When the Thunderbirds square off against the Cougs in Pullman on Sep. 14, (Pac-12 Networks, Time TBD), they're not likely to be awed by their FBS opponent. They played Cal last year (L, 51-30) and they upset UNLV the year before (W, 41-16). Despite a losing season, they knocked off ranked FCS opponents twice last year.
SUU went 5-6 last year and lost a lot from that offense. Graduating in 2012 were the most prolific QB in the program's history, three starting o-linemen and the starting running back.
Overall, SUU returns 15 starters in 2013 -- six on offense, seven on defense and two specialists. They have 38 lettermen returning, and lost 26 to graduation.
THERE ARE STILL four, count 'em four, quarterbacks in the mix for the starting job according to the coaches -- senior Jacob Allie, junior Aaron Cantu, sophomore Mitch Dahlen and freshman Tannon Pedersen. None of them separated themselves from the others in spring ball, although Allie looked to have a slight edge.
Whoever wins the starting gig will be leading an offense that will operate at a fast tempo. The SUU offense is multiple, with four starting wideouts in their base.
The o-line will be anchored by C Gavin Farr, who has been on a number of FCS preseason awards lists. He'll be joined by three seniors up front but only one of them is a returning starter - left tackle Cody Burgess. Daron Griffin and Kyle Donaldson both saw time last season as reserves and have already won the starting jobs.
The offensive coordinator opined this spring that it might be the best offensive line in his six years at the school, but other data indicates that might be typical spring optimism and coach-speak...
In addition to replacing 3/5ths of the starters, there are three more linemen -- senior Brad Meyer, junior Nick Nissen and redshirt freshman P.J. Taeao-Taunu'u -- who all moved from defensive line to offensive line this spring.
The SUU coaches say they will emphasize the run game in 2013, even though they lost their star running back and most of his blockers. It may be a committee approach this season, with Malik Brown (speedy) and Jarom Healey and Christian Jensen (inside the tackle bruisers) all trying to distinguish themselves when fall camp rolls around.
The receiver spot has the fewest questions. All four starters and most of the reserves return. Senior Fatu Moala earned second-team all-Big Sky honors in 2012 and is one to watch. But the other starters are all capable of doing damage as well -- they are juniors Easton Pedersen and Mitch Jessop, and senior Griff McNabb.
DEFENSIVELY, THE SUU bell cows are two sophomores -- linebacker Zak Browning and defensive end James Cowser.
Browning led all FCS freshmen last year with an average of 11.6 tackles per game while Cowser led the FCS freshmen in sacks with 2012 with 7.5 sacks and racked up 13.5 tackles for loss.
While the defense has far fewer questions than the offense, the D isn't without concerns. SUU lost workhorse DT Cody Larsen to graduation, and it's a big hold that has to be filled. He led the team with 13 1/2 tackles for loss last season.
SUU also graduated linebackers Namari Flentroy and Rickey Clark, who combined for 137 tackles in 2012.
Still, six of SUU's top 10 tacklers from last season are back. SUU will return three of four starters from the secondary. The defensive backfield was probably the most consistent unit on the field this spring in Cedar City.
Their base defense is a 4 -3 but they'll go to different looks depending on down and distance.
SUU tends to try and shut down the middle in the passing game and force teams to beat them outside. One of their core philosophies is gap control, though they can switch things up considerably and have as few as three and as many as eight with gap responsibilities on any given play.
ONE OTHER THING to keep in mind when the Cougs meet Southern Utah. Their kicker is close to automatic from inside 49 yards.
Colton Cook was a perfect 14-of-14 on field goals inside 40 yards and 5-of-8 on attempts over 40 yards in 2012. Overall, he was 19-of-22 of FGs and 30-of-33 on extra points.
Cook doesn't have a huge leg, though. He kicked off 61 times for 3,683 yards, an average of 60.4 yards per kickoff, and SUU has a net kickoff average of 46.8 yards per kick.