As harsh as Armando was in introducing the AAC, I can only imagine what he’d say if we made him preview the Sun Belt. It’s the SBC’s year for membership turnover as they lose Florida Atlantic, Florida International, North Texas, and Middle Tennessee to Conference-USA and welcome in Texas State and Georgia State. GSU is making their transition to the FBS, and there’s more on the way next season too. Despite the upheaval, the Sun Belt is coming off of a pretty successful season for the small conference. They had a team receive votes in the Coaches Poll the entire season and pulled off a number of upsets, including ULM’s stunner vs. then #8 Arkansas. They also sent a conference-record 4 teams to bowl and were a respectable 2-2. The potential is there to match that number as the top half of the conference looks strong again.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
2012 Final Standings: 9-4, 6-2 SBC T-2nd (def. East Carolina 43-34 in New Orleans Bowl)
2013 Prediction: 9-3, 6-1 SBC 1st, bowl game loss
Pivotal Games: Oct. 22 @ Arkansas St., Nov. 30 vs. ULM
I argued quite a bit in my head (yes, that happens a lot) over who to put at the top spot. Between ULM and ULL, there is plenty of room for debate. Both teams have outstanding returning quarterbacks. Both have experiences Sun Belt coaches. Louisiana gets the slight nod from me because of an easier schedule early and a cleaner bill of health for the offense. Terrance Broadway gets a full year to start under center and is a playmaker. He set school records for total offense and completion percentage in just 9 starts. Plus, he was the team’s 2nd leading rusher. The junior transfer from Houston will lead the Sun Belt’s most potent offense that will have no problem putting points on the board. If the new defensive schemes don’t work out, they’ll have to keep lighting up the scoreboard.
2012 Final Standings: 8-5, 6-2 SBC T-2nd (lost to Ohio 45-14 in the Independence Bowl)
2013 Prediction: 8-4, 5-3 SBC 2nd (bowl game win)
Pivotal Games: Sept. 14 @ Wake Forest, Nov. 9 vs. Arkansas St., Nov. 30 @ Louisiana
ULM is another squad led by a dynamic quarterback in senior Kolton Browning. The 2012 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year threw for 3,049 yards with a 29-10 ratio in 10 starts. Problem is that the Warhawks were 0-2 while he was sidelined with an injury and those losses were to ULL and Arkansas State. Should Browning go down again, there is very little experience behind him, so the Warhawks season is tied to his shoulder and his health. On the upside, they get their three best defensive players back from injury and should feature one of the top defenses in the conference. They should get to the school’s 2nd bowl and I’ll call for another BCS upset as well (sorry Demon Deacon fans). It looks like November 30th in Lafayette will be the Sun Belt title game as the Battle on the Bayou should determine a champion.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
2012 Final Standings: 7-6, 4-4 SBC 5th (lost to Central Michigan 24-21 in the Little Caesars Bowl)
2013 Prediction: 7-5, 5-2 SBC 3rd (bowl game loss)
Pivotal Games: Oct. 3 @ ULM, Nov. 30 vs. Arkansas State
Western Kentucky will be a success as long as they keep Bobby Petrino off of a motorcycle. Okay, with the obligatory cheap shot out of the way we can talk football. This is a veteran offensive team, with one exception. They’ll be breaking in a new QB, handing the reigns to either a junior who threw 3 passes last year, last year’s backup sophomore James Mauro (12-18, 172, 2-1) or a sophomore who was initially offered a scholarship at Arkansas but has yet to see the field at WKU. I imagine they’ll be leaning heavily on 3rd Team All-American RB Antonio Andrews (1,728 yards, 11 TDs). Petrino has a bit of an offensive reputation, but I hesitate to rank them higher because of the uncertainty under center. If that gets sorted out early, I can see the Hilltoppers as one of the top offenses in the conference. They also feature the best secondary and linebacking corps in the league with all 7 starters returning.
Arkansas State Red Wolves
2012 Final Standings: 10-3, 7-1 SBC 1st (def. #25 Kent State 17-13 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl)
2013 Prediction: 6-6, 4-4 SBC T-4 (bowl game alternate)
Pivotal Games: Oct. 22 vs. Louisiana, Nov. 30 @ WKU
Arkansas State loses career passing leader Ryan Aplin to the NFL, but the offense shouldn’t take too many steps back. They still have a loaded backfield with senior David Oku (1,061 yards, 16 TDs) and 4 of the top 6 behind him back. They also have the top offensive line in the league, returning 64 career starts from a line that paved the way for 206 ypg last year. The big question of offense will be at QB. Despite returning 1st Team All-SBC NT Ryan Carrethers and 2nd Team All-SBC LB Qushaun Lee, the front 7 will have to come together quick as depth will be an issue here, especially in the secondary. If the Red Wolves get some breaks go their way, they could return to the postseason, but I see the defending champs taking a step backwards this year as it will take a year for Bobby Petrino to work his magic.
2012 Final Standings: 5-7, 3-6 SBC T-6th (no bowl game)
2013 Prediction: 6-6, 4-4 SBC T-4th (bowl game alternate)
Pivotal Games: Sept. 12 @ Arkansas St., Oct. 26 @ WKU
Troy is a similar offensive situation as Arkansas State, just at a different position. The Trojans lose 3 of their top 4 rushers from last season but return senior QB Corey Robinson. Robinson is already Troy’s all-time leading passer and returns 2 of his top 3 targets from last year. The big issue will be a defense that only returns 2 starters and allowed 30.5 ppg a year ago. Much like ASU, Troy is a few lucky breaks away from returning to a bowl, as Robinson’s playmaking ability could take them far.
Aside: With the departure of Middle Tennessee for Conference USA, this is the first year since 2003 that Troy and MTSU won’t meet in the Battle for the Palladium.
South Alabama Jaguars
2012 Final Standings: 2-11, 1-7 SBC 10th (ineligible for bowl)
2013 Prediction: 4-8, 2-5 SBC T-6th (no bowl game)
Pivotal Games: Oct. 5 @ Troy, Oct. 26 @ Texas St.
USA looked exactly as you’d expect a team making their FBS debut to look. They took their lumps, but we’re pretty competitive along the way. They return 9 starters on offense and 8 on defense and that experience has me calling for an upswing in their sophomore season. The RB corps could be one of the strongest in the conference, lead by Georgia transfer Demetre Baker. Also, this is defense that 382.9 ypg, good for 2nd in the SBC. Plus, the schedule looks a little more manageable this year, with Tennessee the only BCS school on the slate. The Troy game will probably be a yardstick matchup, showing exactly how far the Panthers have come.
Texas State Bobcats
2012 Final Standings: 4-8, 2-4 WAC 5th (no bowl game)
2013 Prediction: 4-8, 2-5 SBC T-6th (no bowl game)
Pivotal Games: Oct. 26 vs. USA, Nov. 29 @ Troy
2012 started of on a huge high for the Bobcats, as they knocked off Houston convincingly. Unfortunately, inconsistency under center had them quickly falling back to Earth. This year should bring an improved rushing attack, despite losing their top 2 rushers from last year. The offensive line is experienced, bringing 65 career starts and 8 of their top 10. 7 starters return on defense, featuring one of the most experienced lines in the SBC. They should easily improve on last season’s rush D numbers (231.8 ypg). The Bobcats are the SBC’s wild card this season, as they could easily overachieve with a decent schedule. An early upset or two could have them knocking on the door of postseason eligibility. Plus, you have to like a Dennis Franchione-lead squad.
Georgia State Panthers
2012 Final Standings: 1-10, 1-7 CAA T-9th (no playoffs)
2013 Predictions: 2-10, 0-7 SBC 8th (no bowl game)
Pivotal Games: Aug. 29 vs. Samford, Oct 12 vs. Troy
Georgia State has been playing football since 2010 are are making their transition to the FBS this year. They got mopped last year in a strong Colonial Athletic Association (6 Top 25 teams, 3 playoff teams). The Panthers return an experienced offense, but are looking like a team that will operate with a QB by-committee. Plus, the Panthers are 0-3 against FBS opponents, with an average margin of defeat of 50 ppg. On the positive side, there’s nowhere for this team to go but up and with a school in the center of Atlanta, there’s a chance to get pull in some SEC recruiting scraps and build a successful mid-major program here. But that’s a few years down the road. This squad will be fighting for survival every week.