Sept. 15: South Alabama at NC State
Kickoff time: 6 p.m.
Location: Raleigh, N.C.
Team overview: South Alabama is not just new to the FBS ranks, where they'll be a member of the Sun Belt Conference, they're fairly new to football - the school's first gridiron contest took place on Sept. 5, 2009. The Jaguars played two seasons unclassified, starting with a prep school schedule, competed as an FCS independent last year and are now a full-fledged member at the highest level of college football.
USA compiled a 23-4 record over their three years of existence, but went 6-4 last year after two undefeated campaigns. The team is likely in for a rude awakening this fall, although there are some positives, including 47 returning letterwinners and 15 returning starters on offense and defense.
This is a team that outrushed NC State last year in Raleigh 104-95 and recorded 18 first downs to the Wolfpack's 19. Kendall Houston rushed for 117 yards in that game last year, and is back after he totaled 558 yards and eight scores on the ground last year. Demetre Baker is also back after he gained 491 yards and nine touchdowns rushing in 2011.
However, the duo will be running behind a front line that has to replace three starters and that could prove to be a challenge for the young program, although Alabama transfer Darius McKellar should step in immediately.
At quarterback, the team returns C.J. Bennett, who started the final three games of the 2010 campaign and then opened every game last year while throwing for 1,640 yards, seven touchdowns and 17 interceptions. The Jags are also adding former Virginia quarterback Ross Metheny, while they will be converting to a spread attack with both of their top two receivers from 2011 returning to the lineup.
USA employs a 3-4 alignment on defense, but has recorded some stout rush defense numbers in their history. In 2009, against a weak schedule, they allowed an average of just 61 yards per game and 1.8 yards per carry. That number grew to 81 and 2.8 two years ago, while they faced their toughest schedule yet last year and averaged 143 and 3.4, although those were still respectable numbers against the slate they went up against.
All three starting defensive linemen from last year return, including two-year starting nose guard Montavious Williams, who has nine tackles for loss in his career. They also return three starting linebackers from last year, including their top three tacklers - Jake Johnson (83, 4.5 for loss), Enrique Williams (62, 3, 1 interception) and safety Charles Harris (81. 1.5, 1). Johnson, a former Virginia Tech transfer who led the Hokies with 13 tackles against Alabama in the 2009 season opener, is probably the best player on the unit.
Former Alabama safety B.J. Scott is also back to anchor the secondary, which allowed an average of just 167 yards passing per game in 2011 and returns four players that combined for 27 starts last year.
This team could struggle with the significant step up in competition from the 2011 slate, which featured six FCS squads, as well as NC State and Kent State. It faces 11 teams that competed in the FBS last year, but could be competitive against its Sun Belt foes.
Why NC State can win: NC State played far from a great game against the Jags last year, but still pulled out a 35-13 victory, although they led just 14-3 at halftime. NC State is just on a different level than USA and should show it on the field.
Why NC State can lose: Barring some unforeseen circumstances and devastating injuries, NC State shouldn't really be able to lose this one.
Sept. 22: The Citadel at NC State
Kickoff time: 6 p.m.
Team overview: The Bulldogs are coming off of a 4-7 (2-6 Southern Conference) campaign, their fourth straight year with four or fewer wins. However, five of those losses came by 10 or fewer points, including a two-point loss to Southern Conference champion and FCS national semifinalist Georgia Southern.
The Citadel has notched more than five wins just one time since 2004 (7-4 in 2007), and it looks like the Military College of South Carolina is in for a similar year again this fall. Lindy's predicts the squad to finish eighth in the Southern Conference.
Last year, the team upended FCS No. 15 Chattanooga, 28-27 on the road, but dropped three games to unranked opponents. They had four athletes named to the postseason all-conference squad, along with two selections to the rookie team - defensive lineman Derek Douglas, punter Cass Couey and center Mike Sellers were named to the first-team, while defensive lineman Chris Billingslea was named to the second-team. Quarterback Aaron Miller and linebacker Rah Muhammad earned mention on the coaches' all-freshman team; all six honorees return for 2012, as well as a total of 16 starters.
Douglas served as a team captain last year and was selected as the teams' Defensive Player of the Year. The rising-junior ranked fifth in the SoCon with 14.5 tackles for loss and should lead the defense from his tackle position. However, the "heart and soul" of the defense will miss the beginning of the 2012 season after tearing his ACL during spring practice, he is scheduled for a return in late September. In his career, he has played in all 22 games, while he has totaled 84 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, seven sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Meanwhile, Couey has been one of the defense's best weapons after he led the Southern Conference and ranked fifth in the nation with an average of 43.0 yards per punt last fall. He recorded 10 kicks of 50 or more yards and landed 14 of his 40 attempts inside the 20. The rising-senior, who was last year's Special Teams Player of the Year, has 128 career punts for an average of 40.5 yards per kick.
Sellers is a rising-junior who was named offensive MVP in 2011, in addition to being named honorable mention All-America. The 6-0, 295 pounder started all 11 contests and made 45 knockdown blocks, while he has 13 career starts. This preseason, he was named to The Sports Network Preseason All-America second-team, and he'll lead the way for four returning starters on the front line.
Billingslea is a rising-senior, who has been a mainstay on the line during the last three years. He has started 28 consecutive games while recording 129 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, eight passes defended, five fumble recoveries, three blocked kicks and an interception. The 6-2, 250-pounder is athletic, evidenced by his 19-yard blocked punt return for a touchdown vs. VMI, and averaged 4.8 tackles per game last fall, best for any Citadel lineman, while he ranked 10th in the league with 11 tackles for loss.
Meanwhile, Miller served as the No. 2 quarterback as a true freshman in 2011, and will compete for the starting gig this year. He played in the final eight games of the season and rushed 85 times for 314 yards and five touchdowns. Muhammad was also a true freshman a year ago, but played in every game with two starts. He made 21 tackles with one tackle for loss and an interception, including four stops and a pick against South Carolina. Muhammad is expected to step into a starting outside linebacker role after the graduation of the entire starting linebacker corps.
The Bulldogs rely heavily on their triple-option ground attack, which ranked third in the nation and averaged 286.6 yards per game in 2011, compared to just 32.2 passing yards per game. Four of last season's top five rushers return to the lineup this fall, including the top two in juniors Darien Robinson (862 yards, 9 touchdowns) and returning starting quarterback Ben Dupree (645, 8). The squad in now in its third year of running the option offense, and returns every member of the coaching staff, which will also help.
Terrell Dallas is also back after a partial ACL tear suffered in last year's season opener, as a junior in 2010 he was All-SoCon second-team after leading the team with 665 yards. Slot back Rickey Anderson is also back after he was granted a sixth year of eligibility, and he was productive last year, when he averaged 9.6 yards per carry en route to 498 yards on the ground.
However, they also give up a lot of yards on the ground to their opponents - Citadel foes averaged 264.4 rushing yards last fall, and three of the team's top five tacklers from a year ago are gone. The strengths for the Bulldogs will be along the defensive line, where the team boasts a veteran group, and the secondary, where all four starters return.
As mentioned above, two all-conference selections return up front once Douglas gets healthy, but the squad is looking for new starters at all four linebacking positions. The secondary should also be strong, led by senior cornerback Joseph Boateng, who has started 30 games in his career and never missed a contest. He made 69 tackles, which leads all returning defenders, last season.
The special teams will also be strong, with the return of Couey, although a new kicker must be found. The Citadel tied an FCS single-season record with nine blocked kicks in 2011, and they also ranked fifth nationally in punt returns, with an average of 15.2 yards per attempt.
Why NC State can win: Much like the USA game, NC State is on a different level than this FCS opponent, and should prove it in the game.
Why NC State can lose: It's hard to envision a scenario where the Pack falls to the Citadel, although their option attack may give State and their inexperienced set of linebackers some trouble.
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