Last season: 12-2, 4-1 in Gulf South Conference; Division II national champion
Two you know: WR Gerald Ford (Gainesville) is receiving preseason All-American consideration after a junior season in which he caught 69 passes for 1,026 yards and 13 TDs despite missing one game because of injury. He had 20 catches, 377 yards and seven TDs in a three-game stretch in September. The Blazers are known for their offense, but LB Chris Pope (Jackson) will be a four-year starter who has led the team in tackles — 127 in 2012 and 92 in 2011 — the past two years. He made 21 tackles against Carson-Newman and had 10 tackles and a fumble recovery in the national-championship game victory over Winston-Salem State.
Two you’ll hear about: Valdosta State defensive players often are overshadowed by the offense, but DT Lawrence Virgil (Brooks County) had 52 tackles, 12 for loss and six sacks as a junior in 2012. LB Jeremy Grable (Milton) excelled late in the season and the playoffs with 46 tackles and two sacks in the final five games. He finished second on the team with 102 tackles, and his forced fumble in the third quarter proved to be a pivotal play in the national-title game.
Two for the future: Kaleb Nobles (Fitzgerald) redshirted last year and likely will be the No. 2 QB this season. Cochran is a senior, so Nobles could be next year’s starter. There might not be much playing time right away for RB Nick Davis, but coaches are expecting big things from the freshman, who rushed for 1,500 yards his senior season at Mary Persons.
They’ll have a winning season if: Coach David Dean’s program continues to click and he can find five more offensive linemen. The Blazers won their final 10 games and defeated Winston-Salem State 35-7 for the Division II national championship. It was David Dean’s second national title at Valdosta State and the third for the program.
They’ll come up short if: Turnovers, injuries or malaise hit the program. They need to replace five starting offensive linemen.
Chatter: Valdosta State returns its top passer, top four rushers and 11 of its top 12 receivers from 2012. … QB Cayden Cochran enters this season with 3,658 career passing yards and 34 career TD passes (both eighth in school history), despite only 16 career starts. … RBs Cedric O’Neal (Dublin) and Austin Scott (Hardaway) rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. O’Neal had 1,198 and 14 TDs, and Scott had 1,030 and nine scores. Cochran also rushed for 11 TDs, in addition to 26 TD passes. … Valdosta State averaged 41.6 points (tied for eighth in Division II) and 469.9 yards (17th) last season. … Former G Edmund Kugbila became the highest-drafted Blazer to be selected in the NFL draft when he was taken in the fourth round by the Carolina Panthers in April. … The same five OLs started every game last season.
Must-see games: Valdosta State will begin defense of its national championship by opening against Fort Valley State in Macon on Sept. 7. The Blazers have won 10 consecutive since a 39-28 loss to West Alabama on Sept. 22, defeating the Tigers 49-21 in the playoffs. The teams meet at West Alabama on Thursday, Oct. 10.
Best Twitter handle: Follow Cochran at @CBCochran11.