College Football is right around the corner and I will look to continue my College Previews with a look at Sun Belt Conference. Here are the current Odds (Courtesy of BetUS) for teams to win the Sun Belt Conference this year. Florida International (+225); Arkansas State (+325); Louisiana (+450); Troy (+475); Louisiana-Monroe (+700); Western Kentucky (+900); North Texas (+1200); Middle Tennessee State (+1400); Florida Atlantic (+2000); South Alabama (+4000). Below is how I see the Sun Belt shaping up this year.
Florida International: Back in 2010 the Golden Panthers had their first ever winning record in the Sun Belt and they won the conference that year. Last year they opened up 2-3 in SBC play and were pretty much out of the confer4ence race at that point, before finishing strong with a 4-1 record and making it to their second ever bowl game. This year they are primed to return to the top of the SBC heap, with 17 starters back. After losing QB Wesley Carroll and WR TY Hilton the Golden Panthers’ offensive strength will be emerging RB Kedrick Rhodes (1,149 rush yds, 8 TD). QB Medlock started 1 game last year for FIU and it was a 41-7 rout of FAU. He was injured early in the next game and that ended his season, but he would have started the final 4 games had he stayed healthy. Medlock does have that running game, 5 of the top 6 pass caters from a year ago and the best OL in the league, so he will do just fine this year. Defensively, they’re returning nearly everyone from last season’s roster. The strength will be their pass defense, as all of their secondary returns, as well as pass rushers Greg Hickman (5 sacks) and Tourek Williams (4.5 sacks). The offense will be fine with Medlock behind center, but the strength of the team is clearly the top rated defense in the SBC. Look for FIU to get their second conference title in 3 years.
Louisiana: The Ragin Cajuns had a nice 9-4 year, including 6-2 in the SBC last year and are primed to challenge for the SBC title again this year. Louisiana has the best offense in the SBC, with 9 starters back including a veteran QB in Blaine Gautier, their top RB, top 2 WR’s and 4 OL all returning from a group that averaged 32.2 ppg last year. Defensively they struggled last year as they allowed 29.8 ppg, but still that was an improvement of 7 ppg over 2010. Injuries hit this group hard last year so a lot of young talent got some valuable experience as we note that 25 of their 37 defensive lettermen all return. I expect the defensive improvements to continue. They also get a bit of scheduling help as they face WKU, FIU and Arkansas State all at home, while getting North Texas, ULM and FAU on the road. This is a team that will be in the hunt for the SBC title all year long.
Western Kentucky: This is a dangerous team and they are a darkhorse contender for the SBC Title. Last year WKU came out of nowhere to go 7-1 in the SBC and 7-5 overall and they bring back 48 of 58 lettermen from that team, including 16 starters. The Hilltoppers lost RB Bobby Rainey, who accounted for nearly half of the team’s yardage in 2011. WKU does return a very solid O-line, and it’s QB Kawaun Jakes’ (1,854 pass yds, 10 TD) turn to carry the team after a turnover- plagued season. WKU also has 8 of their top 9 pass catchers from last year and I see this group putting up more than the 22.9 ppg they averaged last year. The defense last year improved by 9 ppg from 2010 and with 23 of 29 lettermen, including 7 starters back, they should continue to improve on that side of the ball. They do get road games at Ark State, Troy, FIU and Louisiana and they won’t be able to sneak up on teams this year, but I will still call for this team to have another solid year in the SBC and possibly challenge for the conference title once again.
Arkansas State: The Red Wolves had a big time year last year, going 8-0 in SBC play and 10-3 overall, but I expected them to take a small step back this year. The reason for their step back is mainly due to their defense that loses 7 starters and the fact that Hugh Freeze is gone as their head coach. The defense returns just 17 of their 33 defensive lettermen and just won’t be as strong as last year’s group that allowed just 20.8 ppg. New HC Gus Malzahn takes over and he knows how to run an offense after guiding Auburn and Cam Newton to a National Title two years ago. The former Auburn OC will inherit QB Ryan Aplin (3,588 yards, 19 TD, 16 INT) and No. 2 and 3 WRs Taylor Stockemer (756 rec yds, 7 TD) and Josh Jarboe (730 rec yds). RB Frankie Jackson (355 rush yds, 6 TD) will be running behind an inexperienced O-Line, but still overall this offense will be very good and they will have to be till their defense catches up. I expect the Red Wolves to contend for a bowl game this year, but defending their SBC title will be very tough with a leaky defense and a road slate that includes games at Louisiana, Troy and FIU.
Louisiana Monroe: The Warhawks had another disappointing year after going 4-8 overall and 3-5 in the SBC, but they weren’t as bad as their SBC record would indicate as they were +105.5 ypg in conference play. They had some tough closes losses last year and that trend may reverse itself this year, especially with 41 of 60 lettermen back from last year. QB Kolton Browning (2,483 pass yds, 13 TD, 8 INT) is looking to bounce back after experiencing a little bit of a sophomore slump in 2011, and he needs his porous offensive line to keep him clean. RB Jyruss Edwards (667 rush yds, 11 TD) has the talent to run for 1,000 yards while the receiving crew is all set with the top 4 back from last year. This unit could top the 24.6 ppg they averaged last year, especially if the OL steps up. Defensively they were not all that bad vs the run, ranking 8th in the nation, allowing just 100 ypg and they should do more of the same with a strong influx of talent joining the unit. The Warhawks have a chance to surprise some people this year. I don’t expect them to challenge for the conference crown, but they have a chance to be bowl eligible, especially if they turn some of those close losses from last year in to close wins.
Troy: Normally you would expect to see Troy at or near the top of the SBC standings, but last year just wasn’t the case, as they went 3-9 overall, 2-6 in the conference and were outgained by 119.5 ypg in SBC play. They may still be another year away from climbing back up. The Trojans bring back 9 on offense, including QB Corey Robinson (3411 yrds, 21 TD’s last year), their top 4 pass catchers and top 4 ball carriers from a year ago. Their OL is very solid and with all the skill players they have back I look for the Trojans to return to putting up 32+ ppg, like they had in their previous 4 years. Last year the defense struggled (33.7 ppg and 445 ypg allowed), but they did switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base and that caused confusion at times for this unit. This year 6 starters are back, including Brynden Trawick, who led the SBC in tackles (123) last year and they are in the second year of the new scheme, so I look for big improvements from this group. The Trojans were -12 in TO’s last year and that usually mean a bounce back year, plus they get weak times like N.Texas and FAU on the road, while getting FIU and Arkansas State (last year’s champ) at home. I look for them to be an improved team, but I don’t see them challenging the big boys of the conference just yet.
Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders had a horrible 2011, going 2-10 overall and 1-7 in the SBC, but I see some improvement from this team this year. MTSU must replace 80 percent of an O-line that was a strength last year. They do, however, bring back most of the skill position talent that contributed to their Air Raid offense last season. The defense had many problems last year as they allowed 36.8 ppg and they lose their top 4 tacklers from that unit, but they still have 7 starters back and 22 of 31 lettermen from that side of the ball so they should chop some points off of what they allowed last year. While this team will be improved over last year, I just don’t see them making a big move up the standings. Their offense will be better, and while their defense will improve, it is still a bad unit and will contribute to them losing more games than they will win.
North Texas: The Mean Green were respectable last year at 4-4 in the SBC and 5-7 overall, but I do see a step back this year for them. Last year they were +9 in TO’s and they lose 27 lettermen, while returning just 35. North Texas lost its workhorse, RB Lance Dunbar. The offense will rely on QB Derek Thompson, who performed admirably as a freshman last season (1,759 pass yds, 11 TD, 6 INT). The RB job will be split between four different backs, but Jeremy Brown (five carries, 23 yds) appears to be the best of the bunch and they will be running behind one of the best OL’s in the league. Defense is where this team will really struggle after returning just 5 starters from a team that allowed 30.7 ppg last year. They lost 7 of their top 10 tacklers from last year and are weak along the line and in the secondary, while the LB’s are pretty solid. Still improving on last year will be difficult. Another long year for the Mean Green in 2012.
Florida Atlantic: Just a horrible year from the owls last year as they went just 1-11 and if it weren’t for the arrival of South Alabama then they would again reside in the basement of the SBC. After getting outgained by 128.9 ypg in SBC play last year this is a team with a lot of ground to make up. Former Nebraska assistant Carl Pelini needs to find a QB who can implement the team’s new spread offense. JuCo transfer Melvin German is best suited for this role among a group of pro-style passers. The Owls really need to spice up the offense after allowing 12.9 ppg last year. Defensively they allowed 34.7 ppg and Pelini is working in new schemes that tailor more to his junior college transfers than his returning starters. This is a team with many holes and going through many changes so don’t expect more than a couple of wins from them this year.
South Alabama: In just its fourth year of existence, the South Alabama Jaguars make the leap to FBS status. Their overall record was 23-4 in the FCS, but they should go through some growing pains in their first year up here. The offense brings back just 6 starters and will shift from a power-running attack to a spread offense. Sophomore QB C.J. Bennett is favored to star despite a poor 2011 season (164 pass YPG, 7 TD, 17 INT). The defense has experience with 9 starters back, but last year racked up only 15 sacks against weak competition. The two new starters on defense will be the CBs, which doesn’t bode well in a conference that has so many teams employing a spread offense. There is talent on this team, but it will take time for them to get used to the FBS level and they should finish their first year in the SBC cellar.
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