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Preview 2012 - Sun Belt Predicted Finishes
The early summer look at where we think each team will finish.
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Preview 2012 - Predicted Conference Finishes
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2011 Record: 8-5, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 9-3
The Golden Panthers are loaded on the offensive line and should be able to pound away with the running game, but all the offense has to do is be competent with all 11 starters returning on defense. FIU should be the early favorite to win the Sun Belt title with so much talent returning, and it'll be a huge help to get the key conference game against Arkansas State and WKU at home. Three road games in four dates over the second half of the season will be a test, but any team good enough to win the Sun Belt title should be able to get through Troy, South Alabama, and Florida Atlantic away from home. But can Mario Cristobal's bunch come up with a key win or two in non-conference play against Duke or USC on the road or Louisville at home? It should be just good enough to make some noise.
2011 Record: 9-4, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 8-4
How do the Ragin' Cajuns build off of arguably the best season in school history? The offense should be even stronger with nine starters back, but the defense needs a ton of work up front. Even so, this should still be a favorite in the Sun Belt race getting top contenders Western Kentucky, FIU and Arkansas State at home. Going to Oklahoma State and Florida won't help the record, but the toughest away date on the conference schedule is a manageable trip to Troy.
3. Arkansas State
2011 Record: 10-3, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 7-5
Gus Malzahn has work to do, and it's a near-lock that he won't get Auburn transfer running back Michael Dyer to until next year. The team could've used him to balance out a good offense, but the big concern is on the other side with eight starters gone off the defense. The O will be more than fine with quarterback Ryan Aplin bombing away to Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer, but will that be enough to get through the improved Sun Belt? There are enough layups against teams like Memphis, Alcorn State, and South Alabama at home to expect another winning season, but winning another Sun Belt title will be tough with three road games in four dates and with critical showdowns against FIU, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Troy on the road.
4. Western Kentucky
2011 Record: 7-5, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 6-6
Willie Taggart has done a phenomenal job of quickly turning around one of the nation's weakest programs, but can he and the Hilltoppers sustain the success without running back Bobby Rainey to carry the workload? He might be gone, but nine starters return on offense while the defense gets eight starters back. That should be just enough to get by the weaker teams in the Sun Belt, but road trips to Arkansas State, Troy, FIU, and Louisiana-Lafayette will be just enough to keep the team from making another huge leap forward.
2011 Record: 3-9, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 6-6
Can the almost always solid Trojans turn things back around and be in the hunt for the Sun Belt title again? The passing game will be great again with Corey Robinson bombing away and with eight other starters coming back on offense. The defense couldn't stop anyone last year, but that's nothing new after struggling so much over the last few seasons. The schedule isn't too bad, but several of the home games have to come against the Sun Belt big boys. For good and bad, the Trojans get Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, WKU and FIU at home. Win three of those and then it's Game On in the conference title chase.
6. Middle Tennessee
2011 Record: 2-10, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 6-6
Can the Blue Raiders get off to a hot start to put the horrors of 2011 in the past? Yes, but it'll still take a major effort to be a player in the improved Sun Belt. Beating McNeese State and Florida Atlantic early will create a little bit of excitement before going to Memphis and with ULM on the horizon. However, a 4-1 start could quickly turn with five of the final seven games on the road including dates with FIU, Mississippi State, WKU and Arkansas State. The offense moved the ball last year but struggled to score; that'll change early on. The defensive front seven has to start from near-scratch.
7. North Texas
2011 Record: 5-7, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 5-7
The offense should rely a bit more on quarterback Derek Thompson and the passing game after losing star running back Lance Dunbar. The defense should be better up front, but the secondary will need time to retool and reload. This isn't the North Texas of the pre-Dan McCarney era, though, and it should be even more competitive and should be able to come up with a few shockers. But will the record be any better? That's a big question mark with only a few relatively easy home games and with dangerous road trips to Middle Tennessee, ULM, and Florida Atlantic to fight through.
2011 Record: 4-8, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 4-8
Where are the wins going to come from? The defense was great last year, but that didn't translate into wins and now most of the top playmakers are gone. Can there be any more production from an offense that has a good group of skill players but a lacking line? Even if the Warhawks are better, it's going to be tough to come up with a record that shows it. Florida Atlantic and South Alabama have to be home wins, and it's going to take several upsets to have any dreams of a winning season. That'll mean a beating Tulane and Middle Tennessee on the road will be needed to avoid an 0-5 start.
9. South Alabama
2011 Record: 6-4, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 4-9
The Jaguars could be one of the surprising non-BCS teams you've never head of. It's a veteran squad coming off a decent year, including good fights with NC State and Kent State. The defense could be tremendous with ten starters back to a strong 3-4 defense. The offense won't put up too many points on the board, but it'll be strong on the ground with a little bit of explosion. This won't be a Sun Belt-title season, but USA will be a factor with home games against Florida Atlantic, FIU, and Middle Tennessee. However, seven of the final 11 games are on the road.
10. Florida Atlantic
2011 Record: 1-11, 2012 Roughly Projected Record: 3-9
Carl Pelini has a ton of rebuilding to do with a program that fell way, way behind FIU and several other relatively young Sun Belt programs. The offense has to find something that works and the defense that returns ten starters has to be better with the intense coaching staff sure to ramp things up a few bit. Outside of Wagner in the opener and possibly South Alabama, there aren't any sure sure-thing wins on the lot. It'll take a slew of upsets to have any hope of winning six games.