2012 CFN Sun Belt Preview
FIU RB Kedric Rhodes
FIU RB Kedric Rhodes
Posted Aug 11, 2012

2012 CFN Sun Belt Preview - It's going to be bombs away in a fantastic year for the Sun Belt.

Preview 2012

Sun Belt Preview

- 2012 Arkansas State Preview | 2012 Florida Atlantic Preview 
- 2012 FIU Preview2012 Middle Tennessee Preview
- 2012 North Texas Preview | 2012 South Alabama Preview
- 2012 Troy Preview | 2012 UL Lafayette Preview
- 2012 ULM Preview | 2012 Western Kentucky Preview

- 2012 Sun Belt Preview
- 2012 Sun Belt Unit Rankings
- 2012 CFN All-Sun Belt Team & Top 30 Players
- 2012 Sun Belt Schedules & Picks
- 2012 Sun Belt Team By Team Looks & Predicted Finish 
- 2011 Sun Belt Preview | 2010 Sun Belt Preview

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By Pete Fiutak

All of a sudden, the Sun Belt has becoming a bit of a player in the college football landscape.

Former commissioner Wright Waters has become the Executive Director of the Football Bowl Association, and the teams are now on the radar of the bigger conferences. There’s something there that’s worth taking a look at. But unlike the WAC, the Sun Belt is being extremely proactive to make sure it’ll still exist for the foreseeable future.

FIU and North Texas are gone to Conference USA next season, and Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee, Troy and Western Kentucky are all primed to make the jump up whenever other leagues start losing their teams. It’s the trickle-down effect – or trickle-up effect depending on the conference – and the Sun Belt knows that the more success its programs have, the most likely the top teams are going to be gone. That’s why South Alabama was invited aboard and will be part of the fun this year, and a fully eligible member next season, and why Georgia State was brought in for next year. Texas State is only hanging out in the WAC for a year before going off to the Sun Belt.

Geography is helping the cause – there simply aren’t a lot of teams for the WAC to choose from to stay viable – but it’s the location as well as the talent that will make the Sun Belt stronger over the next several years. The league gets its share of SEC wannabe prospects that might not have the right size or enough speed, but will run through a wall to show the bigger leagues what they missed out on. And now, after being around long enough to get some name recognition, players from the southeastern part of the country that normally would’ve been locks to go wherever there were openings are sticking around.

The teams are getting stronger and the play is getting better across the board. There will always be a few dogs on the lot like Florida Atlantic last season, the teams are proving they can hang around with the big names and not be an automatic out.

While it’s not like the Sun Belt is winning a slew of games against the BCSers to make a ton of noise, it’s doing enough to show that the teams can be more competitive. This year, the league should be in for a whale of a fight.

Arkansas State had its best season in school history, while Louisiana-Lafayette finally turned the corner and came up with a thrilling bowl win over San Diego State. Newcomer South Alabama is loaded with experience; Troy’s offense should once again be fantastic; Western Kentucky’s defense should once again be fantastic; and FIU will have another winning season and should be off to another bowl game.

Last year was good, but this is the season when the Sun Belt should take yet another step up. It’s been moving forward for the last few years, but this is the season when it will show it can handle taking a few hits and keep on rolling.

Team That'll Surprise
Florida Atlantic – It's all relative. The record will be awful - good luck getting more than three wins - but the team will be far, far more competitive. No, a coaching change won’t mean a worst-to-first turnaround in any way, but the Owls should be stronger on both sides of the ball. It won’t hurt to have the new energy of Carl Pelini and the young coaches ready to pump up the energy a bit. The problem, as always with FAU, is the schedule with seven road games and just two dates before late October in the nice, shiny new building. The worst offense in college football can’t and won’t be worse, while Pelini will do big things with a good linebacking corps and a defense that should be among the best in the Sun Belt.

Team That'll Disappoint
Arkansas State – The hope is that the production will keep on rolling from the one-year campaign from Hugh Freeze, and an argument could be made that the team got an upgrade with Gus Malzahn. The team will still be terrific, and QB Ryan Aplin will be special, but after coming up with a tremendous 10-3 year it’s going to be harder to keep up the pace with road games at Oregon and Nebraska early on and with the two toughest games on the Sun Belt schedule – FIU and Louisiana – on the road.

Game of the Year … FIU at Louisiana-Lafayette, Sept. 29
It might be a round-robin battle between Arkansas State, Florida International, Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette, but the battle between the Golden Panthers and Ragin’ Cajuns might be the key to the season. ULL gets two weeks off to prepare for the rematch of its key 36-31 win after going to Oklahoma State, and it’ll already have a tough Sun Belt road game in the rearview mirror, while FIU won’t get much of a break before its conference opener playing Louisville the week before and ASU the week after. The Golden Panther Sun Belt fate could be made or broken by the first week of October.

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. LB David Hinds, Sr. Florida Atlantic
2. RB Kedrick Rhodes, Jr. FIU
1. DE Quanterus Smith, Sr. Western Kentucky
4. WR Eric Thomas, Jr. Troy
5. WR/KR Brelan Chancellor, Jr. North Texas

Coach on the Hot Seat
Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State – Hugh Freeze stepped in and led Arkansas State to the best season in school history, and now the expectations are sky-high for a program now used to success. There’s enough returning talent to win the Sun Belt title, but it’s an even bigger season for Malzahn, who needs to produce to be ready to make the Freeze-like jump up to a bigger program when the opening comes. The bar is Sun Belt championship or bust, and for the offense that led the league in every major category, there can’t be a drop.

5 Non-Conference Games the Sun Belt opponents had better take very, very seriously
1. Arkansas State at Nebraska, Sept. 15
2. Louisville at FIU, Sept. 22
3. Western Kentucky at Kentucky, Sept. 15
4. Louisiana-Lafayette at Florida, Nov. 10
5. Middle Tennessee at Georgia Tech, Sept. 29

Bold Statements
- Don’t fall asleep on the new guy. South Alabama might be undergoing a few changes, and the schedule is a bear with seven of the last 11 games on the road, but there’s enough athleticism and talent to mess someone up. The record won’t be a plus but the team will fight.

- Will Troy ever have a solid defense again? There was a time not all that long ago when the Trojans dominated on the defensive side, and there’s been enough good talent to get a few players drafted over the years, but the offense has carried the program. The worst D in the Sun Belt has to be better to start turning things around after going 3-9.

- There’s a huge talent drain at running back with WKU’s Bobby Rainey, Florida Atlantic’s Alfred Morris and North Texas’ Lance Dunbar gone. FIU’s Kendrick Rhodes is the only returning 1,000-yard rusher, but it’s asking a lot for the conference to replace three workhorse stars like Rainey, Morris and Dunbar. On the flip side …

- The league’s quarterback situation is fantastic. FIU is the only team that loses its starting quarterback. Troy’s Corey Robinson and Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin will be in the hunt for Sun Belt Player of the Year honors, but Middle Tennessee’s Logan Kilgore, ULM’s Kolton Browning and ULL’s Blaine Gautier will be in for huge years.

- ULM has to be ready to do a dead sprint. The Warhawks start late with the opener at Arkansas on September 8th, and there isn’t a week off. With four of the first five games on the road, and with the home game against Baylor, the key will be keeping the head up after an almost certain rough start.

- No Sun Belt team will come within two touchdowns of beating any of the SEC teams on the slate. The games? Florida Atlantic has to go to Georgia and Alabama; ULL has to go to Florida; Middle Tennessee has to play at Mississippi State; North Texas has to go to LSU; Troy hosts Mississippi State; South Alabama has to go to Mississippi State; ULM has to to go Arkansas and Auburn; and Western Kentucky plays at Alabama.

5 Best Pro Prospects
1. RB Michael Dyer, Soph. Arkansas State
2. LB Andrew Jackson, Jr. Western Kentucky
3. DE Tourek Williams, Sr. FIU
4. TE Jack Doyle, Sr. Western Kentucky
5. CB Melvin White, Sr. Louisiana-Lafayette

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. Western Kentucky RB Keshawn Simpson for Bobby Rainey
2. FIU WR Glenn Coleman for T.Y. Hilton
3. Arkansas State DE Tim Starson for Brandon Joiner
4. Troy DE Tony Davis for Jonathan Massaquoi
5. Florida Atlantic RB Jonathan Wallace for Alfred Morris

- 2012 Arkansas State Preview | 2012 Florida Atlantic Preview 
- 2012 FIU Preview2012 Middle Tennessee Preview
- 2012 North Texas Preview | 2012 South Alabama Preview
- 2012 Troy Preview | 2012 UL Lafayette Preview
- 2012 ULM Preview | 2012 Western Kentucky Preview

- 2012 Sun Belt Preview
- 2012 Sun Belt Unit Rankings
- 2012 CFN All-Sun Belt Team & Top 30 Players
- 2012 Sun Belt Schedules & Picks
- 2012 Sun Belt Team By Team Looks & Predicted Finish 
- 2011 Sun Belt Preview | 2010 Sun Belt Preview