2013 Sun Belt Preview
August 12, 2013
By Marc Lawrence
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A new year brings a new logo for the new-look Sun Belt Conference.
Next year brings even more change as the Sun Belt joins in the wild world of conference calamity.
Last season the conference welcomed South Alabama. This year Texas State and Georgia State are fully on board, with Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State and North Texas headed off to the Conference USA with Western Kentucky set to move to the same new neighborhood next year.
The Sun Belt will add WAC leftovers Idaho and New Mexico State, in addition to traditional FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern next season.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State aims for a third straight conference title, for the first time in Sun Belt history since North Texas did so between 2002 and 2004, behind third-new coach in as many years.
It was part of the SBC’s best-ever season ending computer ranking, ahead of the Conference USA and Mountain West Conference. Wins over two SEC squads, and a pair of bowl victories, added to the tally.
The ‘Fun in the Sun’ guys currently own a winning bowl record in games played since 2007 (8-7). And a recently signed contract with ESPN guarantees the Sun Belt new radiant exposure on the programming giant through the 2019 season.
One very disturbing stat: Sun Belt teams are 12-123 in games against BCS AQ (Automatic Qualifier) teams the last six years.
Granted, they may be arguably the weakest of the 10 BCS conference affiliates, and its 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 have an automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.
As we’ve mentioned before, the league may be suffering from a bad case of sunspots but to a team they believe a member of the Sun Belt Conference will someday be playing in a BCS bowl game. Unfortunately, with the BCS in its final year of existence, it will have to happen this year or never.
Regardless, they’ve still having plenty of fun in the sun.
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Potential designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
ARKANSAS STATE (7/5)
Team Theme: BIG PAIR OF SHOES TO FILL
New head coach Bryan Harsin brings an impressive dossier to Jonesboro. As a former assistant coach or offensive coordinator the last dozen years at Texas and Boise State, ten of his teams have gone bowling. He inherits a squad that has won back-to-back Sun Belt titles, with only one conference defeat the last two years. The question is will be he another ‘one-and-done’ like his predecessors, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze, were the last two years? The loss of star QB Ryan Aplin and his top two wide receivers – along with leading tackler Nathan Herrold – puts Harsin in an immediate hole. Hopefully, a soft FBS schedule (foes 48-86 in 2012) should help him fill some mighty big shoes.
State You Will Like: Entering the 2013 season, the Red Wolves’ 8-game win streak is second only to Ohio State.
PLAY ON: at Western Kentucky (11/30)
GEORGIA STATE (*9/7)
Team Theme: RODE HARD AND PUT AWAY WET
Hired to lead the neophyte Panthers, Bill Curry – former Alabama, Georgia Tech and Kentucky head coach – launched the football program by going 6-5 in its inaugural season in 2010, then 3-8 in 2011 and 1-10 last season. By the end of his final game last year, Curry was worn out and had the look of a horse ridden hard. Hired in his place, ‘program-builder’ Trent Miles steps in this season after having taken Indiana State – a team that won ONE GAME the previous three years – to back-to-back winning campaigns. Rest assured, it’s a gigantic step from FCS to FBS for a program that debuted a mere three years ago. Road trips to Alabama and West Virginia will likely have Miles running for cover.
State You Will Like: New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is a former Boston College head coach and Atlanta Falcons assistant coach.
Team Theme: NEVER LET GO OF THE ROPE
The development of the Cajuns in two seasons under Mark Hudspeth has been dramatic. They are just one of eight schools that has won 9 or more games during that span. One of the first lessons he gave after taking over the helm came when he had the offense and defense engage in an old-fashioned tug of war. As the rope went back and forth with neither team generating enough force to win the battle, Hudspeth stopped the Cajuns and had both teams move to the same side of the rope, pointing out how much easier it is to move the rope when everyone was on the same side and fighting for the same thing. “We never let go of the rope,” said Hudspeth.
State You Will Like: Hudspeth is 84-29 in his nine-year career as a head coach, winning 10 or more games five times.
PLAY ON: at Arkansas State (10/22)
Team Theme: WHAT A FEELING
After setting 45 new school records en route to guiding the Warhawks to an FBS-era best 8 wins last season, Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year Todd Berry received a 4-year contract extension. They were America’s darlings for three weeks in September when they beat Arkansas in OT, lost to Auburn in OT and nearly took down Baylor in a 5-point loss. A total of 17 starters from last year’s team return, including SBC Offensive Player of the Year, QB Kolton Browning, who tossed for 3,049 yards and 29 TDs. Missing is his go-to guy, WR Brent Leonard, who hauled in 104 passes last year. Nonetheless, Berry will need to address a defense that has more defects than a Toyota Corolla if he wishes to retain that feel-good sensation.
State 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 Baylor (9/21)
SOUTH ALABAMA (*9/8)
Team Theme: KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Welcome to the FBS. After launching the football program in 2007, the Jaguars got their first taste of life with the big boys last season. A historic win over Florida Atlantic, their first-ever versus an FBS foe, wasn’t enough to wipe the taste of a 2-11 season from head coach Joey Jones’ palate. Jones, a storied wide receiver at Alabama and a Mobile native, leads his team into battle this season eligible to win the Sun Belt Conference and earn a bowl bid for the first time in school history. With five home games against foes that went bowling last year, they will rely heavily on WR Jereme Jones (set a school record for receptions last season) to stop the bleeding.
State You Will Like: The Jaguars were 17-0, outscoring the opposition 734-171, in their first two seasons of play in 2009-10, before transitioning to Division I-A.
PLAY ON: vs. Arkansas State (11/2)
TEXAS STATE (7/8)
Team Theme: THREE’S A CROWD
The Bobcats make a conference switch for the third time in three years when they head to the Sun Belt after making their first FBS appearance in the WAC last season. After stunning Houston as 34.5-point dogs in their FBS debut last season, it was pretty much downhill thereafter with Texas State’s other three wins coming against an FCS school, Idaho and New Mexico State. Nonetheless, Dennis Franchione was awarded a five-year contract extension. The 2-time National Coach of the Year and 9-time conference champ will need to do a better job of protecting the airways as his troops surrendered 200 or more passing yards in 10 of 12 games in 2012, with only groundhogs Navy and New Mexico State failing to join the club.
State You Will Like: Franchione’s 197 career wins ranks him among the Top 5 of active FBS coaches.
PLAY ON: at Texas Tech (9/21)
Team Theme: ONE-TWO PUNCH
Texas may own the most notable two-headed QB combo in the FBS with David Ash and Case McCoy, but Troy’s dynamic duo of senior quarterbacks Corey Robinson and Deon Anthony is right there with them as far as production is concerned. Robinson has tossed for nearly six miles of yardage (10,258 – see other accomplishments below), while Anthony passed and rushed for 1,246 yards and 17 TDs last season, leading the Sun Belt in pass efficiency. The loss of his top running back and wide receiver, along with a defense that was dead-last in the SBC in 2012, will put the coaching skills of savvy veteran Larry Blakeney to the test this season.
State You Will Like: QB Corey Robinson is the FBS active leader in pass attempts, completions and total yards entering this season.
PLAY ON: at Louisiana Lafayette (11/7)
WESTERN KENTUCKY (*7/7)
Team Theme: TOP THIS
We don’t get it. Maybe it’s the Petrino intrigue. Or perhaps, it’s the desire to shed its ‘little-brother image’ within the state of Kentucky. Whatever the case, the Hilltoppers decided that progressing from 2-22 in its inaugural two seasons at the FBS level to 16-20 (and a bowl game last season) the next three years under former alum Willie Taggart just wasn’t fast enough. Instead, like a pimply-faced virgin at the Chicken Ranch, they were intoxicated by job-hopping whore Bobby Petrino, the disgraced coach who tore down programs at Arkansas and Atlanta (Falcons) in his last two stops. Paying him nearly twice the salary ($850K) Taggart earned, he can now afford a new Hog. Maybe he’ll take wife Becky for a ride this time.
State You Will Like: RB Antonio Andrews led the nation in all-purpose yards last season with 3,161 – 2nd all-time to Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Troy (10/26)