Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin looks to lead the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt title.
With the defections in the WAC, the Sun Belt is no longer college football’s worst conference. The addition of South Alabama brings the Sun Belt to 10 football members for 2013, and this conference will undergo a bit of a makeover next year, as North Texas and FIU will be moving to Conference USA, with Texas State and Georgia State picked as replacements.
Arkansas State will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch outside of the BCS. Former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is taking over as head coach, and has the perfect triggerman for his spread attack in quarterback Ryan Aplin. The senior should post monster numbers under Malzahn’s watch, but the Red Wolves have to replace two all-conference performers on the line. The defense also suffered some key departures, as seven starters are gone from last season’s unit.
Arkansas State is Athlon’s projected Sun Belt champion for 2012, but FIU and Louisiana-Lafayette aren’t far behind. The Golden Panthers must replace quarterback Wesley Carroll and receiver T.Y. Hilton, but should have the Sun Belt’s best defense. Mark Hudspeth proved to be a terrific hire for Louisiana-Lafayette last year, and the Ragin’ Cajuns will be in the mix to earn another bowl trip.
There’s a drop off after the top three teams in the projected standings, but Louisiana-Monroe, Western Kentucky, North Texas and Troy are all capable of pushing for a fourth-place finish and a winning record. The Warhawks are led by junior quarterback Kolton Browning, who should be healthy after dealing with a sternum injury most of the 2011 season. The Hilltoppers are on the rise, but must replace star running back Bobby Rainey. The Mean Green is in a similar position to Western Kentucky, as they have to replace running back Lance Dunbar, but should have an improved passing attack in 2012. Troy was the conference’s biggest disappointment last year and need a big year from quarterback Corey Robinson to get back in the mix for the conference title.
MTSU has watch its win total decline over the last two years, and the pressure is starting to build on coach Rick Stockstill. Only eight starters return, but quarterback Logan Kilgore will be surrounded by a handful of playmakers. The Blue Raiders struggled on defense last season and brought in former Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix to help solve some of the problems.
FAU and South Alabama are expected to finish at the bottom of the conference in 2012. Legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger retired at the end of 2011, and the school picked Nebraska assistant Carl Pelini to be its next head coach. Pelini is a curious fit at FAU and will have his hands full with an offense that averaged just 248.8 yards per game last year. South Alabama is one of four new FBS teams this season and has recorded an impressive 23-4 record in three seasons under coach Joey Jones.
Athlon's 2012 Sun Belt Team Previews