While the Sun Belt didn’t have as strong of a year in 2013 as their record breaking season in 2012, which saw them pull off 3 upsets of BCS opponents and send a conference-best 4 teams to a bowl game, that was to be expected with the losses of Middle Tennessee, North Texas, FAU and FIU to Conference-USA. The conference as a whole still managed to go a respectable 19-21 in non-conference play and a perfect 2-0 in bowl games.
Last season there was a 2-way tie at the top with the Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State both ending the year at 5-2 in league play. It was the 3rd consecutive year that the Red Wolvers earned at least a share of the title, as they won the Sun Belt outright in both 2011 and 2012. What really stood out is just how competitive this conference was a whole. There was a 4-way tie for 3rd as Western Kentucky, ULM, Troy and South Alabama all finished one game back of the leaders at 4-3. Only newcomers Texas State and Georgia State failed to finish with a winning record inside league play.
This year the Sun Belt loses Western Kentucky to C-USA, while adding in two former members in Idaho and New Mexico State, along with a couple of FCS powerhouses in Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. That gives the Sun Belt 11 members for the 2014 campaign. Since that’s not enough to split up into two divisions, each team will instead have opponents inside the conference that they don’t play.
After taking a close look at all 11 teams, I’ve put together my predictions on how I see the Sun Belt playing out in 2014.
Sun Belt Standings
|T-9th||New Mexico St||1-7||2-10|
Sun Belt Predictions
I don’t think there’s any question that the team to beat in the Sun Belt this year is Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns get back 17 starters from last year, which is the most of any returning member (tied with Idaho), including the league’s top returning quarterback in senior Terrance Broadway.
If someone else other than Louisiana-Lafayette is going to win the Sun Belt, I believe it will come in the form of either South Alabama or Troy.
The Jaguars were one of the most improved teams in the conference last year. South Alabama had gone just 1-7 in the Sun Belt in their first season in the league. The Jaguars have 15 starters coming back, but will have to replace talented quarterback Ross Metheny.
The Trojans have the conference’s best mark over the last 10 years at 49-25. While they have been played up to their standard the last few seasons, they showed signs of getting the ship sailing in the right direction in 2013. All 3 of Troy’s conference losses came by 12-points or less. One of the big reasons I’m high on the Trojans, is due to the fact that I’m extremely high on red-shirt freshman quarterback Brandon Silvers.
After South Alabama and Troy, I’m expecting a 3-way tie for 4th between Arkansas State, Texas State and ULM. It might come as a surprise that I’m picking the Red Wolves this low after watching them go 20-3 in league play the last 3 years, but they have just 4 starters back on offense (12 total) and will be working under their 5th head coach in the last 5 years.
As for ULM and Texas State, I don’t think either is a serious threat to win the Sun Belt. Both simply have favorable schedules. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if either of these teams disappointed and fell back further in the standings. ULM loses their all-time leading passer in Kolton Browning and Texas State could really struggle defensively with just 4 starters back on that side of the ball.
The two teams that could surprise and finish higher in the standings are Idaho and Georgia Southern. The Vandals should be one of the most improved teams in the country this year and will be facing a much easier schedule than what they had last season as an Independent. The problem for Idaho is that three of their four conference home games come against Arkansas State, Troy and South Alabama.
As for Georgia Southern, many of you are probably familiar with this team from their huge road upset of Florida last year. While the Southern Eagles have 15 starters back, I’m think this team could struggle in the first year under head coach Willie Fritz, who is looking to change up the offense.
That leaves New Mexico State, Appalachian State and Georgia State battling it out in the basement of the Sun Belt. Unfortunately for these three teams, I just don’t see enough talent for them to be competitive inside the Sun Belt.
|Arkansas State||Georgia State||Louisiana-Lafayette||South Alabama|
|Texas State||Troy||Louisiana-Monroe||New Mexico State|
|Idaho||Georgia Southern||Appalachian State|
|ACC||Big 12||American Athletic||Big Ten|
|Conference USA||Independents||MAC||Mountain West|