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The Sun Belt had previously been a bit of a predictable conference as Troy had a great run of success with at least a share of five straight conference titles. That all changed last season with some major shifts in the standings and there could be a few more swings this season. There are changes on the horizon with the addition of South Alabama and then Georgia State joining next season and overall the league appears to be growing a bit closer to the rest of the nation in terms of overall quality of play.
Here is a look at the 10 teams in the Sun Belt this season and our projection of the final standings.
Florida International: Going 8-5 and making a bowl game for the second consecutive season was certainly a positive for a Florida International program that is just entering its tenth season of existence. The Panthers were just 5-3 in conference play however and failed to back up its 2010 share of the conference title, actually finishing fourth in the league. The season did feature wins over both Louisville and Central Florida but the Panthers lost outright four times as favorites. With a lot of depth and experience returning including 17 starters back in action Florida International should be the favorites in the Sun Belt in 2012. The Panthers were one of the top defensive teams in the conference last season and while the conference slate is far from easy, missing out on North Texas and having to play at Louisiana and at Troy, they do get to host 2011 champion Arkansas State. The non-conference slate is very difficult with three of the same opponents from last season and going 3-1 in non-conference play like last season is probably unlikely. The Panthers project as a team that could progress another game further after 7-6 and 8-5 seasons the last two years, nine or 10 wins is a realistic goal for this team.
Arkansas State: The Red Wolves made a stunning splash by hiring former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as its head coach after the departure of Hugh Freeze. In just one season Freeze took over a consistently struggling program and made it a winner with a 10-3 season and a perfect 8-0 run to the Sun Belt championship for Arkansas State. That was good enough for Freeze to land the Mississippi job but Malzahn's hiring keeps the excitement level high. There are only 10 starters back in action for the Red Wolves however and the schedule will be tough this season. Non-conference battles with Oregon and Nebraska will take a toll in the first three weeks of the season and the road schedule in Sun Belt play features games at three contending teams. Arkansas State could very well go 6-0 at home this season as they did last season but this team was fortunate to win narrowly in two big conference road games last season. The Arkansas State program has a lot of promise for the years ahead but 2012 will likely be a step-back season and this could be an overrated and overvalued team in the first half of the season.
Troy: Between 2006 and 2010 Troy put together five straight seasons of at least eight wins with dominance in the Sun Belt with at least a share of the title each of those five seasons. Last season everything went wrong for the Trojans as the team fell to just 3-9 in the worst season in the now 22-year tenure of Coach Larry Blakeney. Things actually looked promising early in the year as Troy put up 423 yards against Clemson in the opening game and then only lost by 10 against Arkansas the following week, posting more big numbers with 457 yards. Troy responded with wins in the next two games and appeared on track to contend for another title. The defense really struggled however, finishing the year with nearly 34 points per game allowed and the offense that opened the year with 109 points in the first four weeks would fail to top 20 points in six of the final eight games of the season. Troy is a good candidate for a bounce back season as there is still plenty of talent in place with nine offensive starters returning. Troy went 0-7 in road games last season but they draw some of the weaker teams in the conference road games this season and they will likely be able to beat some of the better teams in the conference at home. A tough non-conference schedule will lead to a few losses but getting back to a winning record and finding the postseason should be a real possibility.
Louisiana: The Ragin' Cajuns were another surprise team last season going from 3-9 to 9-4, even with a first year coach. The coaching staff led by Mark Hudspeth remains intact coming off a season capped off with a New Orleans Bowl win over San Diego State. Louisiana features a senior QB in Blaine Gautier who threw 23 touchdowns last season with only six interceptions. The defense may be a little thin this season and the defensive numbers overall were not great for the Cajuns last year, allowing 30 or more points seven times. On the season Louisiana was actually out-gained on average but allowing 666 yards to Oklahoma State in the opener weighed heavily on those numbers. Louisiana plays Oklahoma State again as well as Florida so improving on last year's record won't be easy but they do get to host both Florida International and Arkansas State, the two teams most will project as the favorites in this conference. This team may have a hard time matching the breakout season from 2011 but Louisiana should remain a competitive team in the Sun Belt and another winning season is very possible.
Louisiana-Monroe: The Warhawks have gotten worse in record each of the last two seasons under Coach Todd Berry but this could be the breakout season. Louisiana-Monroe actually out-gained foes by about 65 yards per game on the season despite the losing record and the losses against the top teams in the conference last season generally came in close games. Louisiana-Monroe will play a very tough non-conference schedule with Arkansas, Auburn, and Baylor in the first three games but those challenges could help prepare the team for better results in conference play. The defense has a few question marks on the line and in the linebacker corps but the offense should be in good shape with a returning starting QB as well as the top four rushers and receivers from last season still on the squad. The schedule features tough conference road games which could limit the rise in the standings but one break in the slate is the absence of Troy.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers were the tough luck team in the bowl picture last season, not getting a bid despite going 7-5. There was not a lot a lot of substance in the schedule but after a 0-4 start that included a 44-16 loss to FCS Indiana State this team turned things around to win seven of the final eight games, the lone loss coming against then #1 LSU. Two wins came in overtime and another by a single point but also keep in mind that the lone Sun Belt loss to Arkansas State came in a very tight game 26-22. Western Kentucky does not get to play the new team in the conference South Alabama which presumably will be a disadvantage and the Hilltoppers will be on the road against the four other teams on this list. Alabama, Southern Miss, and Kentucky are on the non-conference slate and it will likely be a return to a losing record this season. There are 16 starters back on what will be one of the more experienced teams in the conference but statistically this team did not match up with its record last season, as Western Kentucky was outscored and out-gained on the season.
Middle Tennessee State: After a 2-10 2011 season there is nowhere to go but up for the Blue Raiders and this squad could be a bit of a sleeper in the conference. There is strong returning talent on defense for this team and while QB Logan Kilgore is back in action the offensive line may be a bit of a question mark. This team gained over 400 yards per game on the season last year and while the defense forced a lot of playing catch-up, the Blue Raiders lost several close games that could have turned the season differently. The early season schedule is favorable so momentum could play in Middle Tennessee State's favor this year as they could top last year's victory total in the first three weeks. There are not many easy road games on the schedule but not having to play Louisiana is a nice bonus and the Blue Raiders should be able to win most of the home games.
North Texas: North Texas made some positive progress last year and could certainly have a respectable year but a brutal non-conference schedule cancels out the benefit of missing Florida International on the schedule. The offense has seen a decline in production each of the last two years and finding a new running back will be of critical importance. The defense lost seven of the top 10 leading tacklers from last season and it could be a rocky first half of the season for the Mean Green.
Florida Atlantic: The Owls have had several good teams in the last decade under Howard Schnellenberger but after a 1-11 2011 season there are many changes. Former Nebraska defensive coordinator and brother of Bo Pelini, Carl Pelini takes over the team and he will be left with a rebuilding mission. There are 15 starters back in action an there are a handful of winnable games on the schedule so improvement is very possible. The Owls don't have to play Arkansas State for a slight break in the schedule but the Owls will take beatings early in the year with Georgia and Alabama on the schedule. Florida Atlantic won't contend in the Sun Belt this season but should be able to win a couple of games to have a positive first year in the transition.
South Alabama: The Jaguars make the leap to FBS college football this season, going 23-4 in the three year history of the program. Last season the Jaguars faced off with a NC State and Kent State and while they lost both games they looked like they could compete at this level. This is a veteran team with 15 starters returning and nearly the entire defense from last season back in action. Sophomore QB C.J. Bennett will need to show some improvement after rather poor numbers last season and the jump in competition may make that difficult. It could be a rocky first season although the Jaguars open the season with two winnable games that could help to build confidence.