Teams: Arkansas State, Georgia State, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy, Western Kentucky
Best Team: Western Kentucky
Best Coach: Bobby Petrino (Western Kentucky),
Top Players: QB Terrance Broadway (Louisiana), QB (Louisiana-Monroe), RB Antonio Andrews (Western Kentucky), RB David Oku (Arkansas State), LB Andrew Jackson (Western Kentucky), S Jonathan Dowling (Western Kentucky)
Top Storyline: Bobby Petrino returns to the sidelines as coach of Western Kentucky
The Sun Belt Conference used to be a laughingstock. However, although it will not be confused with the SEC any time soon, the conference is rapidly becoming stronger, with a number of teams talented enough to compete with power conference foes.
At this stage, Western Kentucky has to be considered the favorite. The program started off last season as a red hot 5-1 program before falling to 2-5 in the remaining seven games. New hire Bobby Petrino looks to take the Hilltoppers’ 14 starters to looking more like the 5-1 team that showed so much promise.
Petrino, looking for redemption after an embarrassing departure from Arkansas, is arguably the top offensive genius in all of college football. However, he will have to break in a new quarterback, with Junior Brandon Doughty appearing to have the edge in the fight for the starting job.
Doughty, however, will have plenty of help. Senior running back Antonio Andrews returns after rushing for 1784 yards and bringing in another 432 receiving. Defensively, the team returns a number of standouts including Senior linebacker Andrew Jackson (122 tackles, 15.5 TFLs) and Junior safety Jonathan Dowling (68 tackles, 6 interceptions).
Prediction: All eyes will be on Petrino as he returns to the sidelines. While he has undeniable personal and moral issues, he is an outstanding football coach, and the Hilltoppers should have no trouble scoring points. Additionally, the defense is solid, and the schedule lines up favorably. After SEC matchups against Kentucky and Tennessee, the schedule is devoid of heavyweights and three (Troy, Arkansas State, and Louisiana) of their top four (Louisiana-Monroe being the other) of their toughest Sun Belt contests are at home. A 10-2 type season is not out of the realm of possibilities for Western Kentucky.
Standing in Western Kentucky’s way is the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, led by Junior quarterback Terrance Broadway. The signal caller threw for 2842 yards while running for another 769 last season and is poised to be even stronger in 2013. Another Junior, running back Alonzo Harris, is another of the 13 returning starters as is explosive junior wide receiver Jamal Robinson, who averaged over 24 yards a reception last season The team’s top two tacklers from 2012, Senior linebacker Justin Anderson and Senior Rodney Gillis.
Prediction: In a conference filled with stellar coaches, Mark Hudspeth is one of the best. The Ragin’ Cajuns were put a lot of points on the board last season en route to a 9-4 finish. A similar performance is likely in 2013. However, this is a relatively young team, and the 2014 version should be even stronger.
Todd Berry’s Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks knocked off SEC foe Arkansas and nearly beat Auburn in 2012, an impressive start to an 8-5 season even though both programs were down. Senior quarterback Kolton Browning, the driving force behind the impressive season, returns after leading the team in rushing and passing in 2012. Although Browing threw for 3049 yards last season, the Warhawks were relatively weak on the ground and will need to improve that aspect of their offense in order to win the increasingly competitive Sun Belt
Prediction: Outside of their Week 1 match up against Oklahoma, there is not an “unwinnable” game on the Warhawks’ schedule. Contests against Western Kentucky (at home on Oct. 3) and Louisiana (away on Nov. 30) will determine if the team can compete for the Sun Belt title.
The Arkansas State Red Wolves will look to pick up the pieces after yet another coach moved on to the SEC, this time Gus Malzahn heading to Auburn. However, new coach Bryan Harsin takes over the reigning Sun Belt champs who return several standouts from last season’s run including Senior running back David Oku, once one of the nation’s top recruits and top young performer for the Tennessee Volunteers. Despite the return of a number of key players, Harsin is not the innovator Malzahn is and will also be without star quarterback Ryan Aplin.
Prediction: It has been a great time to be a fan of the Red Wolves, and the strength of the program built up over the last several years will not disappear overnight. However, Arkansas State does have SEC foes Auburn and Missouri on the schedule and may have a tougher time with the Sun Belt portion of their schedule. This will be a solid team, but another 10-3 performance looks unlikely.
Over the years, Troy has been the strongest program in the Sun Belt, but Larry Blakeney and the Trojans have fallen on tough times in recent years including a rough 5-7 season last year. However, one can never count out the Trojans in the Sun Belt, especially with Senior quarterback Corey Robinson returning. The pass happy Trojans offense allowed Robinson to throw for 3121, and the quarterback returns a plethora of receiving options. Backup quarterback Deon Anthony is also a dynamic playmaker for the offense.
Prediction: Troy has away games at power conference foes Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Duke and will also be on the road when they face top Sun Belt teams Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, and Louisiana. If the Trojans crack the 6-6 mark needed to be bowl eligible, that will be about as good as can be expected.
With leading passer Ross Metheny, leading rusher Demetre Baker, and leading receiver Jereme Jones all returning, South Alabama‘s second full year in the FBS should be better than its first. Head coach Joey Jones and the Jaguars have a significantly easier schedule than in 2012.
Prediction: Although improvement can be expected for the Jaguars, who return 17 total starters from a year ago, they remain significantly behind the upper echelon of the Sun Belt. Exceeding 2012’s two win total should not be difficult, but any more than four wins would be surprising.
Dennis Franchione of TCU, Alabama, and Texas A&M fame returns in his third season as the head coach at Texas State. However, the 4-8 Bobcats lost many of their top performers from 2012, and wide receiver Andy Erickson may be the top returner.
Prediction: Since leaving the Horned Frogs program, Franchione has fallen on hard times. Although the schedule is not as difficult as some of their Sun Belt competitors, this is not a team capable of bettering last season’s lackluster campaign.
New quarterback Clay Chastain earned a reputation as an accurate passer in junior college, and Georgia State also returns leading receiver Albert Wilson and his 947 yards. However, new head coach Trent Miles compiled only a 20-36 record at Indiana State.
Prediction: Three matchups against FCS foes should help the lowly Panthers improve on 2012’s 1-10 record in the FCS as they enter the FBS. However, this team will be far from competitive and should experience particularly painful contests against Alabama and West Virginia
Follow Cole Muzio on Twitter @ColeMuzio for more college football analysis.