2013 CFN Sun Belt Preview
ULM QB Kolton Browning
2013 CFN Sun Belt Preview - It's a year of transition, but the good teams are still around.
Sun Belt Preview
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There’s still a lot of fun happening, but the Sun Belt has to keep on fighting.
While there doesn’t appear to be any sign of WAC-like extinction in the near future, mainly because of geography along with the new programs that want to get into the FBS level, it’s going to take some work to hang on to the better programs in the world of realignment and expansion.
It hurts to lose conference mainstays North Texas and Middle Tennessee, and it might sting a bit to lose Florida International and Florida Atlantic, but Western Kentucky is still around, Arkansas State, ULM and Louisiana-Lafayette are going to be players, and Troy is still entertaining. Throw in the addition of Texas State and Georgia State this year, Idaho and New Mexico State next year, and with Georgia Southern and Appalachian State arriving in 2015, the conference has programs. Yes, Conference USA and possibly the AAC and/or MAC are sure to come poaching in the near future – Arkansas State, Troy and the Louisiana schools are all in play and WKU is off to Conference USA next season – but that’s a worry for another day. For now, the Sun Belt is alive and kicking, and it should be in for a fantastic season.
Yes, Conference USA might have taken away four programs, but it didn’t get the right ones – at least not yet. North Texas, FIU and Florida Atlantic all finished in the bottom half of the Sun Belt pack, and Middle Tennessee was the lone Sun Belt team with a winning record that didn’t get a bowl invite. The power programs are still around, and it should be a dogfight at the top.
South Alabama and Georgia State might be lousy, but they’re full of experience, while Texas State comes in with a potentially dangerous team that could beat anyone in the conference on the right day. With ULL beating East Carolina in the New Orleans Bowl – and almost beating Florida - Arkansas State topping Kent State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, WKU battling in a bowl loss to Central Michigan and ULM just getting to the post-season – and with the win over Arkansas that made the season – the conference represented itself well. But the improvements could be the league’s biggest problem.
While realignment and expansion is about TV markets and fan bases, having a winning product doesn’t hurt. Ragin’ Cajun fans showed over the last two years what they’ll do when their team is in a bowl, and Arkansas State turned out over 30,000 fans for home games late in the season. Don’t think that other leagues don’t notice, but after last year, don’t think that fans on a national scale won’t start to pay just a wee bit more attention, too.
Team That'll Surprise
Texas State – Okay, okay, so we don’t exactly have the Bobcats down for a dream season in our projections, but with a good coaching staff, an improving offense, and a potentially improved defense with TCU’s D.J. Yendrey for the line and Colorado State’s Michael Orakpo for the linebacking corps, there could be a few dangerous surprises for the Sun Belt big boys. Head coach Dennis Franchione could get the program rolling into a conference star, and fast.
Team That'll Disappoint
ULM – It was a dream season in so many ways for the program with a bowl appearance, a win over Arkansas, an overtime loss at Auburn, a battle against Baylor, a blowout over Tulane, and overtime wins over WKU and FIU, but it all came down with a crashing thud in the ugly 45-14 bowl loss to Ohio. For a program that hadn’t tasted a winning season since 1980, all that mattered was the improvement, but was it all a mirage? The secondary is a concern after a rocky year, and the offensive line needs some patching, but worst of all, the start of the season could be really, really rough going to Oklahoma, Wake Forest and Baylor before late September.
Game of the Year
Arkansas State at Western Kentucky, Nov. 30 – The schedule makers knew what they were doing scheduling the biggest of the league’s big games for the regular season finals. ULM and Louisiana play on the same day, and each will have a say in the Sun Belt title pecking order, but there’s a better than average chance that the battle in Bowling Green will be for the championship.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight
1. RB/KR David Oku, Sr. Arkansas State
2. S Kiante Young, Sr. WKU
3. DE Christian Ringo, Jr. Louisiana
4. S Isaiah Newsome, Sr. ULM
5. WR/KR Jeremé Jones, Jr. South Alabama
Coach on the Hot Seat
Larry Blakeney, Troy – He’ll never be fired – the field is named after him – but he’s overdue to come up with a winner again after two straight duds. The Trojans were perennial Sun Belt powers with five straight conference championships from 2006 to 2010 and four bowl appearances, but the offense hasn’t been able to carry the defense over an 8-16 stretch over the last two seasons. This used to be the league’s hot program, but that’s gone now.
5 Non-Conference Games the Sun Belt opponents had better take very, very seriously
1. Kentucky at WKU, August 31
2. ULM at Wake Forest, Sept. 14
3. Arkansas State at Missouri, Sept. 28
4. Troy at Ole Miss, Nov. 16
5. Louisiana at Arkansas, August 31
- Louisiana-Lafayette flat-out choked against Florida.
- There will be another ULM over Arkansas, but it’s hard to find that upset needle in the haystack considering all the times Sun Belt teams have been bombed by BCS programs.
- Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth will be one of the top five names in every coaching search after the 2013 season.
- Bryan Harsin will still be the Arkansas State head coach next season at this time.
- Bobby Petrino will not be the Western Kentucky head coach next season at this time.
- Bobby Petrino will be the head coach at the University of Illinois next season at this time.
- WKU will beat either Kentucky or Tennessee.
- Hilltopper linebacker Andrew Jackson will slip in the draft because of his measureables, but he’ll lead his pro team in tackles.
- ULM’s Kolton Browning will be the First Team All-Sun Belt quarterback, but a reasonable case will be made for Louisiana-Lafayette’s Terrance Broadway.
- Arkansas State will lose at least one game because Ryan Aplin is no longer its starting quarterback.
- Troy will actually hit a quarterback at some point this season under defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt.
- Corey Robinson will finish his Troy Career with over 14,000 passing yards.
- Texas State is the X factor. It’s a hodge-podge of transfers and talents, and it just might work if the running back situation is settled right away.
- Also watch out for South Alabama in the near future. If the offense can do anything on a consistent basis other than give the ball away, the defense could be a sneaky surprise.
- Georgia State will struggle in a huge way this season after a disastrous 2012, but the program could get really good, really fast. Trent Miles is an interesting young head coach and Jeff Jagodzinski might be the most overqualified offensive coordinator in the history of the Sun Belt.
- The Sun Belt won’t be buying Georgia Southern or Appalachian State – it’ll merely be renting.
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. LB Andrew Jackson, Sr. WKU
2. RB Antonio Andrews, Sr. WKU
3. DT D.J. Yendrey, Sr. Texas State
4. S Jonathan Dowling, Jr. WKU
5. DT Ryan Carrethers, Sr. Arkansas State
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. WKU DE Calvin Washington for Quanterus Smith
2. Arkansas State QB Phillip Butterfield or Stephen Hogan or Fredi Knighten or Chandler Rogers for Ryan Aplin
3. ULM WR Je’Ron Hamm for Brent Leonard
4. South Alabama LB Enrique Williams for Jake Johnson
5. Georgia State and Texas State for FIU, FAU, Middle Tennessee & North Texas