2014 Sun Belt Preview
August 10, 2014
By Marc Lawrence
2014 Sun Belt Conference Football Preview
Trips To Win
Owners of three consecutive seasons with no less than nine victories - including three straight New Orleans Bowl wins in three years by Mark Hudspeth – Louisiana Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajuns have become the one constant in the ever-changing Sun Belt Conference.
A spicy attack, led by senior dual-threat quarterback Terrance Broadway, the league preseason offensive player of the year and a Davey O’Brien watch list candidate, finds Louisiana as the team to beat in 2014.
And with it a grand slam certainly looks to be in the offing.
Take A Look At Me Now
After losing Western Kentucky and gaining Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho and New Mexico State, the new-look Sun Belt Conference champion is eligible for a New Year’s Day bowl bid beginning this season.
In addition the conference has tie-ins with up to four bowls this season with the New Orleans, GoDaddy and Camellia bowls the other three. The league adds the Cure Bowl in 2015 and the Miami Beach and Bahamas bowls in 2016.
The ‘Fun in the Sun’ guys currently owns a winning bowl record in games played since 2007, going 10-7 SU (2-0 SUATS last year), including 5-0-1 ATS as dogs.
A recently signed contract with ESPN guarantees the Sun Belt new radiant exposure on the programming giant through the 2019 season.
The Sun Belt was among the top-mid-major conferences in 2013, going 8-1 against the Conference USA, the Mountain West and the MAC.
Major non-conference clashes this season include Louisiana at Ole Miss and at Boise State, Arkansas State at Tennessee and at Miami Florida, and South Alabama home versus Mississippi State and away at South Carolina.
Two particular disturbing stats, however: 1) Sun Belt teams are 14-137 in games against former BCS AQ (Automatic Qualifier) teams the last seven years, and 2) in total six Sun Belt teams were either members of the Football Championship Subdivision, or participating as an independent, within the past three seasons.
Show Me The Money
According to USA Today database of salaries for NCAA FBS head coaches, former Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino led the SBC in total pay last season at $855,000.
Both Petrino and the Hilltoppers have departed, moving Louisiana-Lafayette boss Mark Hudspeth to the top of the earning ladder.
Coach Hud’s pat as it stands now averages $1.075 million over six years, making the six-year total $6.45 million, not including supplements, incentives or retention annuities.
Here is the list of who earns what in the Sun Belt:
Mark Hudspeth, ULL, $950,000
Blake Anderson, Arkansas State, $700,000
Larry Blakeney, Troy, $480.000
Trent Miles, Georgia State, $450,000
Joey Jones, South Alabama, $435,000
Dennis Franchione, Texas State, $400,000
Paul Petrino, Idaho, $390,000
Doug Martin, New Mexico State, $363,000
Todd Berry, ULM, $306,000
Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern, $300,000
Scott Saterfield, Appalachian State, $225,000
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
APPALACHIAN STATE (Offense - *9/5 Defense - 7/2)
TEAM THEME: MOUNTAIN CLIMBERS
The Mountaineers have a storied history in the FCS, becoming the first team to win national titles in three consecutive seasons (2005-07) since Division-1 Army in 1944-46. But the glory years at ASU under 24-year HC Jerry Moore are now history as Scott Satterfield stepped in last season to guide the transition to the FBS. Satterfield, a former walk-on QB at the school in the early 90’s, posted a 4-8 record in his inaugural campaign, the Mountaineers’ first losing season since 1993. This season opens with a trip to Ann Arbor, where Michigan will be ready for revenge from the monumental upset in 2007 that put Appalachian State on the cover of SI. Gulp. Nonetheless, ASU is picked to finish 7th in the loop this season. We wouldn’t disagree.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mountaineers are not eligible for a bowl appearance until next season.
ARKANSAS STATE (Offense - 4/2 Defense - 8/1)
TEAM THEME: HERE WE GO AGAIN
Forget Oxford. Jonesboro has become the Cradle of Coaches after seeing five coaches in five years do a great job, then move on to a higher profile school for fame and fortune. Bryan Harsin is the latest HC to follow in the footsteps of Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze, and leave the Red Wolves high and dry after a 7-5 campaign to go back for the top job at his alma mater, Boise State. Blake Anderson steps in as HC No. 6 since 2008 after coming over from North Carolina, where he served as Larry Fedora’s OC. With a non-conference schedule that features Tennessee, Utah State and Miami (FL), we’re betting Anderson fails to make it 6-for-6.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Red Wolves are 20-3 SU and 17-6 ATS from Game Six out the last three years.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN Off – *8/3 Defense – 7/1)
TEAM THEME: PUTTIN’ ON THE FRITZ
The Eagles finished off the year strong in their final FCS season, winning their last three games to go 7-4. However, it was the win over Florida in the Swamp to close the year that put the cherry on top of the sundae. Willie Fritz takes over this season, coming from offensive powerhouse Sam Houston State. SHSU was the only FCS school to average over 40 points in each of the last two seasons with a rushing offense that ran for 5.7 yards per play and scored 79 TD's last season. It fits like a glove with the Eagles’ powerful overland game. Look for GSU to shine in its initial foray in the Sun Belt this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Eagles rushed for 360 YPG last season, the highest in the nation among FCS or FBS teams.
GEORGIA STATE (Offense - *5/3 Defense - 5/1)
TEAM THEME: THAT WHICH IS MEASURED, IMPROVES
When the Panthers hired 'Coach Whisperer' Trent Miles to revitalize a downtrodden team, they knew the deal. The fledgling program had gone from 6-5, to 3-8, to 1-10 in three seasons… and it was time to enter the FBS waters to boot. Enter Miles who, after going 1-22 his first two years at Indiana State, led ISU to three winning seasons in a row before his hire at GSU. His first season with the Panthers mirrored his first year with the Sycamores, 0-12. If success is measured in increments by past performance, a 1-win effort this year would fit the profile. With the new Cure Bowl an eventual goal, it’s time to get the measuring stick out.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Georgia State was one of three Sun Belt teams since 2002 to go winless, joining Western Kentucky in 2009 and Florida International in 2006.
IDAHO (Offense - 8/4 Defense - 7/2)
TEAM THEME: JUCO VISION
After being outscored 46.8 to 18.2, and out yarded by 157 YPG, en route to a 1-11 mark in his first season with the Vandals, HC Paul Petrino went out and immediately signed 16 JUCO transfers for his 2014 recruiting class in hopes of making quick progress in a tough undertaking. The offensive line returns four starters and 100 career starts, while exciting WR Dezmon Epps (980 receiving yards last year) is back for his senior season. The bad news is the annual Idaho athletic budget ($4M) pales next to Alabama’s athletic resources ($123M), and is less than 60% of what Nick Saban earns. It’s the cost of doing business in Moscow as opposed to Tuscaloosa.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Minus two winning seasons under Rob Akey in 2009-10, Idaho has gone 22-108 since 2001.
LA-LAFAYETTE (Offense - *8/4 Defense - 8/2)
TEAM THEME: CHANGIN’ CAJUNS
Louisiana or La-Lafayette. Take your choice. Whatever, you call them, just don’t call them late for a bowl game, as Mark Hudspeth has recorded three straight 9-4 seasons and three straight New Orleans Bowl victories. FYI: ULL is one of only twelve FBS programs to own at least nine wins each of the past three seasons. QB Terrance Broadway, who suffered a broken wrist and missed the last two regular season games before returning for the bowl win over Tulane, is one of sixteen returning starters including running back Alonzo Harris, a Doak Walker watch list candidate. The athleticism, the experience and the depth will pay dividends on the field, and Hudspeth’s expertise on the sidelines may complete the picture. Should they hold up their end in Sun Belt play, a spot in the Cotton Bowl may not be so farfetched. Call them whatever you may. We call them dangerous.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Hudspeth is 7-0 ATS as a dog versus winning opponents.
LA-MONROE (Offense - 6/3 Defense - 9/3)
TEAM THEME: FOR PETE’S SAKE
Many have no idea what to expect from ULM in 2014 as a spring battle was being waged between several non-descript QB candidates to replace Kolton Browning. Then, in early May came the announcement that Pete Thomas was transferring to ULM from NC State. Thomas has basically washed out at two schools (Colorado State was the first) despite throwing for nearly 6,000 career yards. The flip side is 30 interceptions in 30 games versus just 22 TD passes. The defense suffered very few losses and should show much-needed improvement. Todd Berry, the former HC at Army, is instilling a new aggressive attitude in Monroe and it’s beginning to show.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: ULM was the nation’s 2nd-worst ranked team in red zone offense last season.
NEW MEXICO STATE (Offense - 7/4 Defense - 4/1)
TEAM THEME: WHERE THE SUN DOESN’T SHINE
The Aggies will play for the first time in the Sun Belt Conference in Doug Martin’s second season at the helm. Martin’s first season in Las Cruces did not go well as the Aggies lost their first seven games before finishing the campaign 2-3, with wins over Abilene Christian and a 1-11 Idaho program. Martin is considered a quarterback mentor, and he will need to summon all of his talents in finding a suitable replacement for Andrew McDonald, who threw for nearly 2,500 yards in his senior season. The defense has nowhere to go but up after allowing 44.6 PPG and 549.5 YPG – the worst of all FBS squads.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aggies allowed seven foes season-high yardage last season.
SOUTH ALABAMA (Offense - 8/4 Defense - 6/1)
TEAM THEME: ON THE PROWL
HC Joey Jones, the former Alabama WR who played under the great Bear Bryant, enters his seventh season after a solid 6-6 campaign. Jones will have plenty of experience returning in 2014, including his entire defensive secondary and four offensive linemen who started last season, plus a 3-year starter in OL Melvyn Meggs, who sat out last year after an offseason injury. JJ also brings back two receivers that set a school record with 50 receptions last season: WR Shavarez Smith and TE Wes Saxton. Saxton’s 50 catches for 635 yards ranked him in the Top 5 among the nation’s tight ends. The Jaguars look to be bowling in 2014.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After committing 18 turnovers in conference play in 2012, the Jaguars committed 6 turnovers in 7 conference games last season.
TEXAS STATE (Offense - *8/4 Defense - 4/0)
TEAM THEME: 9-1-1 MAKEOVER
The Bobcats begin their 4th year in Dennis Franchione’s second stint at the school, and their third season since moving up to FBS play. Texas State earned bowl eligibility in 2013, but thanks to a 2-5 Sun Belt record – and the loss of three straight games to end the season – the Bobcats stayed home for the holidays. However, this year’s schedule is conducive to landing a post-season spot, especially if dual-threat QB Tyler Jones can stay healthy after missing four games last season as a freshman. The defense must be rebuilt, especially the DL, which must start from scratch – causing Franchione to feverishly dial up the 9-1-1 JUCO hotline.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Franchione’s 203 career wins ranks him among the Top 5 of active FBS head coaches.
TROY (Offense - 6/3 Defense - 6/1)
TEAM THEME: BY THE BOOK
When a team loses a 4-year starting QB (Corey Robinson) who was one of only four quarterbacks in college history to finish with four seasons of 3,000 yards passing, it generally becomes panic-time. Not for HC Larry Blakeney, the 2nd-winningest active coach in career victories at his current school. Instead, he’ll simply retool behind a deep, experienced offensive line. The defensive line suffered serious attrition (due in part to the tragic death of DE Jadarius Garner in the offseason), but Blakeney signed four JUCO linemen in a pinch, and the secondary is deep. A 3-year bowl absence will end if the defense comes around. Book it.
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