1. Appalachian State -- Appalachian State had something happen to it last season, which hadn't been commonplace—at least since October of 2004 in Statesboro—the Mountaineers were knocked from their lofty mountain abode atop the SoCon standings.
For the first time in six seasons, the Mountaineers did not claim an outright or share a Southern Conference title.
Head coach Jerry Moore has had to endure more over this past off-season maybe than any of his previous 23 years at the helm of the program. Several coaching changes occurred during the recruiting season's close, which included recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Mark Speir leaving to become the head coach at Western Carolina.
Add to that a messy situation of alleged sexual misconduct case involving several football players in a case still under investigation and the off-season was anything but peaceful for the legendary head coach.
However, ASU has made a number of good hires, including bringing back Scott Satterfield as the offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting. The steady decline in the ASU offense began with Satterfield's departure to Toledo following the 2008 season.
However, after a strong spring and with the return of six starters, including quarterback Jamal Jackson (161-for-262 passing, 2,001 yds, 15 TDs, 8 INTs/89 rush att, 296 yds, 7 TDs, 3.3 YPC), his hiring might be the spark that a stagnate Appalachian State offense needs.
Jackson won't have the school's all-time leading wideout Brian Quick to throw to next fall, nor will he have the reliable, powerful running back Travaris Cadet to hand the ball to. Also gone is one of the greatest pass-catching tight ends to don the Black and Gold, as Ben Jorden has graduated.
Despite those losses, Appalachian State should find itself in good shape this fall at the skill positions, as the Mountaineers always seemingly reload at those positions.
In the backfield, the emergence of Steven Miller (76 rush att, 380 yds, 3 TDs, 5.0 YPC) might be seen on an even greater scale this season. The diminutive speedster might remind some ASU fans of former speedster Terrance McCall, as he is a player similar to McCall in size and speed, albeit without the off-the-field and desire issues that McCall had in his one season on the mountain.
Miller won't be the only talented ASU running back challenging for action this fall, as many anticipate the return of Rod Chisholm, who has seen little playing time in his career after being such a highly touted recruit coming into the Mountaineer football program from acclaimed Independence High School in Charlotte.
Most fans and coaches will tell you; however, that the newest crop of Mountaineer running backs might also be ASU's most talented.
Quarterrio Morgan, a transfer from Western Kentucky, and Tysean Holloway, a true freshman out of Asheville, N.C., both have been impressive during the spring. Both have speed and the ability to catch the ball well out of the backfield, which were a couple of things that made the ASU's offense so tough to stop during Satterfield's previous stint as an offensive assistant.
Andrew Peacock (48 rec, 564 yds, 3 TDs, 11.8 YPR in 2011) and Bobo Beathard should be the two players to watch in the passing game this fall for the Apps. Both are blessed with tremendous speed and though neither will replace a receiver as talented as Quick, the two might give the Apps more versatility than a year ago with their track-like speed.
The real area to watch this throughout preseason camp will be the offensive line. The unit was a patchwork group last season that had to rely on walk-ons and freshmen, as recruiting at the four respective OL positions has been a bit thin in recent seasons.
However, the unit has been developing well. New offensive line coach, Dwayne Ledford, who took over Bob McClain after McClain's contract was not renewed, will have a group of young linemen, with many possessing big upside.
Center Alex Acey is one of those players and, after walking on, won a starting position along the ASU offensive front and has developed into one of the team's best linemen in a short amount of time. Graham Fisher and Ian Barnard are young players that are talented enough to garner All-SoCon praise this fall, as is Kendall Lamm if he can develop that mean streak that is often associated with the hogs up front.
If the Mountaineers are to live up to this spring ranking come next November and win the Southern Conference, it will be because of their defense.
Plain and simple, ASU has the potential to be as good as it has been since 2003, and maybe even better than two of the defenses considered to be the best in school history, which were the 1995 and 2000 defensive units.
Despite losing talented players Lanston Tanyi, Justin Wray and Dominique McDuffie, the Apps have plenty of talent returning and ready to take ASU to the next level defensively. The Apps are coming off a 2011 season that saw them finish the season ranking fifth in total defense (353.3 YPG), but ranked second in rush defense (149.4 YPG).
ASU got maybe its best play along the defensive line last season since the 2006 season saw Marques Murrell wrecking havoc in opponents' backfield, as he helped ASU to the second of three-straight titles.
The Mountaineers, which transitioned to a 3-4 look last season, will be led up front by senior defensive end/outside linebacker John Rizor (65 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 8 QBHs) and rising sophomore defensive tackle Ronald Blair (40 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 1 FF).
Linebacker will once again be a position in which the Black and Gold should field one of the best units in the SoCon, as well as in all of the FCS. All-SoCon selection Jeremy Kimbrough (105 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1TD), who does a little bit of everything, will patrol the middle for the Mountaineers.
Simply put, Kimbrough is a game-changer in the middle, and his 46-INT return for a score against Chattanooga propelled the Mountaineers to a hard-fought 14-12 win in Boone in a pivotal SoCon opener last season.
Kimbrough will be joined at ILB by Brandon McGowan (17 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1.0 sack), while Brandon Grier (97 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR) and Justin Lloyd (27 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT) will likely start at OLB. Kimbrough and Grier will likely enter the campaign as All-SoCon selections.
A secondary that was young and athletic last season, should be even better this fall. Demetrius McCray (48 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 9 PBUs, 5 INTs), who could very well enter the season as the SoCon's preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and fellow All-SoCon candidate Troy Sanders (79 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 2 INTs, 1 FR), will headline the unit at right cornerback and strong safety, respectively.
Sophomore Drew Stewart hopes to rebound from what was a less than ideal season in his first as the starting placekicker for the Apps, while Sam Martin returns from a knee injury to battle Stewart for the starting job this fall. Martin will also handle the punting responsibilities.
A return to the top for Appalachian State is what I expect for 2012, but these rankings could change before the season. If ASU fields the type of defense that they have on paper, it could be an emphatic return to the top of the league in 2012. Of course, Georgia Southern, Furman, Wofford and Chattanooga will all have their say in the matter as well.
Stay tuned for the Georgia Southern preview coming up later this week.