Sun Belt Conference football has endured the life of the mid-major conference. For two straight years, the league champion has seen its head coach depart for pastures that were literally greener in the SEC West. What’s odd is that’s the same program, in Arkansas State that saw this happen.
The Red Wolves won the Sun Belt in 2011 under the leadership of Hugh Freeze, who immediately left for Ole Miss. Arkansas State then hired Gus Malzahn, the highly regarded offensive coordinator at Auburn and won the league again in the 2012 season. Malzahn quickly bolted town to return to Auburn, this team in the top job.
All of which means new boss Bryan Harsin probably won’t get too much slack when it comes to an adjustment period, but the rewards will be great if he wins.
In truth, Harsin’s job is going to be tougher, as he takes on his first head coaching assignment after working as an assistant at both Texas and Boise State. The one constant in Red Wolves’ football over the past two seasons was quarterback Ryan Aplin, the conference MVP. Harsin doesn’t have a complete rebuilding project on his hands, but there’s enough re-tooling to be done that four teams have legitimate aspirations to win the 2013 Sun Belt football title.
Arkansas State is still one of those teams, and we can include UL-Monroe, Louisiana and Western Kentucky in the group. For our Sun Belt college football coverage, let’s open with a primer on each team…
THE SUN BELT’S BIG FOUR
*UL-Monroe is pegged as the early favorite and that’s justifiable. Kolton Browning, a prolific lefthanded passer is in his fourth year as a starter. Monroe made waves early last season when they took Auburn to overtime and beat Arkansas on the road. Both programs ended up collapsing, but any time a Sun Belt team competes that well with any SEC team, it’s noteworthy.
Monroe finished 8-4 last season and made its first-ever bowl game, but it was a season that looked like it might have been conference-title worthy for a while. Their top running back, Jyruss Edwards, was injured for two key conference losses and a healthy Edwards might have meant a trophy. He returned for the end of last season and is ready to start anew in 2013.
Edwards will be blocked for by a veteran line, and while Browning’s favorite receiver, Ben Leonard, is gone, the next four on the depth chart are all back. We should see a balanced offense, both in terms of run/pass, and how the passes are being targeted.
The defense must make improvements, but all five starters in the nickel secondary scheme are back, and while new starters are up front, it’s upperclassmen stepping into the jobs. Another solid, winning year is a certainty, and a championship a reasonable expectation.
*Arkansas State’s re-tooling will involve becoming a more run-oriented team, with all-conference back David Oku back, along with most of the offensive front. The defense should also be strong in the trenches, and while there’s work to do in the back seven, linebacker Qushan Lee, the MVP of the GoDaddy.com Bowl, is back.
The Red Wolves are going to be a tough out in any case, and with the emergence of a quarterback could win this league again.
*Louisiana (previously known as UL-Lafayette) is an interesting team. They’ve won the New Orleans Bowl two straight years, and have an electrifying quarterback in Terrance Broadway, who excels both running and throwing. Defensively, the team is shifting to a 4-3 scheme, and appears to have the personnel to make it work, starting with pass-rushing end Christian Ringo.
The issue is going to be finding some offensive balance so Broadway doesn’t have to do everything, and even more importantly, finding linebackers and defensive backs, of which they are precious few with experience.
It’s tough to see Louisiana taking the next step and winning the conference, but they can continue their run of winning seasons and bowl game appearances.
*Western Kentucky is trying to do without a quarterback. This can work when you start with a veteran offensive line and the best back in the league. Antonio Andrews pounded for 1300 yards last year and if the QB can just avoid mistakes, Andrews can make you a competitive team.
The problem is that building around the running game usually requires defensive toughness to go with it, and the Hilltoppers have to break in a new defensive front four. They may able to compensate with an experienced back seven—if the secondary doesn’t require help, the linebackers and even the strong safety can cheat closer to the line of scrimmage and help the front four out.
It’s a reasonable theory for winning some games and being competitive, but less so for being a preseason pick to win the conference championship.
THE BOTTOM OF THE BARRELL
Troy, Texas State, South Alabama and Georgia State aren’t going anywhere, at least in terms of winning more games than they lose and competing for a bowl spot. Troy is the one team with a snowball’s chance of elevating themselves, thanks to the presence of quarterback Corey Robinson, but they have nothing defensively or in the running game.
Texas State is one to keep an eye on for the big picture. Dennis Franchione, former head coach of Texas A&M has overseen this program’s move to the FBS level and they won four games in their inaugural year last season, as a member of the now-deceased WAC.
South Alabama has also been transitioning to FBS for a couple years and this will be the first go-round as a full-time member. The Jaguars do have ten senior starters on defense, and they would rival Troy for being the best of this group and moving up to fifth place. And the team that wins this group can hope that one of the Big Four collapses and opens up a spot in the Sun Belt’s upper half.
Georgia State is in its first year and going nowhere fast.
Of the Big Four, I would see UL-Monroe and Arkansas State as having a little bit of an edge, with Monroe having a further edge. The Warhawks are the official pick of TheSportsNotebook to win the Sun Belt. Louisiana takes third place and goes to a bowl game, while Western Kentucky has a winning season, but only makes a bowl if there’s a real problem with power conference filling their slots.
Then take Troy, South Alabama and Texas State and throw them all into a hat for the 5-6-7 spots, and Georgia State well behind the rest.