Long regarded as the weakest of all the FBS conference, the Sun Belt enjoyed one of its best, and certainly its most visible season in 2012.
Louisiana-Monroe started the year with a bang, upsetting #8 Arkansas in overtime. The Warhawks followed that up with two narrow but wildly entertaining defeats to Auburn and Baylor. Not to be outdone, rival Louisiana-Lafayette almost staged a huge upset against Florida, only to lose after the Gators blocked a punt for a touchdown with a couple seconds remaining.
The conference also suffered some upheaval. Conference realignment has a trickle-down affect, and while most of the attention goes towards how it changes the BCS conferences, the biggest effects are felt amongst the smaller leagues. Four schools jumped ship to Conference USA, although only Middle Tennessee State had a winning record. The league responded by bringing in FBS newcomers Georgia State and Texas State.
The result is a top-heavy league. Four teams have legitimate aspirations for a conference title while the rest aren’t really close.
Defending champ Arkansas State is vulnerable, having lost its coach for a second-consecutive year while also having to replace a number of key players. Western Kentucky hired the biggest name on the coaching market, and while Bobby Petrino probably won’t be around for long, it’ll be exciting to see what he can do with the Hilltoppers.
Both Louisiana schools are loaded with good, experienced players and are ready to take that next step.
It’s going to be a fun season down in the Sun Belt.
Cream of the Crop
Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Western Kentucky
Arkansas State Red Wolves
Arkansas State is the victim of its own success. In 2011, the school hired Hugh Freeze to take over, and all he did was engineer a stunning turnaround and win ten games and a conference title. He parlayed that success into the Ole Miss job, so ASU hired former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Malzahn repeated the feat, winning ten games and a conference title before leaving to take over Auburn. Now, the Red Wolves have turned to former Boise State and Texas assistant Bryan Harsin.
Harsin will find the going rougher than did his predecessors. Star quarterback Ryan Aplin is gone. The two-time Sun Belt player of the year was a four-year starter who passed for 10,753 yards and 67 touchdowns in his career while adding 1,756 and 31 touchdowns on the ground. That’s a huge loss. ASU also loses two of its top receivers along with a host of key defensive players.
Senior Adam Kennedy earned the starting nod in the season opener against overmatched Arkansas-Pine Bluff and was an efficient 9-for-12 for 149 yards and a touchdown, but the bigger offensive story was the Red Wolves’ rushing attack. ASU ran for over 500 yards, and four players topped 100. A deep backfield and strong offensive line suggest that ASU will lean on its running attack more as Harsin breaks in a new quarterback and some new wideouts.
The defense suffered heavy losses at linebacker and in the secondary. Combine that with the loss of its best pass rusher, and that spells trouble in the pass-happy Sun Belt.
Auburn and Missouri offer some nice non-conference upset opportunities–both are rebuilding–but those two combined with a home game against Troy doesn’t offer the easiest way to break in a new quarterback and coaching staff. Arkansas State will be one of the better teams in the Sun Belt this year, but the Red Wolves are going to experience a bit of a drop off. You can’t lose a guy like Aplin and not go through one, especially with that non-conference slate. Arkansas State will win 7-9 games.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
Louisiana-Lafayette must be the anti-Arkansas State or something because while ASU coaches have a successful year and then get hired elsewhere, UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth begins his third year at the school after winning 18 games in two seasons. That matches their win total from the four years prior to his arrival and is the first time the Ragin’ Cajuns have won more than eight games in a season in nearly 40 years.
Terrance Broadway returns after throwing for 2,842 yards and 17 touchdowns last year despite not seeing action until four games in to the season. The dual-threat junior also ran for over 800 yards and added 9 rushing touchdowns. He’ll be joined by running back Alonzo Harris and a pair of experienced receivers in Darryl Surgent and Jamal Robinson. Throw in an experienced offensive line, and this unit ought to be pretty good and one of the best in the conference.
The secondary was hit pretty hard and loses both starting cornerbacks from 2012 along with leading tackler Rodney Gills at free safety. Two of the top three pass rushers on the defensive line are gone as well, so pass defense could be an issue for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
UL-Lafayette certainly didn’t decide to ease its way into the 2013 season. The Ragin’ Cajuns opened with Arkansas (34-14 loss) and follow that up with a trip to Manhattan, Kansas to take on Kansas State. The Wildcats lost their opener to defending FCS champ North Dakota State and ought to be spitting mad to redeem themselves, so that will be a tough test for the Ragin’ Cajuns. The rest of the schedule isn’t bad, though. Back-to-back road trips in mid-October against Western Kentucky and Arkansas State will be vital to Lafayette’s conference title hopes, but the school doesn’t have to face in-state rival UL-Monroe until the end of November at home. I’m going with nine wins for Louisiana-Lafayette this year with losses to Arkansas, K-State, and Western Kentucky.
All you really need to know about Louisana-Monroe is that it’s been nicknamed “Funroe.” That’s what happens when you have a mad scientist posing as a head coach, a man who dreams up diabolical schemes such as having two quarterbacks in the backfield at the same time. Yes, it is even more awesome than it sounds.
The Warhakws had quite the season in 2012. They kicked the year off in a big way by upsetting then #8 Arkansas in overtime. As if that weren’t enough, Monroe nearly did it again a week later, putting a huge scare into Auburn before succumbing to the Tigers in overtime. For good measure, the Warhawks also nearly took down Baylor, losing a 47-42 shootout.
The 2013 season looks bright, a 34-0 shutout to Oklahoma to start the year notwithstanding. The Warhawks have a plethora of experience; quarterback Kolton Browning is a multi-year starter with a veteran offensive line and experienced skill position players while the defense returns its entire defensive line and a good portion of the secondary.
Browning is back after throwing for over 3,000 yards with 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. He was also the team’s leading rusher with 632 yards. He’ll be helped by solid receivers Je’Ron Hamm, Tavarese Maye, and Colby Harper as well as running back Jyruss Edwards and a seasoned offensive line.
As was mentioned above, the entire defensive line returns intact for the Warhawks. The linebacking corps has to replace two leaders in R.J. Young and DaCorris Ford but will be bolstered by the return from injury of former starter Cameron Blakes. Only one defensive back who saw significant playing time is gone, so the secondary should be in good shape.
The Oklahoma game did not go according to plan, and a road contest against Baylor won’t be easy. Other than that, the schedule shapes up nicely for the Warhawks. Their games against Western Kentucky, Arkansas State, and UL-Lafayette are spread out, and they get both the Hilltoppers and Red Wolves at home. Even presuming a loss to Baylor, one can see Monroe winning ten games. It’s not likely, but eight or nine certainly is.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
No team made a bigger splash in the offseason than the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers when they hired former Louisville and Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. It’s the ultimate high-reward/low-risk move. Petrino has an outstanding resume when it comes to coaching: in eight seasons as a head coach, he has won at least eight games seven times and ten games four times. He took Louisville to unprecedented heights and turned a downtrodden Arkansas program into a team touted as a SEC and national title contender. If it doesn’t work out, well, it’s Western Kentucky. They’re used to a lack of success on the football field and will be right back where they started.
The Razorbacks were coming off an 11-2 season in 2011 and were full of confidence. Arkansas was loaded with offensive talent and was a surefire top-ten team. Then, Petrino got into a motorcycle accident and tried to cover up the fact that he wasn’t alone: his mistress was with him, and she happened to work for the Arkansas athletic department in a job that he got for her. He was fired by the school and spent the 2012 season out of coaching.
Western Kentucky has some offensive weapons for Petrino to work with, chief among them being senior running back Antonio Andrews. All Andrews did a year ago was rush for 1,733 yards and put up the second-highest all-purpose yardage total for a single season in history with 3,161. The offensive line is experienced, too, so he’ll have plenty of room for an encore. Quarterback Brandon Doughty won the starting job and was sensational in the season-opening win against Kentucky, completing 27-of-34 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
On defense, seven starters return, but defensive line depth is an issue. Stud defensive end Quanterus Smith is gone along with four other linemen who saw significant playing time. Star linebacker Jackson is back, however, after racking up 100 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss a year ago. He leads a heady, experienced group of linebackers that is the strength of the defense.
The Hilltoppers looked good in their opener and get a chance to knock off another SEC program this weekend when they travel to Tennessee. With Petrino at the helm of an experienced team, Western Kentucky is poised for a big year. Eight wins is practically a certainty, but there’s a good chance they’ll get more. An upset of Tennessee is not out of the question, and this team will likely get at least one or two against the rest of the Sun Belt elite.
Middle of the Pack
Troy, Texas State
Troy used to be one of the premier programs in the Sun Belt, but the Trojans have fallen back to the pack over the past few seasons. After going 3-9 in 2011 and 5-7 last year, are the Trojans are their way back to rejoining their place among the conference elite?
If the answer to that question is to be yes, then it will help if quarterback Corey Robinson builds off the decision-making progress he made a year ago. He’s off to a good start, to say the least, after setting an NCAA record for accuracy in Troy’s season-opening overtime win over UAB. The senior completed a ridiculous 30-of-32 passes for a 93.8 percent completion percentage. He completed 20 in a row at one point, and on the day, he threw for 319 yards and a touchdown. There’s no way he can sustain that, of course, but if he can repeat his accuracy and sack numbers from a year ago while boosting him touchdown total, the Trojans will be in good shape.
As for the rest of the offense, fellow quarterback Deon Anthony provides a nice change-of-pace as a running threat while also being competent through the air. Running back Shawn Southward is gone, as is his top backup, so finding a replacement is key. Unfortunately, the most experienced returning back on the roster only had three carries in 2012, so there isn’t an obvious answer. The receiving corps is in better shape; big-play threat Chip Reeves is gone, but three other players who had at least 40 catches and 400 yards return. Up front, the Trojans have to replace three starters, including first-team All-Sun Belt center Kyle Wilborn.
The Trojan defense was hit hard at the linebacker position and in the secondary, but Arkansas transfer Lonnie Gosha brings hope to the defensive line. This wasn’t a great unit in 2013–the Trojans couldn’t rush the passer and had a tendency to give up the big play–and it’s relying on a lot of first-time starters for improvement.
It’s going to be tough for Troy to get to six wins and return to bowl eligibility. Down the stretch, the Trojans have to travel to Western Kentucky, host UL-Monroe, go to UL-Lafayette, then play at Ole Miss. It’d behoove them to reach five wins before that stretch (the season finale is against Texas State). The win over UAB combined with what should be wins against Savannah State, Georgia State, and South Alabama get the Trojans to four, but Mississippi State and Ole Miss should be losses. Duke and Arkansas State are winnable but not easy. I think the Troy will pull it off and win six or seven games.
Texas State Bobcats
The 2012 season was Texas State’s first at the FBS level, and it actually went really well. Yes, the Bobcats were only 4-8, but that’s a remarkable record considering the step up in competition they were making. The biggest surprise was the season-opening win against Conference USA power Houston, a game the Bobcats won 30-13.
The departure of quarterback Shaun Rutherford is a major blow, as he posted pretty decent numbers: 64.5 percent completion percentage, 15 touchdowns, 5 interceptions. Rutherford was also the team’s leading rusher with 748 yards. Running back Marcus Curry tacked on another 685 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but he’s gone as well. That’s a lot of production to make up for, and if the season opener is any indication, it’s not going to be easy. Despite notching an upset of Southern Miss, the Bobcats only tallied 215 yards of offense. Quarterback Tyler Arndt was accurate, completing 13-of-19 passes, but he only threw for 111 yards. The team’s leading rusher had 37 yards on 10 carries.
Texas State was awful defensively last year, and while plenty of pieces return, that doesn’t mean the defense will be any better. The Bobcats’ defensive line only recorded 2.5 sacks the entire season and lost their best pass rusher in linebacker Joplo Bartu, so finding a way to get any sort of pass rush is vital. The addition of former Colorado State linebacker Mike Orakpo–Brian Orakpo’s brother–should help; Orakpo was one of CSU’s best defensive players before being kicked off the team for his involvement in an off-campus fight.
Starting off with a win over Southern Miss is a great way to kick off the 2013 campaign, and it’s now possible that Texas State could make a bowl game is just its second year in the FBS. The Bobcats get Wyoming, Georgia State, South Alabama, and Troy at home, and a road game against Idaho isn’t daunting. Throw in a game against FCS Prairie View A&M, and that’s potentially seven wins right there with a little margin for error. I don’t know if they’ll be able to take down Wyoming after the Cowboys lit up Nebraska’s defense for 600+ yards, but five wins seems like the worst-case scenario for this team. Call it six wins and a bowl game for Texas State.
Bottom of the Barrel
South Alabama, Georgia State
South Alabama Jaguars
It was supposed to be rough going for the South Alabama Jaguars in 2012. After all, the program has only been in existence since 2009, and last year was its first at the FBS level. Despite going 2-11, South Alabama was actually pretty solid on defense. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the offense. One reason for hope is that since the program is so young, pretty much everybody returns. The Jaguars will still struggle, but they will get better.
The Jaguar offense simply must get better, and it starts with the quarterbacks. Both Ross Metheny and C.J. Bennett saw time last year, and both are back for another season. Each only completed about 54 percent of his passes, and both threw the same number of touchdowns as interceptions. Those numbers must improve. To be fair, they didn’t have many weapons to work with. Demetre Baker was solid but unspectacular at RB (595 yards, 5.6 ypc), but no other running back rushed for more than 3.2 yard a carry. Jereme Jones was the leading receiver with 44 catches for 510 yards. In order to take the heat off the defense, the Jaguar offense must make some more plays.
The defense was clearly the strength of the team last year and ought to be again this season. The unit loses star linebacker Jake Johnson (101 tackles 13 tackles for loss), but pass rushing defensive end Alex Page and his six sacks return on the defensive line. With plenty of returning experience at linebacker and in the secondary, South Alabama’s defense should be in good shape, relatively speaking.
South Alabama is a work in progress. Remember, it’s just the Jaguars’ second year at the FBS level, so it’s going to take time. The Jaguars are still a young team. The season-opening loss to Southern Utah didn’t help, but there are a couple of opportunities on the schedule. Put South Alabama down for one or two wins.
Georgia State Panthers
Like South Alabama, Georgia State is a young program transitioning to the FBS level. The Panthers played their first game in 2010, and this season will be their first as a member of the FBS. To say it’s going to be a little rough is putting it lightly. Georgia State’s non-conference schedule includes West Virginia and Alabama.
This team is young and frankly, not very good yet. Quarterback Ben McLane threw for 1,592 yards last year, completing only 50 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That’s pretty bad until you realize that his backup, Ronnie Bell, also completed just half his passes but threw 10 picks in just 67 attempts. Bell got the starting nod in the season opener and went 28-of-51 for 391 yards and 3 touchdowns but also a pair of interceptions, so that’s promising.
The backfield is unproven–Georgia State’s leading rusher against Samford had 29 yards–but the Panthers have a legitimate star in receiver Albert Wilson. The senior caught 48 passes for 947 yards last season and started strong in week one with 8 catches for 167 yards and a touchdown. The offensive line boasts plenty of experience as well.
While the defense was going to struggle anyway, a defensive line decimated by injuries doesn’t help. The flip side is that plenty of guys saw playing time, meaning the defense is deep and experienced, at least.
There is a lot to like about Georgia State moving forward, but 2013 is going to be a long year.
Man, this was a tough one to call. All of these teams are pretty even; there’s no clear favorite. Arkansas State has the experience and is a strong program, but with a new coach and the loss of Aplin, the Red Wolves just have too many cards stacked against them this year. I was really tempted to pick Western Kentucky because of Petrino and the season-opening win against Kentucky, but the Hilltoppers are still going with an untested quarterback and will have some growing pains in their first year using Petrino’s schemes. In the end, I went with experience and familiarity.
Both Louisiana schools are deep and familiar with their respective schemes. Both return a number of starters and are lead by veteran dual-threat quarterbacks. I really like Browning, but Lafayette is just deeper and more explosive on offense. That gives them the edge. The Ragin’ Cajuns take it.