or sharing the championship each season. They are 3-1 SU against division rival Troy since entering the Sun Belt, and are 16-8 SU on the road the last four seasons. App State looks like a big fish in a little pond, and the Mounties are more experienced and have far fewer questions than the Trojans, and it appears whoever comes out on top Nov. 29 will win the East title and have a leg up in the SBC title game against the weaker West.
Troy (SUR 10-3; PSR 9-3-1; O/U 8-5)...Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way. We know Appalachian State is the overwhelming favorite in the SBC...16 returning starters, dominant performance in the SBC last year...yadda, yadda...yeah, we get it. But know this, if Troy QB Kaleb Barker hadn’t hurt his knee October 4 against Georgia State, things wouldn’t be so clear. Barker was completing 73% of his throws for 1013 yds., with a 10-2 TD-int. ratio before being put out for the season. He also had 261 YR and 3 rush TDs in his 5½ games in 2018. The Trojans were forced to use inconsistent Sawyer Smith at the controls, and, while showing flashes of ability, he wasn’t ultimately up to the task. That task was to win the division, and that meant winning at Appalachian State in the regular-season finale. Smith completed 17 of his 34 passes for 160 yds. with two interceptions, while Troy lost two fumbles as well and fell 21-10 in Boone. Smith recovered for a big effort in the Dollar General Bowl win over Buffalo, but transferred to Kentucky after spring when both RS frosh Gunnar Watson and juco and ex-Vandy transfer Jacob Free were getting more reps. New HC Chip Lindsey (ex-offensive coordinator at Auburn and Arizona State) takes over and he has a capable, experienced QB and a bell cow RB to work with.
Will things be different this year? Barker’s return, coupled with the presence of four holdover OL starters, along with first-team all-SBC RB B.J. Smith, the addition of juco WR Kaylon Geiger (70 catches LY as a JC) and 6-5 ex-Mississippi State and juco WR Reggie Todd bode well for the Trojans. This season the schedule is in Troy’s favor, as the Trojans have the home field against SBC East favorite App. State and against challenger Georgia Southern. Sure, the offense will have a new system under Lindsey, but SBC favorite ASU has a new HC as well, and the offense has averaged more than 30 ppg three straight seasons.
Defensively, 14 players with double-digit tackles return, and new d.c. Brandon Hall knows the personnel well, as he was the LB coach for the Trojans last season. Stability is a good thing in this case, as Troy has held SBC foes to fewer than 20 ppg in each of the last three years. Granted, there are losses on this side of the ball. Among the five starters departing are a pair of top drawer SBC CBs, the top tackler and top sack man. Still, sr. DE Jarvis Hayes had 4½ sacks and 44 stops LY. Ex-Oklahoma recruit Will Sunderland will get a fulltime gig at CB (21 Ts despite just 2 starts LY), returning S Melvin Tyus is a likely all-SBC choice this season after making 13 starts with 60 tackles in 2018, jr. “Spear” Tyler Murray (3rd all-SBC LY) had 49 Ts and 3 ints. and soph MLB Carlton Martial had 76 tackles (2nd on the team) in just 9 starts last year, so he’s fully capable of taking over as the top dog. In total, 10 players return who started more than one game last year, and the Trojans rank 24th in returning defensive production.
Any advantage Troy has is clearly in the schedule, hosting the probable SBC East decider against Appalachian State. If Barker stays healthy, the Trojans could avenge last season’s loss at ASU. But will he stay healthy, and even if he does, it might not be enough. Troy was 31-19-1 vs. the points under Neal Brown, including a 9-2 mark as a road dog and 12-4 tally coming off a loss. Now it’s Chip Lindsey’s job to try to maintain the level of achievement.
Georgia Southern (SUR 10-3; PSR 9-4; O/U 6-7)...HC Chad Lunsford pulled off one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college football last season, his second year in charge at Georgia Southern. After taking over at midseason of 2017 for Tyson Summers following an 0-6 start, the team finished 2-10 SU. Last year, with 17 returning starters, virtually the same team, he guided the Eagles to a remarkable 10-3 mark including a Camellia Bowl victory over Eastern Michigan. Georgia Southern even managed to hang the only conference loss of the season on Appalachian State in convincing fashion, springing a 34-14 upset of the Mountaineers on Oct. 25. The turnaround was executed by GSU going “back to the future” and re-installing the run option offense that had served the team so well under Willie Fritz and Jeff Monken earlier in the decade.
The switch in offenses resulted in a jump from 4.1 ypc in 2017 to 5.4 ypc last year, when the Eagles finished with the 7th-ranked run attack in the country. Clever jr. QB Shai Werts was the key to the offense, as he gained 908 YR with 15 TDs while throwing for another 987 with 10 TDP (with no interceptions, which was a main factor in GSU ranking 6th in pass efficiency in the country). Werts is back along with six other offensive starters. The major loss on this side of the ball was RB Wesley Fields (1050 YR, 9 TD), but backup jr. Wesley Kennedy (7.9 ypc) is ready to step up, and Oklahoma State transfer J.D. King, who gained 469 YR with a 4.7 ypc mark in the Big 12 as a frosh before taking his talents to Statesboro. King is a big-stage talent who should step right in and produce. Interestingly, GSU has become a landing place for other Power Five transfers, as ex-Georgia sr. G Jake Edwards will assume a starters role as well. Three other holdover starters in the offensive line return, a unit that is deep and competitive up front.
The Eagles made great strides last season under d.c. Scot Sloan, rising from 98th in scoring defense in 2017 when allowing 32.2 ppg to 21.5 ppg and a 25th-ranked national spot last year. Seven starters return from that group, which also improved its run defense from 5.2 ypc in ‘17 to 3.9 ypc LY while cutting 53 ypg from its total defense figure. Sloan’s “D” has 10 of its top 13 tacklers back, all of whom made at least 35 stops. Sloan, who was the d.c. at Appalachian State before moving to Statesboro last year, definitely had a hand in the Eagles holding the Mountaineers to a season-low 288 total yards in GSU’s signature win a year ago. The Eagles led the nation in turnover margin with a +22 mark, ranking 10th in takeaways with 27. Sr. CB Kindle Vildor was a first-team all-league pick (42 stops, 4 ints., 11 PBU) while bookend CB Monquavion Brinson was named 2nd-team all-SBC for the second straight season and is the leading returning tackler with 67. Jr. DE Raymond Johnson was also a 2nd-team all-conference selection in 2018 and was the leading sack man for the Eagles. LB Rashad Byrd only started three games LY, but his 54 tackles were impressive, while soph MLB Reynard Ellis, a Furman transfer, took the starting job from holdover starter Chris Harris. Another transfer, sr. grad student and safety Donald Rutledge joins the team after a successful career at Savannah State (avg. 55 tackles L3Ys).
Lunsford likely won’t coax double-digit wins from the Eagles again this season, not with visits to LSU and Minnesota on the docket as well as stops at a revenge-minded App. State, Troy and Arkansas State, but getting to seven wins and a likely return to a bowl is very doable.
Georgia State (SUR 2-10; PSR 2-9-1; O/U 7-5)...Georgia State HC Shawn Elliott had an inexperienced crew in his second season in charge a year ago, and it showed. The Panthers ranked 103rd in scoring and 124th in total defense in crashing to a 2-10 disaster from his smooth maiden voyage in 2017, when the Panthers managed seven wins including a Cure Bowl victory over Western Kentucky.
With seven starters and 73% of the team’s offensive production returning, one might expect the GSU offense to improve under the direction of multi-threat QB Dan Ellington. Ellington was the team’s leading rusher with 625 YR and threw for 2119 yds. with a 12-5 TD-int. rate after coming in as a juco transfer. The offense loses top receiver Penny Hart, but the next nine pass catchers return, along with the team’s top two RBs. The problem will be in the development of the offensive line, which will insert three new soph or RS frosh starters. Looking at the glass half full, RT Travis Glover was first-team all-Georgia as a prep, and the other two are actually RS sophs who played in 10 and 12 games each in 2018. New o.c. Brad Glenn has enough pieces to work with, so expect a positive jump offensively.
The defense also has seven starters and 73% of its tackles returning, as 9 of the top 11 tacklers (and five of the top six) return. Sr. LB Ed Curney had 81 stops to lead the team last season, and sr. DE Terry Thomas received all-SBC mention, sr. S Remy Lazarus had 75 tackles to finish second in that department. Still, there’s a lot of work to do to get this defense back to an acceptable level. Last year the Panthers gave up 524 yards or more seven times (in 2017 that happened just once!).
The schedule has some bumps (at Tennessee and Western Michigan; Arkansas State, Army, Troy and App. State come to Turner Field...errrr...Georgia State Stadium in Atlanta), and having to go to Coastal Carolina (rated behind the Panthers), ULM (who they beat LY) and Georgia Southern will make getting to five wins difficult. More likely it’s four wins and a pat on the back for Elliott’s crew in 2019.
Coastal Carolina (SUR 5-7; PSR 5-7; O/U 6-5)...On the surface, Coastal Carolina’s jump to the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference has been positive. Eight SU wins and four one-possession losses in two seasons would appear to represent a competitive team. Former o.c. Jamey Chadwell, who was interim HC in 2017 when Joe Moglia took a leave due to medical reasons, was back at o.c. a year ago but a ready-made choice to take over the program when Moglia retired for good after last season. The team has responded positively, at least on the surface, as the Chanticleers lost only a few players in the transfer portal, the most notable of which was starting QB Kilton Anderson.
Eight defenders return, but it’s a stop unit that ranked 110th in total defense and 120th against the run. The Chants’ defense has yielded 417 ypg or more in five of the last seven seasons (and 33.6 ppg L2Ys), and inexperienced second-year d.c. Marvin Sanders (L.A. high school HC; asst. DB coach at Southern Cal for a year) should hopefully be learning on the job. The “D” will be infused with some transfers and with some younger players winning jobs, so there is some hope, but remember, the team was giving up 400 ypg when it was in the FCS playing the likes of the Citadel, Gardner-Webb, NC A&T and Monmouth. Still, eight of the top 10 tacklers return, but the run defense simply must regain respectability. The Chants allowed 6.5 ypc last year, and this despite the insertion of Clemson transfer Sterling Johnson at the nose and juco Teddy Gallagher at MLB. Those two will return, but they must improve, because the team is breaking in a pair of inexperienced safeties in juco transfer Enock Makonzo and soph Brayden Matts (20 Ts LY).
Offensively new co-offensive coordinators Willy Korn and Newland Isaac have work to do as well. As noted, last year's starting QB Kilton Anderson left the program and will be replaced either by soph Fred Payton or fellow soph Bryce Carpenter, who combined to complete 66% for 1141 yds., 11 TDs and 4 ints. in relief, numbers that were superior in every facet to Anderson’s performance. Perhaps the reason he left is he saw the handwriting on the wall? Jr. holdover RB C.J. Marable gained 719 yds. with an impressive 6.1 ypc, and he will have four holdover starters back to open holes for him this season. The receiving corps must replace its best pass catcher of the last few seasons, all-SBC decorated WR Malcolm Williams, but soph WR Jeremiah Miller and sr. slot Ky’Jon Tyler combined to equal Williams’ 47 catches.
Chadwell’s Chanticleers are going to have a difficult time getting back to a five-win level this year, and lack of depth showed last season when the Chants went down and went down hard in dropping their last four games SU and vs. the points.
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