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FCS Season Preview: Independents

Thomas DeMarco is predicted to be the offensive player of the year in the Independents.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Speaking at the Southland Conference media day this past July, Lamar head coach Ray Woodard expressed his excitement about the upcoming season.

"We're very excited to be here and be part of media day," Woodard said. "The fact that we're opening our season against McNeese State back here in Lake Charles (La.) gives it extra special meaning to us and to the media from both markets. We're looking forward to the season, and our fans are all extra excited about getting football restarted."

Lamar is on the cusp of an historic season. The program is being revived after a 21-year hiatus. Although it will line up as an independent this season, Lamar will join the Southland Conference in 2011. Hence Woodard's presence at the Southland media day.

Woodard's enthusiasm regarding Lamar's game with McNeese State is warranted. The game will serve as a barometer, informing Lamar on where it stands against future Southland competition.

A first-year program facing a respected team such as McNeese State is a challenging assignment. In general, transitioning from an independent to a conference program is substantial in its own right. One wonders: will Lamar be up to the task?

Woodard and Co. are not the only ones facing this question. All five FCS independents are scheduled to join a conference within the next few seasons. Regarding all of these teams, the question is simple: Are they ready?

Other than Lamar, Old Dominion University, Georgia State, North Carolina Central and Savannah State will be entering conferences in the near future, with ODU and Georgia State joining CAA Football, and N.C. Central and Savannah State joining the MEAC.

It appears the teams facing the toughest transitions are ODU and Georgia State as the CAA has established itself as the dominant conference in the FCS. The CAA tallied six teams in this year's The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 preseason poll, the most by any conference. The conference has produced the past two FCS national champs in Richmond (2008) and Villanova (2009), as well as finalists in six of the past seven seasons.

Ironically, while Old Dominion may face the toughest transition of the independents, it also may be the most well-equipped. Old Dominion University charted some impressive numbers in its first season of football in 2009, tallying a 9-2 mark and finishing plus-16 in turnovers. The team sold out all of its home games before the season began and finished No. 5 in the FCS in average attendance at just under 20,000.

Still, the program faced only one team with a winning record - FCS opponent Jacksonville - and its only two losses came against FCS programs Fordham and Monmouth of the Patriot League and the Northeast Conference, respectively.

This season, the schedule gets tougher as the Monarchs face three teams from the Big South, one from the Great West and one from the CAA. Look no further than ODU's Sept. 18 matchup with CAA powerhouse William & Mary as a barometer for ODU's 2011 prospects. William & Mary was ranked fourth in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Preseason Top 25.

As with Old Dominion in 2009, Georgia State is entering its first season of football in 2010. Unlike ODU, however, Georgia State will not be joining the CAA until 2012.

Attempting to predict how Georgia State will fair in 2012 is akin to dialing your ex at three in the morning - you can make the call, but it probably won't be right. Predicting the results of Georgia State's debut season in 2010 is a much more stable and healthy exercise.

Enter Bill Curry, seasoned and respected coach of such programs as Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky. Curry has compiled 17 years of coaching experience and has won coach of the year in both the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. As an NFL player, Curry played in three Super Bowls and learned under legendary coaches Vince Lombardi and Don Shula.

In 1980, Curry inherited a Georgia Tech team in transition, moving from independent status to the ACC. In 1985, Curry led the Yellow Jackets to a 9-2-1 record and a victory over heavily favored Michigan State in the All- American Bowl, Georgia Tech?s first bowl victory in 13 years. He was named ACC Coach of the Year as a result.

Curry joins Georgia State in a similar period of transition and the belief is that he can duplicate his earlier success. This year's schedule has supporters optimistic, as Georgia State opens the season against a pair of Division II teams and also plays the other four FCS independents. Still, it is unlikely Georgia State will match ODU's surprising 9-2 record of a year ago, and may find 2012 a difficult transition before Curry can build a solid CAA contender.

Two other teams, North Carolina Central and Savannah State, will be presented with their own set of challenges, as they prepare to enter the MEAC in 2011. At this moment, North Carolina Central appears to be more prepared for the leap.

As with last year, N.C. Central has eight FCS teams on the docket in 2010. While the Eagles finished 2-6 against FCS opponents last season, three of the losses were by a touchdown or less, with two coming in double overtime. Of those close losses, two came against MEAC competition. The Eagles lost the season opener by a touchdown to Hampton and dropped a double-overtime decision to North Carolina A&T. This year, N.C. Central will face four MEAC teams and should know exactly where it stands by season's end.

Savannah State does not appear as prepared. In fact, the program has hired a new coach just one year before its transition to the MEAC. Last year, the program went 2-8, dropping all six games against FCS opponents.

This year, Savannah plays Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and Norfolk State, all of which are MEAC teams. It is unlikely that the results will be promising.

The last remaining independent is Lamar. As Woodard's presence at Southland media day foretold, Lamar will join the conference in 2011. Lamar's distinct advantage is its location within the Golden-Triangle, a veritable stocked pond of football talent. Baiting local recruits may give Lamar an edge in its transition to conference play. Woodard comes from junior college Navarro and has brought several of his players with him. This familiarity should bode well for Lamar.

While the team may not match ODU's inaugural success, look for Lamar to compete in 2010. Who knows, by next season Woodard may already feel at home during the Southland media day.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2010 FCS independent schools.

The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:

1. Old Dominion
2. North Carolina Central
3. Georgia State
4. Lamar
5. Savannah State

Offensive Player of the Year: Thomas DeMarco, QB, Old Dominion

Defensive Player of the Year: Donald Laster, LB, North Carolina Central

1. OLD DOMINION MONARCHS (9-2)

COACH: Bobby Wilder (9-2 in one season at Old Dominion)

STARTERS RETURNING: 19 (11 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Thomas DeMarco, Jr. (137 of 255, 1,921 yards, 21 TDs; 163 rushes, 892 yards, 17 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: S Craig Wilkins, So. (65 TT, 1 sack, 3 INTs, 7 PBU, 10 PD)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
RB Mario Crawford, So. (99 rushes, 600 yards, 6 TDs)
RB Desmond Williams, So. (83 rushes, 385 yards, 3 TDs)
RB Jamar Parham, So. (69 rushes, 281 yards, 2 TDs)
WR Reid Evans, So. (46 catches, 602 yards, 3 TDs)
WR Nick Mayers, So. (24 catches, 468 yards, 7 TDs)
TE James Edwards, Jr. (9 catches, 175 yards, 1 TD)
OL Tobin Cameron, Jr.
OL Jeremy Hensley, Jr.
OL Bryan Morrison, So.
OL Ryan Hensen, Sr.
DE Chad King, Jr. (49 TT, 11 TFL, 2 sacks)
DE Andrew Turner, So. (45 TT, 6 TFL, 4 sacks)
DT Edmond McClam, Jr. (32 TT, 4 sacks)
DE Deron Mayo, Sr. (transfer, Hofstra)
DT Ronnie Cameron, Jr. (transfer, Hofstra)
S Devon Simmons, So. (47 TT, 4 INTs)
P Johnathan Plisco, So. (44.8 avg.)

OUTLOOK: For a first-year program, 2009 was a monumental success for ODU. The team finished 9-2 and averaged 19,782 fans per home game. Quarterback Thomas DeMarco had a stellar season, passing for 21 touchdowns and running for an additional 17. He was responsible for 21.1 points per game, good for first in the FCS. The entire starting offensive line returns as well as the top five receivers. Three running back finished behind DeMarco in net yards last season and all return in 2010. The defense did have some key losses. Leading tackler Mychael McJunkins and No. 3 tackler A.T. Aoelua were both lost at linebacker due to grades. McJunkins was poised to have a standout season. Last year, ODU opened its schedule with two games against teams in lower divisions and played only one team with a winning record in Jacksonville. This year, the schedule gets much tougher, but look for ODU to remain competitive as it prepares for entrance into the imposing CAA in 2011.

2. NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL EAGLES (4-7)

COACH: Mose Risen (14-18 in three seasons at N.C. Central)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Michael Johnson, Jr. (153 of 268, 1,931 yards, 18 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Donald Laster, Sr. (62 TT, 9.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 9 PD)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
RB Tim Shankle, Sr. (180 rushes, 739 yards, 8 TDs; 20 catches, 143 yards)
RB Tony McCord, Sr. (77 rushes, 414 yards, 1 TD)
RB Arthur Goforth, So. (22 rushes, 101 yards, 1 TD)
WR Geovonie Irvine, Jr. (38 catches, 528 yards, 3 TDs)
WR Andrew Johnson, Jr. (19 catches, 298 yards, 3 TDs)
DT Teryl White, Sr. (59 TT, 11 TFL, 3 sacks)
DT Shane Moore, Jr. (transfer, Marshall)
LB Calvin Hillie, Sr. (70 TT, 5 TFL, 3 INTs)
LB Roger Stewart, Jr. (39 TT, 7.5 TT, 2 sacks)
K Frankie Cardelle, So. (64 points)

OUTLOOK: The Eagles will play eight FCS teams this season. Last season, they also played eight FCS teams, going 2-6 in those contests, with two of those losses coming in double-overtime. Last year's losses may turn into victories this season, as the team continues to gain experience and prepare for MEAC play in 2011. Returning in 2010 is quarterback Michael Robinson, who had a solid, but not spectacular season in 2009. He is joined by the program's top three rushers from 2009. In all, the defense returns eight starters, led by linebacker Donald Laster, who is expected to have a stellar season. Also back is No. 1 tackler and linebacker Calvin Hillie, and defensive tackle Deryl White. The Eagles play three lower division teams this year and should improve against FCS competition. They also have seven home games, where they have only lost once in their last nine contests.

3. GEORGIA STATE PANTHERS (first season)

COACH: Bill Curry (first season at Georgia State; 83-105-4 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: Program's first season

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Star Jackson, So. (transfer, Alabama)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Evan Bostic, Jr. (transfer, JC)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
RB Rosevelt Watson, So.
SL Darren McCray, Fr.
WR Sidney Haynes, Jr. (transfer, UCF)
OL Joseph Gilbert, Jr. (transfer, Georgia Tech)
OL Clyde Yandell, Jr. (transfer, Georgia Tech)
OL Ben Jacoby, Jr. (transfer, Ball State)
TE Bailey Woods, Jr. (transfer, Auburn)
DL Christo Bilukidi, Jr. (transfer, JC)
LB Louis Muasau, Jr. (transfer, JC)
DB Demarius Matthews, Fr.
DB Jamal Ransby, Fr.
DB Brandon Jones, Jr. (transfer, Mars Hill)

OUTLOOK: The Georgia State football program may be new, but it acquired credibility with the hiring of former Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky head coach Bill Curry. Curry was not only brought in to generate attention, but also to win football games and prepare for the tough transition to CAA football in 2012. A group of FBS transfers, led by former Alabama quarterback Star Jackson, should help the cause. As Old Dominion did a year ago, Georgia State will open with two games against lower division teams. This should build some confidence for the program. The Panthers' home games will be played in the Georgia Dome, and the team should start the inaugural season on a positive note as it hosts Shorter in the opener. As for the season finale, Georgia State will visit reigning FBS champion Alabama on Nov. 18.

4. LAMAR CARDINALS (first season)

COACH: Ray Woodard (first season at Lamar, 9-3 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: Program's first season

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Andre Bevil, Jr. (transfer, JC)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Jacody Coleman, Jr. (transfer, Iowa)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
RB Octavious Logan, Jr. (transfer)
RB Jordan Dixon, Fr.
WR J.J. Hayes, Jr. (transfer, JC)
WR Marcus Jackson, Jr. (transfer, JC)
OL Stephen Babin, Fr. OL Kyle Gilliam, Fr.
OL Kameron Edwards, Jr. (transfer, JC)
DL Arden Dorsey, So. (transfer, Texas A&M)
DE Darby Jackson, Jr. (transfer, JC)
LB Jonothan Ekpe, Jr. (transfer, Dean)
DB Darryl Roberts, Fr.

OUTLOOK: Lamar will play its first year of football since the program's cancellation in 1989. In 2011, the Cardinals will join the Southland Conference. The 2010 season opens with a tough matchup against future Southland foe McNeese State. Lamar will get a break, though, as it faces four lower division teams and fellow first-year program Georgia State. Another benefit is Lamar's location within the Golden Trianlge, from which head coach Ray Woodard has been able to draw local talent. Woodard spent the previous three seasons at Navarro College in Texas. With Woodard come several of his Navarro players and this should add stability to the team. One of these players, Andre Bevil, appears poised to capture the starting quarterback spot.

5. SAVANNAH STATE TIGERS (2-8)

COACH: Julius Dixon (first season at Savannah State)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Justin Babb, Sr. (129 rushes, 804 yards, 6 TDs; 25 catches, 231 yards, 3 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE LaDarien Redfield, Sr. (41 TT, 9.5 TFL, 4 sacks)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
QB A.J. Defilippis, Jr. (46 of 82, 425 yards, 3 TDs)
RB Thomas Beaurem, So. (3 rushes, 15 yards)
RB Malcolm Poindexter, Fr.
OL Demetrius Edwards, Sr.
OL Lenworth McKenzie, Jr.
OL Dan Johnson, Sr.
OL Jared Brunson, Jr.
DL Tametric Hunt, Jr. (19 TT, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks)
DL Channing Welch, Sr. (27 TT, 9 TFL, 2.5 sacks)
LB Vince Cochran, Sr. (51 TT, 7.5 TFL)
LB Sadrak Jean-Baptiste, Jr. (50 TT, 7 TFL, 2.5 sacks)
DB Chris Asbury, Jr. (54 TT, 1.5 TFL)
DB Darren Hunter, Sr. (19 TT, 1 INT, 4 PD)

OUTLOOK: Savannah State has struggled since moving to the FCS in 2002. Last season the Tigers went 0-6 against FCS teams. This season, they will face seven FCS teams. The program is set to join the MEAC in 2011 and has added new head coach Julius Dixon in preparation for the move. Dixon's task was complicated this offseason, as several prominent players were declared ineligible for the 2010 season. Potential star wide receiver Byron Leggett and incumbent starting quarterback Kurvin Curry are amongst those who will miss the upcoming campaign due to offseason issues.

By Andrew Gaddess, FCS Contributing Editor


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