Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews returns for 2013 after leading the Sun Belt in rushing yards in 2012. Photo: USA Today Sports
Crystal Ball Run will be previewing each conference for the 2013 season with week-by-week coverage. Today we continue our 2013 conference previews with a look at the Sun Belt Conference.
A new year brings a new logo for the new-look Sun Belt Conference. Conference realignment brings some new faces to the conference in 2013, with Texas State and Georgia State fully on board to help begin to replace some departures for Conference USA. The conference also says farewell to two coaches who led their respective programs to new heights in recent memory. On the field, Arkansas State looks go for for a third straight conference title, and to do so with their third different head coach in as many seasons. No program has won three consecutive outright conference titles in the Sun Belt since North Texas did so between 2002 and 2004.
Can Arkansas State make some bizarre history by earning a three-peat? Can Western Kentucky capture their first and only Sun Belt title with new head coach Bobby Petrino before shipping off to Conference USA in 2014? Can Troy once again climb to the top of the conference after a couple years removed from their dominant stretch in the conference? What surprises await us in the Sun Belt this season?
First, let us look back on the year that was in the Sun Belt Conference...
2012 In Review
From Louisiana-Monroe's upset at Arkansas to Arkansas State's GoDaddy.com Bowl victory, the Sun Belt had some memorable moments in 2012. Half of the conference finished with winning records, with four of them advancing to postseason games.
The Sun Belt scored two victories against the SEC, with ULM shocking everybody with an overtime road win at top ten Arkansas in early September and Western Kentucky topping Kentucky. Unfortunately for the conference those wins would not look as impressive at the end of the season, but the Sun Belt will take pride in picking up two wins in SEC stadiums, homes to the toughest college football in the country, any way they can grab them. ULM quarterback and Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Kolton Browning made a name for himself early in the season by leading the Warhawks to the season-opening upset of the Razorbacks. He nearly pulled off upsets the following two weeks against Auburn and Baylor but those attempts were unsuccessful. Browning passed for 3,049 yards and a Sun Belt leading 29 touchdowns as he helped send ULM to their first postseason bowl game in school history.
While Browning was helping ULM make school history, Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin was doing just as well, leading the conference with 3,342 passing yards in Gus Malzahn's first and only season as Arkansas State's head coach. Aplin proved to be a more consistent and accurate passer than Browning, with just four interceptions to Browning's 10 picked off passes and 2.6 more passing yards per attempt and a completion percentage roughly five points higher than Browning's.
The Sun Belt saw three running backs go over 1,000 rushing yards last season. Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews was the clear leader with 1,728 rushing yards on 304 attempts. Arkansas State's David Oku was second in the Sun Belt with 1,061 rushing yards but first in the conference with 16 rushing touchdowns. Troy's Shawn Southward was the third 1,000-yard rusher with 1,021 rushing yards.
Arkansas State clinched a second straight Sun Belt championship with a 7-1 conference mark. The lone loss came to Western Kentucky, one of the preseason favorites in the conference. The Hilltoppers finished with a 4-4 conference mark that included a shocking upset at Florida Atlantic in November. It was one of three total wins for FAU all season. The conference saw a disappointing season from Florida International, who finished the season with a surprising 3-9 record on their way out of the conference. As a result, FIU fired head coach Mario Cristobal, who has since signed on as an assistant with Nick Saban at Alabama.
The Sun Belt also welcomed South Alabama to the conference. The Jaguars struggled, as expected for a program still in a transition from FCS to FBS and in just the fourth season in program history. Their season opened with a tight loss to another FBS newcomer, University of Texas-San Antonio. The lone wins for the Jaguars came against FCS Nicholls State and Florida Atlantic, but South Alabama did get to end their regular season with a game in Hawaii, against the Warriors in a 13th game allowed under NCAA rules for playing at Hawaii. South Alabama has a long way to go to break from the massive shadows cast by in-state powers Alabama and Auburn, but competing in the Sun Belt Conference may not be nearly as far away from reality.
Who's In, Who's Out?
The depth of the Sun Belt Conference seemingly takes a hit this year with the Conference USA expansion moves. The Sun Belt loses both Florida programs, Florida International and Florida Atlantic to Conference USA. In addition, North Texas and Middle Tennessee are also leaving the conference to join Conference USA this fall.
With some of these departures, the Sun Belt will look to expand with some programs hoping to grow. The Sun Belt will add brief WAC member Texas State this fall, looking to fill the void in the Lonestar state opened by the loss of North Texas. The Bobcats went 4-8 last season, highlighted by a week one victory over Houston. The program has continued to grow over the years, from winning a pair of Division 2 national titles in the early 1980s to two-time Southland Conference champions and now to an FBS classification. There is certainly a long way to go for Texas State, but they could clearly be one of the programs to watch in the coming years in the conference.
The other up-coming addition to the conference is Georgia State, entering just the fourth season in program history. Georgia State's fast-track to FBS football has been a bumpy one but all has pretty much gone according to plan it would seem. Despite an all-time record of 10-23, Georgia State will begin their first full season with an FBS schedule after making the quick transition. Playing home games in the Georgia Dome and establishing a presence in a fertile state like Georgia should lead to future prosperity, at least within the Sun Belt we would like to think. Georgia State will not be eligible for postseason play until the 2014 season, although their chances of playing in a bowl game in 2013 would probably have been slim anyway.
In 2014 there will be a few more tweaks to the Sun Belt's football membership. Western Kentucky will officially move to Conference USA. The Sun Belt will then add WAC leftovers Idaho and New Mexico State (both will play as an independent in 2013). The conference will also add a pair of traditional FCS powers, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
Head Coaching Changes
The potential resurrection of Bobby Petrino's career is one of the top themes to the 2013 season.
There will be just a small dose of coaching changes around the Sun Belt this season. Two coaches experienced enough success within the conference to warrant interest from bigger programs and have accepted new roles elsewhere. The third change in the Sun Belt occurred due to a retirement. Three coaching changes and not one as a result of a school's decision. It appears there will be some sustainability among coaches in the conference as well as we move forward, but one bad season can always result in an otherwise unexpected coaching change.
Arkansas State - Gus Malzahn's one-year stop at Arkansas State was a good one, but the former Auburn assistant was hired back by Auburn as head coach. Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin was hired as head coach.
Georgia State - Bill Curry retired from coaching. Georgia State hired Indiana State head coach Trent Miles.
Western Kentucky - Willie Taggart's success saw him hired away by South Florida. Taking over the program will be none other than Bobby Petrino, the former Arkansas head coach and a Crystal Ball Run favorite.
The Sun Belt in Bowl Games
The Sun Belt went an even 2-2 in postseason games last season, highlighted by a GoDaddy.com Bowl victory by conference champion Arkansas State over MAC runner-up Kent State. The game actually turned out to be more of a defensive battle than some expected, with the Red Wolves taking a 17-13 victory in Mobile, Alabama just before the BCS Championship Game. It was the first win in four total tries for a Sun Belt team in the bowl game. Arkansas State had lost to Northern Illinois the previous season.
Louisiana-Lafayette picked up the other bowl victory for the Sun Belt by defeating East Carolina in a more offensive New Orleans Bowl. The Ragin' Cajuns earned their second victory in as many seasons in the bowl game with a 43-34 victory over Conference USA's East Carolina a year after edging San Diego State in a wild 32-30 victory. The Sun Belt has now won four consecutive New Orleans Bowls and six out of the last seven against Conference USA, MAC or Mountain West Conference opponents.
Western Kentucky was edged by Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl in Detroit, 24-21. Louisiana-Monroe took the other conference hit with a blowout loss to Ohio in the Independence Bowl, 45-14.
Middle Tennessee State finished the season with eight wins but did not participate in a bowl game.
Biggest Win of 2012
Kolton Browning led ULM to a thrilling overtime victory at Arkansas. Photo: USA Today Sports.
Louisiana-Monroe 34, No. 8 Arkansas 31 - The Razorbacks may have turned out to be a tire fire in 2012 but let's not take away the thrill of the moment for the Warhawks. Louisiana-Monroe opened the season on the road on September 8 against a program that was thought to be an SEC contender at the time. Down 28-7 midway through the third quarter, Kolton Browning led ULM's offense to a 28-28 tie in the final minute of the game to force overtime, and his 16-yard run clinched the wild upset victory in Little Rock. Arkansas went in the tank as the season played out and ULM nearly came away with victories the following two weeks against Auburn and Baylor, but this was a fantastic way to start the season.
Honorable Mention: Western Kentucky 32, Kentucky 31 - The Hilltoppers got the best of the Wildcats on the road. Kentucky was nothing special, but for a program like Western Kentucky to beat one of the top names in the state, that means something.
Biggest Loss of 2012
Nebraska 42, Arkansas State 13 - In what was expected to be a bit more of a competitive game, Arkansas State had no way of slowing down Nebraska's running game in mid-September. The Huskers racked up over 300 yards on the ground with Ameer Abdullah having a breakout performance by leading Nebraska with 167 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Arkansas State recovered four turnovers from Nebraska's offense but only managed to put together 286 total offensive yards in Lincoln. When the conference champion gets pounded by nearly 30 points by a team that had shown so many defensive woes throughout the season, that tends to be a bit of a blemish for the conference.
Dishonorable Mention: McNeese State 27, Middle Tennessee 21 - The Blue Raiders struggled out of the gate and were topped by FCS McNeese State in week one. Middle Tennessee would recover to have a decent season although they showed they have a long way to go in games against their toughest competition in 2012, including a 45-0 loss at Arkansas State in the final game of the regular season.
Kevin McGuire is the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.
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