1. Arkansas State
The offense gets back playmaking QB Fredi Knighten along with GoDaddy star target Booker Mays, but there’s more to get excited about. Michael Gordon and Johnston White are back after finishing the year as the team’s top two backs, and the receiving corps is loaded with everyone of note returning including Dijon Paschal and Tres Houston. Three starters return up front, losing C Tyler Greve and OG Devin Mondie.
The defense returns loaded, too, with three of the four starters back up front, losing DT Dexter Blackmon, and while hitting-machine Qushaun Lee is finished, Xavier Woodson is back. The secondary is the problem with three starters gone including FS Sterling Young and CB Artez Brown, but SS Money Hunter should be terrific as the new leader of the bunch. PK Logan Spry is back after a rocky year, and P Luke Ferguson returns after a strong campaign, averaging 41.5 yards per pop.
2. Appalachian State
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.
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. Bentlee Critcher is back to handle all of the kicking duties after averaging 40.7 yards per punt and hitting 7-of-10 field goals.
3. Georgia Southern
The machine will keep on rolling with QB Kevin Ellison for what should be another huge year running the ball. The problem? Four of the five starters have to be replaced up front, with only LG Darien Foeman returning. Fortunately, most of the top backs will help out Ellison with Matt Breida and L.A. Ramsby a dangerous 1-2 pop. There might not be much of a passing game, but it’s still not a positive to lose Kentrellis Showers and Zach Walker – B.J. Johnson is the top returning wideout by far.
Leading tackler Edwin Jackson is gone from the linebacking corps, but the next four top tacklers are back including Antwione Williams on the weakside and Deshawntee Gallon. All four starters are back up front, with NT Jay Ellison among the league’s best interior presences. Three starters are back in the secondary led by the safety tandem of Antonio Glover and Matt Dobson, who both have all-star potential. P Ryan Nowicki is back after averaging over 40 yards per punt, and PK Alex Hanks is back for his senior year after hitting 10-of-14 field goals.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have to replace QB Terrance Broadway, and now the hope is for Brooks Haack to be ready to roll even with some key losses. Sun Belt Player of the Year Elijah McGuire is back at running back, but Alonzo Harris is done. Three starters return up front including tackle Mykhael Quave and guard Donovan Williams on the left side and Octravian Anderson on the right – the line will be terrific again. The receiving corps needs some work with Jamal Robinson gone from the middle of last year and James Butler done. Al Riles and Gabe Fuselier are now the main men.
The defensive side needs even more help with five of the top six and seven of the top nine tacklers gone. Good luck replacing Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton in the middle of the line, and losing corners Trevence Patt and Corey Trim is a problem. Fortunately, the safety tandem of Travis Crawford and Tracy Walker should be excellent, and Dominique Tovell and Tre’maine Lightfoot are two nice linebackers. DE Chris Prater has to become a pass rushing terror. PK Hunter Stover is done after hitting 18-of-22 field goals, and P Daniel Cadona is finished after averaging 43 yards per kick.
The Warhawks have to find another quarterback who can throw like Pete Thomas, but since that’s not happening, Brayle Brown will have to do a little of everything to keep the offense moving, especially with Tyler Cain and Kaylon Watson to hand off to. However, top rusher Centarius Donald is done along with leading receiver Kenzee Jackson. However, three of the top four receivers are back including Rashon Ceaser and Ajalen Holley, who should form one of the league’s best tandems. Two key starters – guard Ben Risenhoover and tackle Joseph Treadwell – are done, but the line should still be solid.
The defense has the potential to be dominant with five of the front six back and four of the five starters returning in the secondary. Leading pass rusher Michael Johnson is back at linebacker, and leading tackler, NT Gerrand Johnson, is back to anchor the line. Six of the top seven tacklers are back, with Mitch Lane back as one of the league’s best safeties. PK Justin Manton is gone after hitting 20-of-24 field goals, and Justin Manton has to be replaced after averaging 42.4 yards per punt.
6. Texas State
The running game should be unstoppable at times with QB Tyler Jones back to lead the attack and RB Robert Lowe returning. The O line loses C Collin Fissell and RG Charlie Will Tuttle, but the left side returns intact including the backups. The receiving corps loses top target, TE Bradley Miller, but the wideouts should be great with Brandon Smith and C.J. Best back along with Jafus Gaines, who came up with a team-leading four touchdown grabs in eight games.
It’s going to take a little work to find big producers who can replace LB David Mayo and four of the top five tacklers. No. 2 tackler Trey McGowan is back in the linebacking corps, but the line loses top pass rusher Michael Odiari. Fortunately, three starters are back up front, and three starters return to the secondary that loses FS Colby Targun and CB Craig Mager. CB David Mims will be an all-star, and S Demetrius Woodard is going to be a good one. Will Johnson is gone after handling all of the kicking duties, and now Jack Rhoades will make a push for punting gig.
7. South Alabama
2014 was when it was supposed to come together for the offense, and it did in several ways. Now the O has to replace QB Brandon Bridge and top back Kendall Houston. The big issue is on the line where Ucambre Williams and Drew Dearman are gone from the left side. Losing top two receivers Shavarez Smith and Jereme Jones isn’t a positive, either, and not having safety valve TE Wes Saxton around anymore will hurt.
As rough as the rebuilding might be on offense, that’s nothing compared to a defense that loses five of its top six tacklers and eight of the top ten. Three of the four starters up front are done, and Maleki Harris, Davin Hawkins and Desmond LaVelle are all gone from the linebacking corps. Both quarters have to be replaced, but E.J. May should be ready to do more. The safety tandem of Roman Buchanon and Antonio Carter should be a good one. PK Aleem Sunanon and P Brandon McKee are back.
8. New Mexico State
Will Tyler Rogers be able to jumpstart the offense? The veteran quarterback couldn’t stop throwing picks, but he put up decent numbers otherwise. The ground game needs Larry Rose III to come up with another big year after cranking out 1,102 yards and nine scores, and Xavier Hall isn’t a bad No. 2 option. Four starters return up front, only losing longtime C Valerian Ume-Ezeoke – the line will be solid. Top target Teldrick Morgan is back, but Kerrel Brown and Joseph Matthews are gone from the receiving corps – there are other options, like Joshua Bowen, ready to step in.
The really, really, really young defense gets the top four tacklers back, starting with MLB Rodney Butler as part of a decent-looking corps that took its lumps last year. There wasn’t any pass rush whatsoever, but three starters return up front. It’s more of the same in the secondary that gets back three starters, only losing CB Winston Rose. In all, eight underclassmen started last year, and now they should be more consistent – at least that’s the hope. The Aggies need to find a steady punter, and they lose PK Maxwell Johnson after he hit 7-of-12 field goals last year.
9. Georgia State
Bombing QB Nick Arbuckle returns along with more than enough weapons to hope for a better offense. The rushing attack might not have done much, but the top three backs return led by Marcus Caffey, but he’s a defensive back by trade. The line gets three starters back, losing C Tim Wynn and OT A.J. Kaplan, but it has to give Arbuckle more time and needs to get more going for the ground game.
The porous defense has a superstar to work around in LB Joseph Peterson and more than enough experience to expect more production. LB Jarrell Robinson is the only lost starter, but he was one of the few Panthers who got to the quarterback. The top four tacklers are back with Trey Payne a nice-looking linebacker next to Peterson, and the safety tandem of Tarris Batiste and Chandon Sullivan extremely promising. With Matt Hubbard gone, Wil Lutz should handle the kicking duties after averaging 39.22 yards per punt and hitting 7-of-8 field goals.
New head coach Neal Brown has to come up with more offense, and it starts with QB Brandon Silvers and the running back duo of Brandon Burks and Jordan Chunn. The receiving corps should be okay despite losing leading receiver Chandler Worthy – Bryan Holmes leads a group good enough to get by. The line is the potential big problem losing three starters, but getting back the left side in tackle Antonio Garcia and guard Dalton Bennett.
Three starters are gone off the defensive front, only losing DT Billy Dobbs, and the top three tacklers are back with safeties Montre Kitchens and JaQuadrian Lewis leading the way. There has to be some semblance of a pass rush, but the top three sackers are back with Tyler Roberts and Jamal Stadom back on the ends. The secondary has a whole needs to be better. Corner Ethan Davis is gone, but Tray Hall is back on the other side. Ryan Kay returns after hitting 10-of-14 field goals, but he has to be stronger on punts averaging under 40 yards per try.
The Vandals might need a ton of improvement on both sides of the ball, and it starts at quarterback where Matt Linehan and Chad Chalich will try to generate more for the passing game that was good, but gave up way too many interceptions. Leading receiver Joshua McCain is gone, and TE Justin Podrabsky has to be replaced, but Richard Montgomery, Deon Watson and Jacob Sannon should shine with the veteran QBs. Elijhaa Penny is back as the team’s top rusher, and three starters are back up front with enough depth to come up with some good position battles.
DT Quayshawne Buckley and DE Maxx Forde are tough to replace, but all three starting linebackers are back and Ryan Edwards returns on the nose. Leading tackler Marc Millan returns at linebacker, and Irving Steele isn’t a bad one on the weakside. Russell Siavii will be among the leaders in the secondary from his safety spot, and Jayshawn Jordan should be the top corner. For good and bad, the team’s top star might be Austin Rehkow, who only hit 11-of-19 field goals, but averaged a whopping 47.75 yards per punt.
2015 Pre-Preseason Sun Belt Rankings
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