Sun Belt Preview
August 14, 2012
By Marc Lawrence
Slow but sure. That's the Sun Belt's motto.
After sending three teams off to the bowling alleys each of the last two seasons, the 'Fun in the Sun' guys currently own the 5th best win percentage (.545) of the 11 FBS conferences in bowl games played since 2007, ranking ahead of the ACC, Big 10 and the PAC 12.
And a recently signed contract with ESPN guarantees the Sun Belt new radiant exposure on the programming giant through the 2019 season. No less than seven games will be aired this season.
The newest addition to the league is South Alabama, a team that has lost only four of its 27 games the last four seasons under head coach Joey Jones.
Never shy when it comes to tackling the big boys, the Sun Belt has squared off in no less than 42 games against FBS foes that appeared in a bowl game the last two seasons.
One very disturbing stat: Sun Belt teams are 9-108 in games against BCS AQ (Automatic Qualifier) teams the last five years.
Granted, they may be arguably the weakest of the 11 BCS conference affiliates, and it's league champ won't be guaranteed a BCS bowl, but don't tell them.
By rule, if it can, the SBC champion will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if its champion is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS standings, or if that team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and its ranking is higher that that of a champion of a conference that has an automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.
In closing, as we mentioned in our analysis last year, the league may be suffering from a bad case of sunspots but to a team they believe, sooner than later, a member of the Sun Belt Conference will someday be playing in a BCS bowl game. Don't bet against them. They've still having plenty of fun in the sun.
Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated 'Play On' and 'Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
ARKANSAS STATE - (*6/4)
Team Theme: FAST AND FURIOUS
With Hugh Freeze yet another 'one-and-done' coach and now the new boss at Ole Miss, new coach Gus Malzahn has large shoes to fill as ASU broke virtually every offensive record in program history en route to a 10-win campaign last year. That doesn't faze Malzahn, who sees his fast-paced offense as being a really big advantage when it comes to coaching college football. "I'm a big fan of Chip Kelly and his offense. He's kind of on the cutting edge and he's not afraid to take chances with new things." Editor's note: Don't be surprised if Malzahn's next new thing finds him and his playbook in Little Rock sometime in the very near future.
Stat You Will Like: After ranking No. 95 in total offense in 2009, ASU's spread offense ranked No. 22 last season.
PLAY ON: at Oregon (9/1)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC (*7/8)
Team Theme: TAKE A LOOK AT ME NOW
It's out with the old and in with the new in Boca as Howard Schnellenberger is now drawing full Social Security while Carl Pelini is roaming the FAU sidelines. While Pelini's only experience as a head coach has been at the high school level, he immediately established a leadership council led by players, rules in the weight room that players have responded to, a new spread offense and 4-3 defense. "Things went so poorly last year, you really want to buy in," says DB Keith Reaser of Pelini's playbook. Though Iowa transfer Jonathon Wallace should help a ground game that mustered only 3.3 YPC in 2011, we'll continue to window shop before we buy.
Stat You Will Like: In 2012, the Owls will play seven true road games for the ninth straight season.
PLAY ON: vs. North Texas (9/29)
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (7/10)
Team Theme: IMAGINE THIS
There's a reason Mario Cristobal said no to offers from Pitt and Rutgers. The coach knows what's under the hood for his football team this season. With 17 starters back from last year's eight-win edition, Cristobal has more talent on hand than he's ever had since taking over this fledgling program in 2007. What happens should FIU win each of its four non-conference games to start the season? The Panthers would then head into Sun Belt play with a real possibility of finishing unbeaten. It would be just their luck to see that happen to only wake up and find the Mayans were right! While the ancient ones have December 21st circled on their calendar, Mario is thinking New Year's Day.
Stat You Will Like: After going 0-18 SU in the first three games of the season the previous six years, the Panthers went 3-0 last season.
PLAY ON: at Duke (9/1)
Team Theme: RING OF SUCCESS
In his first year on the job, Mark Hudspeth tied a school record for most wins in a season (9) and was quickly rewarded with a five-year contract extension and double the pay (750k) in hope that he's not lured out of Lafayette by the big boys. In a show of appreciation, Hudspeth awarded each player a Super Bowl-like ring as a memento of their New Orleans Bowl win. He may want to remember sizes as the Cajuns return nine starters on offense, led by senior QB Blaine Gautier, who tossed for 3,000 yards and 23 TD's in 2011. Hudspeth also put the advantage back in home field as Lafayette raged to a 5-0 SU mark after dropping six of its previous eight at Cajun Field.
Stat You Will Like: The Cajuns have cashed in each of their last 13 games in a row away from home as a dog.
PLAY ON: at Oklahoma State (9/15)
Team Theme: BERRY PROMISING
At first glance, it appears the Warhawks have slipped in each of the first two years under Todd Berry, going from six wins to five to four. However, Monroe improved on each side of the ball in 2011 and, despite the SU and ATS drop, teams of this ilk almost always improve dramatically the following season. Let's not forget that in his first season Berry saw 17 freshmen and sophomores start games for a team that came within one game of bowl eligibility - or that he has developed 11 all-SBC performers since his arrival. Yes, ULM will open the season 0-3 but that should toughen them up for what promises to be a much-anticipated bowl run.
Stat You Will Like: Berry is 0-24 SU and 6-17 ATS in games off a spread win of more than 4 points.
PLAY ON: at Western Kentucky (10/20)
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (*6/6)
Team Theme: STOCKING UP
There is something to be said about how teams perform after record-setting performances. If you think otherwise, witness the Blue Raiders' effort last year after having gone bowling in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. An offense that has slipped 10 PPG over the past two seasons, along with an 87-yard collapse by the defense over the same span, results in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The Blue Man Group will continue to operate from a no-huddle attack but they'll do it behind a rebuilt offensive line. The good news is the defensive line remains intact for MTSU's two-time Sun Belt Coach of the Year, Rick Stockstill.
Stat You Will Like: Rick Stockstill is 6-0 ATS in regular-season games when playing off a SU underdog win.
PLAY ON: vs. Troy (11/24)
NORTH TEXAS (*9/5)
Team Theme: OFF THE STEROIDS
Now that former coach Todd Dodge is gone, it's time for the not-so Mean Green to wean itself off Dodge's JUCO-transfusion and onto Dan McCarney's recruits as this program continues to rebuild itself from the ground up. This year they'll have to do it without the services of star RB Lance Dunbar and his backup, who together combined for 1,521 yards in 2011. The Green will also be minus the services of 27 seniors who graduated from last year's roster, including three starters from the secondary. The good news is QB Derek Thompson, who battled through injuries last year, appears fully healthy while his backups are suddenly experienced.
Stat You Will Like: McCarney is 3-18 ATS as a conference road dog of 13 or more points.
PLAY AGAINST: at Middle Tennessee State (10/27)
SOUTH ALABAMA (*5/9)
Team Theme: SMOOTH SPREAD
Established in 2007, Bo Derek would be proud of a South Alabama football program that has moved along nicely, playing its first game in 2009 before recording a perfect 10-0 season in 2010. Defense should, once again, be the strong suit as nine starters are back from a unit that ranked No. 16 in the FCS last season. Offensively, the Jaguars will be unveiling a new spread-attack, handing the keys to sophomore QB C.J. Bennett. Though not eligible for the Sun Belt title until 2013, games played this year will count as conference games for SBC foes. This season may not go as smooth as the past few (see stat below), but the Jaguars have earned FBS status. Perfect.
Stat You Will Like: The Jaguars are 23-2 SU all-time versus non-FBS opponents.
PLAY ON: at NC State (9/15)
Team Theme: THE ART OF REBOUNDING
According to Bill Connelly of SB Nation.com, one of college football's most illuminating reporters, Troy's down season last year is an indicator of good things to come in 2012. We agree, as the Trojans are a fully qualified 'Mission Team' with a lot to prove this season. The descent started early last year when three starters were declared academically ineligible, including QB Corey Robinson's top two targets. All three return this season. In fact, nine of Troy's top 10 receivers are on hand this year. And remember, despite the loss of his main weapons, Robinson still managed to air it out for over 3,400 yards and 21 TD's in 2011. Off the worst season of his 22-year tenure, expect a big Blakeney bounce-back.
Stat You Will Like: Blakeney has had 19 players picked in the NFL draft in his 22 years with Troy, including DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora.
PLAY ON: vs. La-Lafayette (9/8)
WESTERN KENTUCKY (*9/8)
Team Theme: FROM ZERO TO…
When the Hilltoppers hired Willie Taggert as their new head coach in 2010, little did they realize that their former star quarterback from the mid 1990's would lead them from zero to seven wins in two short years. Despite the seven victories, the Toppers were snubbed of a bowl bid. Taggert insists there are no sour grapes - just motivation. "After last year, we're not gonna make any excuses," said Taggert. "That's on us. We can't blame anyone else." We wouldn't blame them for taking a step back, especially with the graduation loss of featured RB Bobby Rainey, who owns every school rushing record while toting the ball nearly 31 times per game last year.
Stat You Will Like: The Hilltoppers are 9-35 SU versus FBS opponents. All nine victories have all been under Taggert the last two seasons.
PLAY AGAINST: at La-Lafayette (11/17)