2014 CFN Preview: The Sun Belt
Sun Belt Preview
By Pete Fiutak
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The Sun Belt has found itself a nice, fun niche in the college football world – and now it has to watch its back more than ever.
Of course it’s not the SEC, and the average fan isn’t going to go out of his way to watch Louisiana-Lafayette host Arkansas State on October 21st, but the conference keeps surviving the expansion movement, is still holding on to some of its top programs, and it’s bringing on some castoffs to broaden the reach a little bit.
No, the addition of Idaho and New Mexico State doesn’t all of a sudden make this a national conference, but there was a time not all that long ago when Idaho made some noise in the WAC – going to a bowl in 2009. Appalachian State was an FCS superpower, and Georgia State and Georgia Southern tap into a new area of SEC land – it’s not a bad thing to get the guys from that area of the country with something to prove.
Arkansas State has become a factory for fantastic head coaches, Louisiana-Lafayette has become dangerous, and with its shocker over Florida, Georgia Southern won more SEC games last season than Kentucky and Arkansas combined.
Troy bombs away with a wild passing game, Dennis Franchione and Texas State have a growing and talented attack, and South Alabama has a nasty defense with the talent and skill to throw a massive scare into Mississippi State and South Carolina.
But can the Sun Belt continue to hang on to its top programs? Will it be a victim of the success and potential of some of the stronger teams? The American Athletic might come calling soon for Conference USA teams in a desperate attempt to move up into the Power 5 world, and in the trickledown effect, that might mean the schools with the big enrollment – Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Texas State and Louisiana-Lafayette – and the ones with the great fan bases like Arkansas State, might all be in play just like Western Kentucky, North Texas, FIU, Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic were taken away over the last few years.
But for now, for this year, this should be an entertaining league with enough talent and enough exciting offenses to come up with a few wilds shootouts and a few big upsets.
The league keeps on adapting and adjusting, and it keeps on doing just fine.
- Arkansas State will win either at Tennessee or Miami. Not quite sure which one, but the defense will give both teams fits – especially the secondary.
- A lot of the Power 5 teams could do a lot worse than having the Red Wolves’ trio of Rocky Hayes, Sterling Young and Artez Brown in their defensive backfields.
- Head coach Blake Anderson will be around for a second year at Arkansas State.
- Georgia Southern will play around with its quarterback situation, but will eventually decide to step with Kevin Ellison.
- New Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz might add more passing, but the option will be too good and too tempting now to keep using.
- Appalachian State won’t beat Michigan, but everyone will be coming out of that game talking about RB Marcus Cox.
- Georgia State will win at least two games. While the schedule might be too tough for a program that’s still putting things together, the team will be even more competitive.
- Georgia State LB Joseph Peterson will finish on the short list for Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honors.
- If not, Texas State pass rusher Michael Orakpo might take the honor.
- The Bobcats will sputter a bit early, and then turn it on over the second half of the season.
- New Mexico State will be awful, and it probably won’t win a game, but QB Tyler Rogers is going to put up a ton of yards.
- Idaho will be far, far better and sharper, but it’s not going to amount to much this year. 2015 will be when the Paul Petrino era hits its stride.
- The offensive line tandem of Ucambre Williams and Chris May will carry South Alabama’s offense. The D might take a wee step back, but it’ll be terrific.
- Colorado State and NC State QB transfer Pete Thomas will make the ULM offense even better. The loss of Kolton Browning won’t hurt.
- Troy games will be must-see every week. The offense might score 40 points a game, but the D might give up 41.
- Louisiana-Lafayette will be unstoppable. The Ragin’ Cajuns will win ten games and be the class of the conference by far.
Team That'll Surprise
Georgia Southern - The Eagles aren't going to challenge for the Sun Belt title, but new head man Willie Fritz is inheriting a team loaded with experience and options. The offense that was run first, run often last season will change up a little bit and incorporate more passing, but the ground game will still be good enough to dominate the easy part of the Sun Belt slate - be shocked if GSU isn't 4-1 in conference play before hosting Troy. There's no Louisiana-Lafayette or Arkansas State to deal with, so eight wins or more are possible.
Team That'll Disappoint
Arkansas State - This might be the second-best team in the Sun Belt, but the schedule doesn't work out so well if there isn't an upset or two over Tennessee, Miami or Utah State. The Louisiana-Lafayette showdown is on the road, and watch out for the late season landmine at Texas State. The Red Wolves will go bowlling, but for a program used to challenging for titles, a 7-5 regular season will be a bit of a downer.
Game of the Year …
Oct. 21 Arkansas State at Louisiana-Lafayette. South Alabama will have a lot to say about it, and Georgia Southern and Texas State might be in the mix, but considering Arkansas State has won at least a share of the last three Sun Belt titles, and Louisiana-Lafayette was a co-champion last season, this Tuesday night showdown is a battle of the heavyweights that should and could be the Sun Belt title game. The Ragin' Cajuns won last year 23-7.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. QB Terrance Broadway, Sr. Louisiana-Lafayette
2. RB Marcus Cox, Soph. Appalachian State
3. LB Hunter Kissinger, Jr. ULM
4. LB Qushaun Lee, Sr. Arkansas State
5. OT Ucambre Williams, Jr. South Alabama
Coach on the Hot Seat
Doug Martin, New Mexico State - The program hasn't come up with a winning season since 2002, it's last bowl appearance was 1960, and it's just finsding a home in the Sun Belt world, but it would be nice to start winning something. Martin as a career 31-63 record and his team went 2-10 last year with a miserable defense and saved only by wins over Abilene Christian and Idaho. If the Aggies don't beat Cal Poly in the opener, and canlt get past Georgia State on the road, it'll probably be an 0-12 season.
5 Non-Conference Games the Sun Belt opponents had better take very, very seriously
1. Louisiana-Lafayette at Ole Miss, Sept. 13
2. Arkansas State at Tennessee, Sept. 6
3. Mississippi State at South Alabama, Sept. 13
4. Texas State at Illinois, Sept. 20
5. Arkansas State at Miami, Sept. 13
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. P/K Austin Rehkow, Soph. Idaho
2. LB Michael Orakpo, Sr. Texas State
3. DT QuayShawne Buckley, Sr. Idaho
4. TE Wes Saxton, Jr. South Alabama
5. OG Daniel Quave, Sr. Louisiana-Lafayette
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. Appalachian State, Idaho, Georgia Southern and New Mexico State for Western Kentucky
2. LB Trey Granier for Justin Anderson, Louisiana-Lafayette
3. QB Brandon Bridge for Ross Metheny, South Alabama
4. QB Brandon Silvers for Corey Robinson, Troy
5. WR Robert Davis for Albert Wilson, Georgia State
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