By Michael Leese
Like most other conferences, the Sun Belt Conference is going through a lot of transition this year. Idaho and New Mexico State return to the Sun Belt, after both had exited the conference after the 2004 season. Also joining this year are former FCS powerhouses Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. Western Kentucky is departing, heading to Conference USA, making the Sun Belt an 11-team conference for football. The Sun Belt has three bowl tie-ins with all three games being played in the Sun Belt.
APPALACHIAN STATE The Mountaineers climb from the FCS to join the Sun Belt, coming off a their first losing season since 1993! I love this team this season even with the step up in competition. They will have one of the more explosive offenses in the conference, led by Quarterback Kameron Bryant. Last season, he threw for 2,713 yards with a 71-percent completion mark. Running back Marcus Cox returns along with his 1,299 rushing yards, and the entire offensive line. Six starters return on defense giving the Mountaineers hope for a better result this season. I fully expect the Mounties to spring a couple of upsets and possible get to the magic six win total.
ARKANSAS STATE Blake Anderson takes over the reins for the Red Wolves. You may not have heard of him because he has NO head coaching experience. He does bring with him a pedigree as an offensive guru, having served under Larry Fedora at both Southern Miss and North Carolina. He will be building an offense, as only four starters return. The good news for the Red Wolves it that they could have one of the better defenses in the conference and have eight starters returning. Anderson will be the seventh head coach in the last 41 games and it could be a long year in Jonesboro as growing pains are expected.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN The Eagles will also make their debut in the FBS this year, coming off of a 7-4 season that included a 26-20 win at Florida. New Head Coach Willie Fritz makes his debut on the bench, but has 15 returning starters from last season.The Eagles like to run the ball and they do it well, rushing for a total of 3,964 yards a year ago, and they should have some decent success in a conference that lacks quality defensive fronts. Look for the Eagles to play a lot of close games and possibly sneak an upset or two.
GEORGIA STATE The Panthers have gone 1-22 the last two years, including a win-less season last year in their inaugural season in the Sun Belt. This could be another very long season, as a pack of underclassmen will get playing time only two seniors listed as potential starters. I do think the Panthers will find the win column.
IDAHO The Vandals return to the Sun Belt after spending the past few years as an independent, going 4-32 the last three seasons. With 17 returning starters, they have nowhere to go but up and do have 17 returning starters! The Vandals should be better, but won’t see the post season, as they are also playing under a bowl ban.
LOUISIANA- LAFAYETTE Hopes are high in Lafayette with the return of Quarterback Terrence Broadway. He accounted for 27 touchdowns last season and is easily the top returning signal caller in the conference! All six running backs are back, as well as four of five offensive linemen. The defense is loaded with nine returning starters, and will be bolstered with the addition of transfers Jacoby Briscoe (Miami, Fla) and Trey Granier (LSU). I see a late season game at Monroe as being a potential trap, but aside from that this team should outperform last seasons 9-4 mark.
LOUISIANA – MONROE – Remember that Quarterback Pete Thomas was one of the top rated quarterbacks coming out of high school in 2010. He started as a Freshman at Colorado State, before transferring to North Carolina State and now he has landed at Monroe! It’s put-up or shut-up time for Thomas in his senior year, as he replaces Kolton Browning who had a fine career here. The strength of the Warhawks will be on defense as nine starters return. They have a favorable schedule as they get Lafayette at home and miss South Alabama. If Thomas plays to his potential, this could be a magical year in Monroe.
NEW MEXICO STATE Doug Martin enters his second season in Las Cruces going 2-10 last year. Despite having 13 starters returning, this squad will play a lot of underclassmen. The Aggies are a few years away from making noise in the conference.
SOUTH ALABAMA Let me introduce you to 6’5″ Brandon Bridge, my pick to take the conference by storm this season! This dual threat gunslinger will put up impressive numbers should he stay healthy. The Jaguars return nine starters to the offense, featuring two Alabama transfers at wide receiver! With a solid offensive line, this offense could rival Lafayette. The Jags play a brutal non-conference slate, traveling to South Carolina and hosting Mississippi State and Navy. If head coach Joey Jones can find replacements along a depleted defensive front, they could make a statement. A November 1 game at Lafayette could decide league championship.
TEXAS STATE. This is the second season in the Sun Belt for the Bobcats. Head coach Dennis Franchione is in his fourth season with at Texas State and has earned a reputation for getting the most out of his troops. Last season they surprised many by going 6-6 and actually got bowl eligible. Eight starters return on offense led by quarterback Tyler Jones. He had a very nice Freshman season, completing 63-percent of his tosses. The entire defensive front must be replaced, but word out of San Marcos is that they have the Cats to do so.
TROY Larry Blakeney is entering his 24th season at Troy! In the last 10 years, the Trojans have gone 49-25 in the conference, speaking volumes about Blakeney. This year, they’ll need to rely on his experience. Finding a quarterback to replace Corey Robinson will be the number one task, and the defensive line needs an overhaul. The first part of the season will be key, as the Trojans have four winnable games in September.
HOW THEY’LL FINISH
- LOUISIANA – LAFAYETTE 9-3 7-1
- SOUTH ALABAMA 7-5 7-1
- LOUISIANA – MONROE 6-6 6-2
- TROY 5-7 4-4
- TEXAS STATE 5-7 4-4
- APPALACHIAN STATE 4-8 4-4
- ARKANSAS STATE 4-8 3-5
- IDAHO 3-9 3-5
- GEORGIA SOUTHERN .2-10 2-6
- NEW MEXICO STATE 2-10 2-6
- GEORGIA STATE 2-10 2-6
Where they’ll bowl
- Louisiana – Lafayette – GoDaddy Bowl (Mobile)
- South Alabama – R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl (New Orleans)
- Louisiana – Monroe – Raycom Media Camellia Bowl (Montgomery)