SQ Sun Belt Conference Preview
The college football season is less than a month away from kicking off, and most teams have already begun their fall camps. And just in time for the regular season, our writers have cooked up previews for all of the conferences in the FBS. Today we start our conference preview series with the Sun Belt Conference.
What Happened in 2014:
Conference Champion: Georgia Southern 9-3 (8-0)
Coach of the Year: Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern
In Georgia Southern's first season not just in the Sun Belt, but in the FBS as well, head coach Willie Fritz led the team to a conference title. Fritz and his team became the third program to win a conference title in its first season in the FBS. However, Georgia Southern is the first team to go unbeaten in conference play in its first season in the FBS.
Offensive Player of the Year: RB Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette
McGuire may not have led the conference in rushing with 1,264 yards, but he did lead the Sun Belt in all purpose yards (1,848), showcasing how versatile he is. Not only could McGuire run the ball effectively, but he was also a weapon in the passing game, catching a team-high of 45 passes, finishing second on the team in receiving yards (468).
Defensive Player of the Year: LB David Mayo, Texas State
Forget about being one of the best players in the conference last season, David Mayo was one of the top players in the country. The senior linebacker was tied for second in the nation with 154 total tackles, while averaging the second-most tackles per game in the nation (12.83). Mayo had a nose for the ball, also forcing three fumbles in 2014.
Three Memorable Games:
1. Louisiana-Monroe 16 @ Georgia Southern 22, Nov. 29 - This game was the crowning jewel on Georgia Southern's season. Trailing 13-9 heading into the final quarter, Georgia Southern running backs Matt Breida and Alfred Ramsby each rushed for a touchdown to erase the deficit and give the Eagles their first Sun Belt title and an undefeated conference slate.
2. New Mexico State 34 @ Georgia State 31, Sep. 6 - On third-and-9 from the Georgia State 11, New Mexico State QB Tyler Rogers hit receiver Teldrick Morgan across the middle for a touchdown with 15 seconds remaining in the game. The victory was the Aggies' first Sun Belt win since leaving the conference in 2004.
3. Idaho 31 @ Louisiana-Monroe 38, Sept. 6 - With nine seconds remaining and the ball on the one-yard line, Louisiana-Monroe's Centarius Donald rushed into the endzone to give the Warhawks the lead and the win. Louisiana-Monroe QB Pete Thomas hit Kenzee Jackson for 29 yards and Tyler Cain for 36 yards with under a minute remaining to put Donald in position to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Looking Ahead to 2015:
Conference Favorite: Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern is looking to show that it's not a one-hit wonder and still has some unfinished business to attend to. Last season the Eagles were ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA rules prohibiting recent FCS transfer programs to play in bowl games. Georgia Southern's defense gave up only 23.4 ppg last season (first in the Sun Belt) and returns a bevy of experienced players on this side of the ball.
The Eagles' offense should be just as potent as it was last season, but they will look to incorporate more passing into the attack. Replacing five seniors along the offensive line might raise some questions, but guards Darien Foreman and Roscoe Byrd, a UAB transfer, will anchor the line. There's no reason to think Georgia Southern will slow down in 2015.
Conference Dark Horse: Louisiana-Lafayette
Louisiana-Lafayette is a model of consistency, finishing each of the last four seasons with a 9-4 record, while winning the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl for the fourth consecutive year, as well. Heading into 2015, the Ragin' Cajuns are on the outside looking in. Replacing players at key positions, namely quarterback and defensive line, could be cause for some bumps early on. However, with the depth the team has at other positions, Louisiana-Lafayette is still a contender.
Reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, RB Elijah McGuire, returns to lead the offense. There's no doubt the team will be looking to get McGuire as many touches as it can with his explosiveness. Defensively, the team is still a work in progress, with new co-defensive coordinators Charlie Harbison and Melvin Smith taking over a team that was last in the Sun Belt defending the pass last season (allowed 263.6 yards per game).
If the defense can step up, the offense should be able to continue to put up enough points for the Ragin' Cajuns to have a shot at hoisting up the conference crown.
Most Improved Team: Arkansas State
For the first time since 2011, Arkansas State failed to at least claim a share of the Sun Belt title last season. It was also the fourth time in four years the Red Wolves had a new head coach. First-year head coach Blake Anderson had tough acts to follow after Hugh Freeze (2011), Gus Malzahn (2012) and Bryan Harsin (2013) each led Arkansas State for a season before going on to bigger jobs at Ole Miss, Auburn and Boise State, respectively. The Red Wolves finished 7-6 in Anderson's first year, winding up tied for fourth in the Sun Belt.
Looking forward to 2015, there's reason to believe that Arkansas State can not only compete for the Sun Belt title, but reclaim it once again. The Red Wolves return a potent offense led by senior QB Fredi Knighten, who led the conference in total yards (4,056). And although the defense was put on blast last season, a few key transfers along the defensive line look to shore up a unit that allowed 28 rushing touchdowns over its final seven games.
The offense should be one of the top units in the conference, and if the defense can improve by just a fraction of what it was last season, it's not out of the question to see the Red Wolves winning the Sun Belt title in 2015.
Freshmen to Watch:
1. Dion Ray, QB, Louisiana-Lafayette - The Ragin' Cajuns are in the midst of transitioning quarterbacks after Terrance Broadway's graduation, and although there are a few more experienced players vying for the starting job, Ray could have what it takes to take the job for himself. Ray, who hails from the New Orleans area, has great quickness, as demonstrated by the 4.40 40 time he posted. He also has a strong arm that's capable of making all the throws.
2. Mario Osborne, DL, Louisiana-Lafayette - Another member of the Louisiana-Lafayette recruiting class, Osborne could make an impact right away along a defensive line that is returning just one starter. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Osborne already has the size to go head-to-head with big offensive linemen. The way Osborne can explode through an offensive line is one of the best parts about his game.
3. Jalen Thompson, CB, South Alabama - Thompson committed to South Alabama as a two-sport athlete, not only choosing to play football in Mobile, Alabama, but baseball as well. Thompson is expected to push for playing time this season in defensive backfield for the Jaguars, and could find himself on the field early. Thompson is a good cover corner, who displays good ball skills when a pass floats his way.
Offensive Player of the Year Prediction: Fredi Knighten, QB, Arkansas State
Knighten might be the most dynamic QB in the entire conference. He's a dual threat, able to beat you with the pass or taking off on the run. In just his first year in coach Blake Anderson's offense, Knighten finished second in the Sun Belt with 3,277 passing yards, while tallying the second-most rushing yards by a QB in the conference with 779 yards rushing. He's a key cog to Arkansas State's return to the top, and once he gets rolling, he'll be hard to stop.
Defensive Player of the Year Prediction: Gerrand Johnson, DE, Louisiana-Monroe
Louisiana-Monroe knows how to get after the quarterback, and one of the best at getting into the backfield for the Warhawks is Gerrand Johnson. Johnson is one of the top defensive ends in the country and has been named to several preseason award watch lists, including those of the Nagurski, Outland and Lombardi awards.
Johnson was the first defensive lineman to lead the team in tackles (92) since 1980. His pass rushing skills are second to none, as he recorded 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss a season ago. Johnson looks to build upon that stat line in 2015 and will be one of the top dogs in the conference that will give opposing QBs nightmares.
Three Games to Watch:
1. Louisiana-Monroe vs. Georgia Southern, Oct. 3 - Louisiana-Monroe will get an early shot at the reigning Sun Belt champs when Georgia Southern comes to town. Last season's loss to the Eagles was heartbreaking to watch, and the Warhawks are rearing to take out the remaining frustration on an offense that scored twice in the final quarter to clinch a perfect conference slate. Watch for the outstanding pass rush of Louisiana-Monroe duo LB Michael Johnson and DE Gerrand Johnson to make things difficult on the triple-option attack of the Eagles.
2. Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Texas State, Oct. 10 - The first conference contest of 2015 for both teams, this should be a good measuring stick to see where both teams stand after their non-conference slate. The Ragin' Cajuns will be ushering a new signal caller, while the Bobcats will be looking to do a better job at stopping the pass--Texas State ranked 10th in the conference in pass defense last season, allowing 243.3 yards per game.
3. Arkansas State vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, Oct. 20 - This is a great match-up between two teams that have something to prove this season. Arkansas State is looking to get back to its winning pedigree, while Louisiana-Lafayette looks to win at least nine games for a fifth straight year. Arkansas State QB Fredi Knighten could be a nightmare for a Ragin' Cajun defense that ranked last in the Sun Belt in pass defense a season ago.