2017 Preseason: Sun Belt Conference

1      App St.              34 rank points             11 wins

We were sorta’ laughed at a year ago when we said App St would lose by only two at Tenn. The game went into overtime. This preseason, we noticed that analysts put the Mountaineers no higher than 60th-ranked and we wonder why they just can’t believe in this team.

The Mountaineers have won 29 times and three straight bowls in the past three years. They have QB Taylor Lamb returning to manage the offense without getting in the way of the ground game, although WR Shaedon Meadors is expected to come down with nearly 1000 receiving yards.

Even so, this is a running team with one of the best RBs in America in Jalin Moore. Besides leading the nation’s 10th-ranked offense, Moore was named MVP of the Camellia Bowl and then first team All Sun Belt by Phil Steele. The former 2-star recruit is already projected by the NFL as one of the top 12 RBs.

A solid OL and a focus of “More Moore” could put Jalin over 1800 yards. And, there’s … well there’s … more.

The Mountaineers had the 17th best defense and only three starters are gone. Those three starters were good, but there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings and LB Eric Boggs who had 98 tackles last year is back.

Although Savvy won’t predict a win over Georgia to open the season, the chance of an ASU upset is high. After that, this team is looking at 11 wins and a national ranking. Savvy says 11-1.  We’ll know on Sept 2nd if that might become 12-0.

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2        Troy                30  rank points             9 wins

Coach Neal Brown came to Troy with a passion for success and with 10 wins, a one-possession loss to national champ Clemson, and upset wins over SMiss and App St, he is well on his way.

The Trojans averaged more than 33ppg yet were only 53rd-ranked for total yardage. How does that happen?   Win the turnover battle, which Troy did very well (12th-ranked nationally).

But that’s not all. Guess which OL ranked #1 in all of college football for yielding the fewest number of sacks?  Yup.  Just eight—-for the entire season! Although the offensive line needs three new starters there are able bodies waiting.

Skill positions are loaded. Brandon Silvers returns at QB and he completed 63% of his passes for more than 3100 yards, 23 tds and 12 interceptions.

RB Jordan Chunn scored 16 tds just on the ground and put up just under 1300 yards total.

There are no All American receivers but there are plenty of good ones ready to step up.

The Trojans were a nationally-ranked scoring defense last year and return six starters so the defense should remain competitive.

Troy finished 10-3 but Savvy sees 9-3 now.

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3      Arkansas St.          29 rank points          9 wins

A year ago, I suggested that Ark St was a serious enough program that it should begin seeking entry into the Big-12.  The validity of that notion was roundly face-planted by the Red Wolves not winning a single game until the sixth week of the season.  And, one of those losses was to an FCS.

I always wanted to be outstanding in my field; just, not out standing in left field.

Then, the Wolves exploded (sorry for that imagery) for eight wins in their next nine games to finish 8-5 including a bowl win.

Justin Hansen returns at QB after connecting for over 2700 yards through the air at a 58% completion ratio.  The Wolves need more than  20 touchdown passes from Hansen in 2017.

Good but not too-good receivers return led by Kendall Sanders (38-553-7).

Warren Wand had 879 rushing yards but might not reach that this year since to OL is questionable.

Ark St still can’t compete with its opening two opponents, Nebraska and Miami (Fl), but will win nine.

And yes, Savvy is predicting with certainty that ASU will NOT lose to its FCS opponent this year. That opponent is Ark-Pine Bluff which is ranked 109th on Savvy’s full list of FCS teams.

Savvy says a solid 9-3 for Arkansas St.

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4      LA Lafayette          26 rank points          6 wins

Many people say they know nothing of this team and aren’t even sure it is in the FBS.  It’s not like the team doesn’t get any respect.  It’s more like it never gets noticed.

Until last April.

That is when ULL made national sports news by suspending 13 players for felony theft although since none of them have prior criminal records, the local DA has recommended dropping all charges if the players complete a “diversion” program.

While that dominated the off-season rep of ULL, there were some wonderfully positive things that I’ll bet you didn’t remember any better than did I.  Like, did you know or remember that ULL made it to a bowl game last year?  How about that Ragin’ Cajuns were top-third in the nation for defense?  And then there’s coach Mark Hudspeth who has become rather a genius at this football thing.  I mean, he had five Division II playoff appearances at N Alabama and has had five bowl games in six years at ULL despite innate recruiting obstacles.

He has some work to do this year because his star RB, Elijah Mcguire (1127 yards) graduated and his replacement, Darius Hoggins, had less than 300 yards.  Hoggins was an under-the-radar recruit who was certain ULL was the place for him because, like the school itself, he had gone largely unnoticed.

Soph (rs) Jordan Davis takes over at QB but only threw three passes last year. As a former two-star recruit, Davis was impressive in the 2017 spring game after passing 11/14 for 174 yards, one td, and no interceptions.

ULL has plenty of capable receivers and they all showed up in spring workouts as Michael Jaquet, Keenan Barnes, and JaMarcus Bradley combined for 8 receptions and 103 yards.  Barnes and Bradley both have a history of being long-ball threats.

The OL is stacked and should be one of the best in the Sun Belt.

ULL’s defense has enough coming back to excel again so the primary concern right now is if the RBs will prove themselves.

Savvy sees this as another 6-win team but would be more if not for a schedule that includes Tex A&M, Mississippi, App St. and Tulsa—ALL on the road.

For me personally, this would be the top dark-horse team of 2017 except for that truly brutal schedule.   Even so, Hudspeth is a miracle worker and this team has most of the pieces in place to be really good.

If there is any team we should be watching, it is this one, not only because it is the one team that is most likely to overachieve, but I don’t want to be here a year from now, rubbing my chin, and wondering why I wasn’t paying better attention.

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5   Louisiana Monroe       24 rank points        6 wins

Although Monroe was only 4-8 last year, it posted incredibly high metrics on Savvy and that is a tribute to coach Matt Viator.

Qb Garrett Smith returns but don’t expect more than 25 passes per game nor any better than a 44% int/td ratio.

Three nice receivers return as R.J. Turner, Xavier Brown, and Marcus Green combined for 84 receptions and over 1100 yards in  2016.

Add to that the eye-opening transfer of Alabama running back Derrick Gore who, in Tuscaloosa, was considered the probable second-coming of Alabama’s Derrick Henry.  Unfortunately for everyone, that second-coming was an early going because Gore wanted out.  The Tide could care less. They had whats-his-name and that-guy-over-there still treading in the Alabama RB factory.

Gore did not participate much in spring practices but he is a good fit for ULM.  What he might not yet realize is that he may be the only fit since walk-on Austin Vaughn was not a whirlwind as a freshman.

If Gore clicks, this might again be a 30+ppg offense.

The problem is, ULM doesn’t have a 30-ppg defense.  It was more like 39 last year.  However, eight starters return to that defense and there are eight new DBs to put an end to those annoying long-ball giveaways.  One of the newbies on the back end is safety J.J. Dallas who committed to Houston, then changed his mind and went the JUCO route to find Monroe.  Dallas is 6’1″ and a big time “find” for the Warhawk secondary.

Savvy appreciated (strong Savvy-metrics) this team last year and sees a successful season and stops just short of seven wins.

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6       Georgia St.            20 rank points            5 wins

The Georgia State program is buzzing because of its wonderful new stadium.  Well, new to them.

Unfortunately, the team lost nine games in a season when it was thought a prospect to win nine.  There are a few tilted heads now when HC Shawn Elliott’s name is raised because until his arrival, this program was on the way up.

A once potent and fun offense showed little of those traits and may not do much better now.

Kyler Neil is the projected starter at running back but don’t expect much more than the 400 yards he had last year.

QB Conner Manning posted 16 tds and 13 interceptions and, as you know, those are not good numbers.  To solve the problem, the Panthers have penciled Aaron Winchester into the top spot of the depth chart.  Winchester had 1 td and 2 interceptions..

It’s too bad the offense is still stuck in the thick Georgia mud because this group may have one of the most talented receivers in America in Penny Hart.   It’s not easy to shine in the midst of mud so we may not get to see him without double coverage, etc.

If there’s hope for this team, it lies in its defense which returns eight starters.

I don’t think GSU has what it takes to move the ball, but if it does, I would be inclined to see this team as a contender in the Sun Belt.

The Panthers under-performed vs its talent and under-Savvied and finished 3-9.  Now, that we’re into fall workouts,  there doesn’t seem much reason to think it will be a lot better.  A little—not a lot.  Savvy has adjusted GSU to 5-7.

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7     Georgia So.            19 rank points            5 wins

The Eagles were 2-7 to end the season. Impressive is that one win was over high-flying Troy but not so impressive were frustrating penalties at critical times, a responsibility that falls on coach Tyson Summers.

He also bears blame for promising a continuation of Georgia Southern’s highly-successful run-option attack, then cutting the run by nearly 50% in the first eight weeks. Does the thought “bait-and-switch” come to mind?

And finally, he is responsible for hiring two non-option coaches to run his offense and one of those was a high school coach. Before 2016, GSU was on the rise under Will Fritz but the only thing that seemed to rise last year was fan disfavor.

Hearing the din, Summers fired his co-offensive coordinators, David Dean and Rance Gillespie, and hired Bryan Cook from Georgia Tech, the team that options opponents into depression clinics.

Not to be outdone, Gillepie and Cook have fired back.  Both have sued the school for breach of contract and fraud.

There is talent at GSU with decent skill, esp with Wesley Fields returning at RB and likely to surpass 1000 yards behind one of the best offensive lines.

Defense needs to find seven starters for a unit that was perhaps as good as “mediocre” last year.

Savvy originally had this team at 6-6 but has adjusted it to 5-7 and  cautions about a potential upset loss to New Hampshire, an FCS team that Savvy currently ranks as 16th in the nation.

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8      S Alabama           19 rank points         5 wins

These are the crazy boys of 2016.

They upset Miss St. and San Diego St. but could only beat an FCS by a single point and lost to 111th-ranked ULM.

Entertaining as well as frustrating.

Want more crazy?

The Jaguars made it to a bowl game but instead of having their full team name spelled out on the scoreboard as was customary, South Alabama was shown as “SAU” because there weren’t enough “A”s to spell “S Alabama Jaguars”.

Don’t ask me. I only report it.

Despite their yo-yo streaks, the Jaguars did post some strong metrics in 2016.

The offense returns a lot of starters but so far, none have seemed much better than average.

The OL returns with no holes, except for those in their blocking schemes. SoAla was 89th in the nation for giving up sacks.

All of the meaningful receivers are gone and returning QB Dallas Davis threw more interceptions than tds last year.

While there is no great offensive savior, there is Xavier—RB Xavier Johnson who is almost certainly going to break 1000 yards. Expect the Jaguars to stay low to the ground early and if they ever do get a passing attack, opening that up later.  In the interim, opponents will feast on heavy doses of eight in the box.

And, nothing is about to look very good on the offensive side in the earlygoing because the first two games are at Miss and Okla St.

The defense looks solid—bordering on impressive. Most starters are back to a group that finished in the top-third nationally.

It is essential that these Jaguars remain disciplined in competitive situations, a factor that hampered them a great deal in 2016.

My personal feeling is that this team will continue to  bounce off of walls and be crazy-hard to predict.  That makes it all a lot of fun for me and, honestly dear SAla fans, other than a palm-hidden smile, I have empathy for your frustrations.  (My team was much the same last season.)

Savvy says 5-7 but might drop a notch before the season opener.

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9      Idaho                17 rank points            5 wins

Vandal fans, I get where you’re coming from.  I just don’t know where y’all are going.  Is this your last year in FBS or isn’t it?

You see Fandals, I know that you have that petition to save your place in FBS, but you also have those who say you must be in the wrong place if your closest opponent is more than 750 miles away.

I’m on your side petitioners.  I hope you stay.  Your success from last year deserves that.  So do your players.  In 2016, you were my personal Cinderella favorite, and like any vandal, you stole my attention.  (Ca-CHING!)  I was glad when you won your final five games and made it to a bowl game and I was even happier to watch you win that one also.

First winning season in seven years.

Coach Paul Petrino proved his magnificence and I’m sure you know football enough to be on the alert that he is one of the best coaches not yet in the Power Five.

QB Matt Linehan is a fiery and outspoken leader who passed for over 3000 yards.  He’s also one of “us”—a petition-bearer.  Unfortunately, his 19/10 td/int ratio also returns.  Since he knew that he needed to improve,  Linehan went to work with conditioning and fundamentals and he enters 2017 stronger and with better mechanics.

In the spring game, Linehan was 20 pounds heavier than a year ago and he completed 34 of 38 passes in an offense that was so overpowering (350% more points than the defense) that coach Petrino stopped the game thirteen minutes earlier than scheduled.

While Idaho’s receivers are new to starting, they aren’t new altogether.  Between Jacob Sannon and Alfonso Onunwar, the Vandals are returning 67 receptions for over 800 yards from receivers who were in secondary roles.  In the spring game, Sannon caught three td passes and he commented on how working with Linehan over the past five years was paying off.

Aaron Duckworth isn’t flashy enough to be in the discussion for high RB honors but he’s a 5’8, 200 pound hammer who doesn’t go down easy; not to opposing tacklers and not to injuries.  Isaiah Sanders gives the Vandals a strong one-two punch as the two of them put up more than 1400 yards last season.

The offensive line is expected to have all freshmen and sophomores except LT Jordan Rose who is experienced and is one of the best.  The OL needs to come together quickly and must prove its ability to open holes for the RBs because a strong running attack is vital for Vandal success.

Last year, the defense surrendered better than 30ppg and must replace six starters. Three starting LBs return which will help offset a front that is weak.  The entire back end is new.

While the defense won’t be as good this year, I feel compelled to point out that last year’s defensive performance ranked higher than Tennessee, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Mississippi, Mississippi St. and 11 other PAC-12 and Big-12 teams.

Good coaching leads to strong on-field disciplines and Idaho was one of the best in Savvy-metrics last year.

So Fandals, Savvy has upgraded you to 5-7 although I personally hope it becomes 8-4.  You have several players with nice talent but are the newcomers going to come around soon enough to make a successful campaign?  Even the brightest stars don’t shine by themselves.

I think coach Petrino summed it up pretty well when he said, “He’s (Matt Linehan) just bigger and stronger.  Got a lot stronger arm.  I think the sky’s the limit for him.  We just gotta do a good job around him.”

The sky may be the limit, but is the Big Sky the destination?

Until that question is answered, I fear there will be theft in the land of the Vandals.  I can imagine vultures swooping in on Petrino and snaring a few players.  You might also keep in mind that UAB recently approved $20-mil to build practice facilities which means if I was one of you potato heads, I would grab my wrench and head on out to that cute little Kibbe Dome and make sure all of my anchor bolts are locked down nice and tight.

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10    Coastal Carolina       13 rank points      3 wins

CCU is a stranger coming into the FBS. Stranger still is the nick: Chanticleers. I looked it up. It’s a name given to roosters in fairy tales, although I don’t remember any roosters in any fairy tales.

Can’t you see it?  Those stuffy admins rubbing their jaws and other various body parts before concluding, yeah, that’s what we want to call our football team, the Coastal Carolina Fairy Tale Roosters! Bet its worth a cackle watching the cheerleaders spell that out.

Coastal was 10-2 back in the FCS and didn’t play a single FBS opponent in its transitional year. Mistake? Very much—from the standpoint of player preparation, recruiting, and local support, the path to the FBS really needed at least a few villains of substance.

Some good news for the Chancies though.  Qb Austin Wilson transferred from Syracuse.  That was a bit of an eye-brow raiser (or razor) because he was transferring to a team that didn’t have an FBS-ready offensive line and, worse still, most of that line graduated.

The defense looks weak up front and needs an entirely new secondary.  So much for keeping it close enough to win with field goals.

Other systems say CCU will compete in CUSA. Savvy says, not so fast. Coastal will win 3-9 and might have another regrading in 10 days.

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11    New Mexico State     12  rank points      2 wins

It’s been more than a decade since the Aggies had a winning season.

If that changes, it will be because of the return of one of America’s most dynamic running backs, Larry Rose.  If you haven’t seen this back, you simply must.  But, do it early because he has had a history of injuries.  He is the most complete and dynamic back returning to FBS and if he is in the lineup, NMSU is a candidate to upset almost anyone.

Outstanding receivers also return and Qb Tyler Rogers is wonderful at slinging the football—it’s just never too clear which jersey color will come down with it (16 td, 12 int).

This team will score.

Eight starters return on defense.   So far, no one is quite sure if that is good news or bad since only seven teams had worse defenses last season.   Either way, it will be as porous as ever because it just doesn’t have the size or the talent.

Further hampering NMSU is its reckless history of critical penalties.

Since it has been hard to get Rose through an entire season, the Aggies are projected at 2-10.

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12     Texas St.              9 rank points            2 wins          

Last year, many said this was the second-worst team in FBS and Savvy agreed. Lost 10 games and nine were not close.

Personally, I’ve always liked Texas St. and I have since before it became an FBS outfit.  But, liking the Bobcats doesn’t pull any points out of Savvy and it doesn’t look like things will be much different now than before.

You gotta love Coach Everett Withers, however.  Basic old-school.  Tell it like it is.  Worry about the fall-out later or maybe not at all. After Spring practice, he was so excited (sarc) about the group returning from last year that he said of his incoming recruits, “I can’t wait til they get here.”   But coach Withers wasn’t through. When asked about last year’s players who finished 2-10, he said, “I didn’t like those guys last year. I didn’t like them. Just so you know.” So much for PC.

Although his choices at the QB spot are extraordinarily limited, he hasn’t much enthusiasm for Miss St. transfer Damian Williams. “Mechanics are still all over the place. He (Williams) has a long way to go.”

The OL line will be new—and better.  The interior will be led by returning starter sophomore Aaron Brewer who started 11 games and will move to center.  Pure freshman Jaquel Pierce has already claimed the RG spot and will be a noticeable upgrade. Tryston Mizerak is a proven LT.  The OL unit is critical ‘cuz the Bobcat RBs couldn’t get 3ypc.

Improved line play is also critical because this unit yielded 44 sacks—fourth from the worst in FBS.

The spring game provided evidence that the offense might be better.  Williams had time to connect on 14/23 for 172 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. By comparison, last year’s starting QB only threw 11 tds all season.

Withers has remained firm that he will not name a starting QB until September.  But, he’s not talking about anyone else at the position and our depth chart references have Williams as the starter.  And the coach wasn’t entirely cynical.  “In his (QB Williams) heart, he’s a competitor. He’s got a competitive spirit; something we haven’t had since I’ve been here”.

The coach was pleased that his offense only turned it over twice in the spring game but I’m not sure there is enough improvement to warrant his pleasure.   I mean, they turned it over two times in the spring game and 2.1 average per game last season.  That amounts to just one turnover gain for an entire season.

Stedman Mayberry is expected to start at RB.  Despite the OL woes of last season, Mayberry still managed to gain nearly 600 yards. The fact that he had to carry the ball 157 times is disturbing but, at least we know he’s durable.   Almost as if it was a hobby, he posted an additional 41 receptions out of the backfield.

There were 19 Bobcats who caught passes last season and none had 500 yards but the three leaders, Tylor Watts, Thurman Morbley, and Elijah King are all back.

The defense gave up over 40ppg last year but has added three transfers to go with four linebackers who were outstanding in the Spring game.

Quinton Tiggs will star in the secondary after taking over at strong safety in last years Arkansas game.

Coach Withers has always liked the aggressiveness and hard-nosed play of his defense and he now has a little more strength and experience although probably not enough to get under 35ppg.

Savvy sees 2-10 but off-season workouts have been better than anticipated and might lead to a three-win prediction before the first game.

Withers just brought ten 3-stars into a very weak program and that is a big deal.  If he receives an extension, it is likely going to be based on his recruiting.  I’m feeling pretty sure it won’t come from his diplomacy.

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