The Sun Belt, like most FBS football conferences, has undergone some changeover in the last 12 months. But unlike most other upper-level leagues, the Belt remains relatively content with its lot on the lower end of the gridiron food chain.
Indeed, parameters are different for Sun Belt football programs, many of which are content with the league blueprint to provide opposition for bigger-name schools in non-conference play. Which also helps pad the coffers of Belt schools which benefit from the big paydays associated with road trips to various SEC, ACC, and Big XII locales. Once in a blue moon, a Sun Belt rep hosts one of these intersectionals, but for the most part the schools have accepted their position at the bottom end of the FBS totem pole.
Still, some aspire to greater heights in the college football world. A couple of them, not coincidentally representing major television markets, are primed for a move into Conference USA next season; North Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex) and Florida International (Miami) will be competing in the Belt for the last time this school year. But the conference moved quickly to replace the Mean Green and Golden Panthers, as South Alabama, a longtime hoops staple but now fielding a football program as well, joins the pigskin membership this season, and Texas State and Georgia State have already been enlisted for the 2013 campaign. UT-Arlington, whose football program has been dormant for years but is scheduled to be revived soon, also joins next year for non-gridiron sports.
Regional sources believe some further conference switching remains likely, with Florida Atlantic clamoring for admission into the Big East, plus Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky reportedly next in the queue for invitations from Conference USA should it have to do any more replacing of its own departing league members. Meanwhile, one-time Sun Belt member New Mexico State, looking for a conference home due to the disintegration of the WAC, remains a possibility for future membership. Stay tuned for further developments.
In the meantime, for one last season, the Belt has a similar look to the one it has had for the past several years (new football member South Alabama is ineligible for the conference title as it completes its “transition” to the FBS level this fall). Teams also have two guaranteed bowl slots at the New Orleans Bowl and GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, although the league could again provide extra postseason participants as it did a year ago when three entries participated in bowls.
The Sun Belt also has a new commissioner in Karl Benson, longtime supremo of the WAC who accepted his new assignment in March.
As usual, expect several teams to absorb their lumps in non-conference play; trips to the likes of Oregon, Nebraska, Arkansas, Auburn, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Alabama (twice!), LSU, Kansas State, Houston, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State (twice!), Georgia and NC State await members this fall. Compared to just a few “major” foes (Mississippi State at Troy on September 15, and Baylor at UL-Monroe on September 22, plus Southern Miss at Western Kentucky that same September 22).
Following is a quick preview of each team in predicted order of finish, along with conference win odds and a subsequent technical/pointspread trend update for each team.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (9/4 to win Sun Belt)
In Sun Belt terms, FIU certainly appears loaded, with a boatload of returnees back from last year's Beef O'Brady's Bowl entry, including every defensive starter from that postseason date vs. Marshall. If soph QB Justin Medlock can replace departed starter Wesley Carroll as seamlessly as head coach Mario Cristobal believes, and if a big-play wideout dimension (watch senior Wayne Times) surfaces in the wake of big-play T.Y. Hilton's graduation, the Golden Panthers definitely look like the team to beat.
Now, whether FIU can hold on to Cristobal after another expected bowl visit remains to be seen, as the coach is probably going to have a chance to say "no" again to interested suitors (as he did to Rutgers last winter) before the Golden Panthers make their move into CUSA next year. It's not a stretch to assume that one of these times, Cristobal is eventually going to say "yes" to one of these offers. Meanwhile, they'll enjoy the good times while they can at FIU.
ARKANSAS STATE (7/2)
After head coach Hugh Freeze left for Ole Miss prior to the GoDaddy.com Bowl vs. Northern Illinois, Ark State reaffirmed its new and more-serious commitment to the football side, illustrated by the hiring of Gus Malzahn, the decorated offensive coordinator at Auburn and former legendary high school coach in the state. Although we hope that AD Dean Lee doesn't think he's going to keep Malzahn in the fold forever; right now, Red Wolves fans would be thrilled to get three years out of Gus, who is already on a short list of schools (such as Tennessee and Arkansas) likely to make coaching moves in the near future.
Meanwhile, if Arkansas State doesn't get beaten up too badly in early dates at Oregon and Nebraska, this fall could be as fun as the last one in Jonesboro as long as do-everything QB Ryan Aplin stays healthy and new defensive coordinator John Thompson can scheme something out of the rebuilt stop unit. The home slate in particular holds room for encouragement, with Ark State expected to be favored in all six games at ASU Stadium in Jonesboro.
Give Louisiana-Lafayette credit for realizing the prize it has in head coach Mark Hudspeth and doing its best to keep him in the fold in Lafayette for the long haul. We suspect that might be difficult if Hudspeth (who arrived from the Mississippi State staff and figures to be on a short list of any regional coaching openings in the near future) continues to post hard-to-ignore results such as last season when the Ragin’ Cajuns won the New Orleans Bowl in exciting fashion. More of the same could be on tap this fall with practically all of the offense (including smooth-operating southpaw spread QB Blaine Gautier) back in tow and several transfers on defense giving hints in spring that they could be difference-makers.
Aside from payday trips to Oklahoma State (which also hosted the Ragin' Cajuns last year, when Lafayette was somewhat respectable in a 61-34 defeat) and Florida, Louisiana could be favored in every other game this fall. A Sun Belt title and another bowl trip are hardly out of the question for the Ragin' Cajuns and their supporters, who are best advised to enjoy the presence of Hudspeth while they can.
Usually, they don’t pussyfoot around at the school on George Wallace Drive in southeastern Alabama, which is why Troy's downturn to 3-9 last fall was one of the big storylines in the Sun Belt. But most regional observers suggest a quick recovery could be in the cards, especially with holdover QB Corey Robinson (7137 yards passing and 49 TD passes the past two years) likely to be winging the ball all over the lot and a squadron of established receivers ready to distort enemy secondaries. A healthier OL should also mean an improved infantry, which is a necessity for Troy to get back into the Belt title picture.
Assuming the offense hits on all cylinders (as most regional insiders expect), it will be up to the "D" to play more like most Larry Blakeney's past punishing platoons than last year's overrun stop unit; the switch to the 3-4 looks a worthwhile gamble. All key Sun Belt showdowns (Louisiana, Western Kentucky, Florida International and Arkansas State) are also at home this fall.
We are used to ULM teams making very little headway each autumn. But at least the Warhawks seem to have a puncher’s chance in 2012 with their experienced offense led by savvy QB Kolton Browning. And if juco LB Austin Moss is as good as advertised, the Warhawk "D" might not regress, either, from a very un-Belt-like 21st ranking in national total defense stats (and an impressive 8th in rushing defense) last fall. Seven starters return on the platoon.
As long as ULM isn't embarrassed, third-year head coach Todd Berry will be excused if he can't win in a rugged non-league slate (save perhaps for a winnable trip to Tulane), but this is the year for the Warhawks to make their move in Belt play...especially if Berry wants to solidify his status as the leader of the program.
WESTERN KENTUCKY (10/1)
The Belt’s surprise package last fall, WKU is a program on the upswing after narrowly missing the conference crown last season and finishing with a 7-5 record, unlucky not to get a call from a bowl game. And, as mentioned, there is talk in the region that Conference USA might be targeting the Hilltoppers and Middle Tennessee as its next possible recruits.
Speaking of targeting, we expect some high-profile suitors to be very interested in head coach Willie Taggart if WKU can overachieve once again this fall. Which might not be as easy for the Tops now that star RB Bobby Rainey has graduated, and the team unlikely to sneak up on anybody as it might have done a year ago. Not to mention a rugged non-conference gauntlet to be run in September that could leave WKU battered and bruised. Still, most believe the defense will be stout, so the key will likely be the ability of QB Kawaun Jakes to take a more-featured role in the offense without RB Bobby Rainey as a potent diversion. If Jakes succeeds, the Hilltoppers could go "bowling" for the first time as an FBS member; if he doesn't, WKU probably falls short.
NORTH TEXAS (12/1)
The Mean Green looks to be on the ascent under vet head coach Dan McCarney, who endured an offseason scare when suffering a mild stroke but is back in the saddle as UNT looks to pick up where it left off last fall when winning three of its last five to finish at 5-7, its best record since 2004.
For its last Sun Belt season before moving to CUSA, the Mean Green might be poised to forge a breakthrough this fall if the offense can compensate for the loss of decorated RB Lance Dunbar, capable senior QB Derek Thompson can stay relatively healthy, and the various newcomers (including accomplished defensive coordinator John Skladany, recently at UCF and McCarney’s defensive coach at Iowa State) can make a positive impact with the stop unit, which will in particular be looking at various newcomers and transfers to fill gaps in a rebuilt secondary.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (14/1)
Last season was a 2-10 disaster in Murfreesboro, causing speculation that head coach Rick Stockstill could be in trouble unless MTSU can forge a quick turnaround this fall. For the moment, we're inclined to give Stockstill the benefit of the doubt, as the combination of injuries and uncharacteristic internal discord (such as offensive coordinator Willie Simmons' midseason departure) might simply have been the rare, perfect negative storm a year ago in Murfreesboro.
Stockstill has a chance to rehabilitate this fall, especially with a much easier early slate, with McNeese State, Florida Atlantic and Memphis out of the chute as opposed to bowl-bound Purdue and Georgia Tech a year ago. But mistake-prone junior QB Logan Kilgore must display more consistency when piloting the Blue Raider spread, new receivers must emerge, and the “O” needs to get more touches for explosive RB Benny Cunningham. Mostly, however, it will require real upgrades from new defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix and the MTSU "D" that collapsed a year ago for the Murfreesboro bunch to get back into the minor bowl discussion.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC (20/1)
FAU waited a year or two longer than it should before allowing the Howard Schnellenberger regime to extinguish, as the Owls took several steps backwards as they acquiesced to the program’s patriarch and allowed him to coach at least one season in the shiny new on-campus stadium, which finally opened last fall. Thus, FAU enters a new era under first-year head coach Carl Pelini (hired off of brother Bo’s Nebraska staff) off of a 1-11 nightmare campaign a year ago.
It would be hard for Pelini's first FAU team to be worse than Schnellenberger's final one, the latter perhaps the nation's most impotent squad last fall. Still, we're a bit skeptical if the revamping of the offensive and defensive platoons by Pelini is going to result in much, if any, upgrade; such strategic changes are customary after things go as pear-shaped as they did for the Owls last fall. We still don't know if Pelini has a proper QB to run his new-look spread; holdover Graham Wilbert, who tossed only seven TDs vs. 15 picks last fall, is an unreliable trigger-man. And if the offense continues to sputter after ranking last nationally a year ago (a mere 248 ypg) , meaningful upgrades from a year ago will prove elusive. We're not expecting much in Boca Raton.
SOUTH ALABAMA (ineligible for league title)
Mobile-based USA has made fast progress the past few years as it has ramped-up to FBS status in short order under Joey Jones, a former WR for Bear Bryant and Alabama who has won 23 of 27 games the past three seasons in Mobile. Last year, the Jags got a taste of upper-level competition and were not embarrassed in losses at NC State and Kent State, nearly rallying from a 33-point deficit to steal the latter.
This fall, Jones welcomes back nine starters on defense, but more questions exist on offense this fall as USA transitions from a power-based run offense to a full-throttle, no-huddle spread similar (in design, at least) to Oklahoma State and Southern Miss versions, the latter where new offensive coordinator Robert Matthews worked as an assistant last fall. Now we need to see if soph QB C.J. Bennett, mistake-prone as a frosh when tossing 17 interceptions, is up to the task of commanding the new-look offense. Regional sources, however, believe the Jags have enough personnel and coaching to avoid embarrassment in their Sun belt gridiron debut this fall.
TEAM POINTSPREAD TREND NOTES
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL: Note the rare Sun Belt defensive expertise of Cristobal's FIU has resulted in a 17-9 'under' mark the past two seasons. The Golden Panthers are also 7-3 as an underdog since 2010.
ARKANSAS STATE: New coach Gus Malzahn has a tough act to follow after predecessor Hugh Freeze's team recorded a 10-2 regular-season mark vs. the line (same as the straight-up record) a year ago.
UL-LAFAYETTE: The Ragin’ Cajuns have been a pointspread force lately, recording a 9-4 spread mark under first-year head coach Mark Hudspeth a year ago, and 13-5 vs. the line in their last 18 on the board dating to the middle of Ricky Bustle’s final season as coach in 2010. Also note nine straight covers as an underdog dating to late in the 2010 campaign.
TROY: Spread-wise, Troy began to slip before last season’s disappointment, as the Trojans had ceased to become a well-kept secret before a year ago. Which partially explains the 8-17 mark vs. the number the past two seasons.
UL-MONROE: The Warhawks have mostly held their own the past couple of years against the number under Berry (6-6 vs. the spread each of the past two seasons), and have offered pretty good value on the Sun Belt road, where they’ve covered five of seven chances.
WESTERN KENTUCKY: The best-kept secret in college football last fall was WKU, as the Tops covered their last nine games of the 2011 campaign!
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE: The Blue Raiders have experienced a downturn the past couple of seasons, as Rick Stockstill's MTSU has covered covering only 7-of-25 chances on the board since 2010 after mostly positive spread performances in previous years. The Blue Raiders failed to cover all six of their games in Murfreesboro last fall and are just 2-10 vs. the line at home since 2010 after recording a noteworthy 10-5 mark against the number at Jonny Floyd Stadium between 2007-09. With the recent defensive downturn, the Blue Raiders have also exhibited hard-to-ignore 'over' trends lately (13-2 their last 15 since late in the 2010 campaign).
FLORIDA ATLANTIC: Lots of Las Vegas sports book patrons are sad to see Schnellenberger retire; the Owls were among the biggest go-against teams in the country the past few years, as Schnellenberger’s last two teams were each 3-9 against the number. Since the 2009 season, FAU's overall spread mark of 10-26 is one of the nation's worst. The Owls are also just 6-18 vs. the points since 2005 away from home vs. non-Sun Belt foes.
Follow Don Best throughout the preseason as we preview each and every football conference: ACC ... Big 12 ... Big East ... Big Ten ... Conference USA ... Mid-American Conference ... Mountain West ... Sun Belt ... WAC .