Sun Belt Football Predictions
Arkansas State ruled the Sun Belt in 2011, winning the conference with a perfect 8-0 league record. It is one of six schools with an opportunity to win the wide-open league in 2012. The other five schools are Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy, FIU, Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Monroe.
Troy saw its run or five straight Sun Belt titles come to an end last season, but I don’t expect the Trojans to be down for long. The Hilltoppers and Ragin’ Cajuns, who finished 7-1 and 6-2, respectively, in league play last year, also look to be strong contenders.
Without any further ado, this is how my team of experts and I see the Sun Belt shaking out this season.
2012 Sun Belt Predictions
1. Louisiana-Lafayette - The Ragin’ Cajuns, who went 9-4 in 2011, are coming off the best season in school history. They’ll have an opportunity to top it with one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Quarterback Blaine Gautier appears poised for a monster season after completing 62.7 percent of his throws for 2,958 yards with 23 touchdowns and six interceptions last year. Gautier isn’t the only weapon either. The Cajuns also have playmakers in running back Alonzo Harris and wide receiver Javone Lawson. The conference schedule also sets up well as they get three of their toughest games (FIU, Arkansas State, Western Kentucky) at home.
2. Troy - Troy will be back this year. A disappointing season provides plenty of motivation. With as much talent as there is on the roster, it’s clear to see the Trojans underachieved a year ago. Quarterback Corey Robinson, who completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 3,411 yards with 21 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, is one of the best signal callers in the league. He has the potential to pass Troy to a conference title. Plus, it only helps its chances getting Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Kentucky, FIU, and Arkansas State at home.
3. FIU - The Sun Belt is a league that has been dominated by offense, but FIU might be able to capture a conference title with defense. The Golden Panthers ranked first in the conference (14th nationally) in scoring defense with 19.5 points allowed per game last season. With nearly the entire stop unit back, they should be every bit as good in 2012. The reason I have them coming up short is the loss of T.Y. Hilton, who was arguably the most dynamic player in the league last year.
4. Arkansas State - I believe the Red Wolves are in for a bit of a letdown after running the table in conference play last year. Star quarterback Ryan Aplin returns, but the Red Wolves lost a lot of starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. Games are often won and lost in the trenches. The schedule isn’t favorable either. They have to visit FIU, Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy.
5. Western Kentucky - The Hilltoppers were a major surprise last season as they finished 7-1 in league play after going 2-14 in conference action the previous two seasons. I believe they will come back down to earth in 2012 after losing running back Bobby Rainey, last year’s Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year. Western Kentucky led the country in time of possession because Rainey was such a workhorse. He led the nation in carries each of the past two seasons. The Hilltoppers will miss him to say the least.
6. Louisiana-Monroe - The Warhawks could surprise in 2012. They finished a disappointing 3-5 in Sun Belt play last season, but three of their losses came by five points or less. Consider that the Warhawks outgained their conference foes by 105.5 yards on average. With nearly the entire starting offense back, Louisiana-Monroe could make a big jump up the standings.
7. Middle Tennessee - The Blue Raiders only won one league game in 2011, and that win came against a Florida Atlantic team that went winless in conference play. Much of last season’s disappointment can be blamed on youth and inexperience. The experience the youngsters gained last year will benefit them this season. I have no doubt MTSU will put a better football team on the field in 2012. Home games against FAU, ULM and North Texas are all very winnable. So is a road contest against South Alabama.
8. North Texas - The Mean Green fared better than most expected in 2011, finishing 4-4 in conference play. However, I believe that will be a tough encore. I think Dan McCarney could have a lot of success at the school, but the schedule doesn’t set up well for his team this season. Three of their four home conference contests are against Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State. I don’t see them getting any of those. Their most winnable conference matchups are on the road, where they went 1-5 in 2011.
9. Florida Atlantic - The Owls still have a long way to go, but I believe they took a step in the right direction by hiring Carl Pelini. With a new coach, new stadium and new schemes, the opportunity is there for FAU to win a lot of games in the future. It could rise to the top of the conference quickly if Pelini can recruit the heck out of South Florida. I don’t see the Owls winning much this season, but I also don’t see them laying another goose egg.
10. South Alabama - The Jaguars will take their lumps in 2012 as they transition to the Sun Belt and playing FBS opponents week after week. The Jags went 6-4 last season but only played two FBS schools (NC State, Kent State) and lost to both of them. They will be hard-pressed to a game in conference play this season.
|Arkansas State||Georgia State||Louisiana-Lafayette||South Alabama|
|Texas State||Troy||Louisiana-Monroe||Western Kentucky|
|ACC||Big 12||Big East||Big Ten|
|Conference USA||Independents||MAC||Mountain West|