The Sun Belt is a conference in transition, but even with the changes around the league, the contenders remain the same. UL Lafayette has won nine games in each of the last three seasons and is Athlon’s projected champion for 2014.
The Ragin’ Cajuns return 15 starters and coach Mark Hudspeth is the best in the Sun Belt. Quarterback Terrance Broadway guides an offense that averaged 33.8 points per game last season and features a deep stable of running backs. Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire will both push for all-conference honors in 2014. Hudspeth’s team doesn’t have many personnel concerns, but the secondary and linebacking corps are two areas for the coaching staff to watch in the fall. UL Lafayette will also have a chance to play spoiler on the Sept. 13 date at Ole Miss.
UL Lafayette was a clear No. 1 in Athlon’s projected Sun Belt predictions, but it was a close battle for No. 2 with South Alabama and Arkansas State. The Red Wolves are on their fourth coach in four years, but a strong core of talent remains in Jonesboro. Running back Michael Gordon is poised for a breakout year, and receiver J.D. McKissic is back after catching 82 passes in 2013. The departure of Ryan Carrethers on the defensive line is one of Arkansas State’s biggest concerns for 2014.
South Alabama has made steady progress under Joey Jones, finishing 6-6 in its second year of Sun Belt play. The Jaguars return 12 starters, but quarterback Ross Metheny and a couple of key defenders must be replaced. South Alabama also has a tough November road stretch, featuring trips to Arkansas State and UL Lafayette. However, if Brandon Bridge settles in at quarterback, the Jaguars will have a chance to win both games.
After the top three teams, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the Sun Belt.
Troy and ULM are proven programs within the Sun Belt, and both teams should be in the mix for bowl games in 2014. The Trojans need to replace quarterback Corey Robinson, but the skill players and offensive line should be among the best in the league. For Troy to push for a spot among the top three, the defense has to improve after allowing 35.9 points a game in 2013.
ULM will miss quarterback Kolton Browning, and a challenging non-conference schedule doesn’t leave much margin for error for a bowl appearance. But the Warhawks should be solid on defense with the return of nine starters, and NC State transfer Pete Thomas could be the answer at quarterback.
Texas State is a program on the rise, but only four starters are back on defense, and there figures to be a few growing pains in Tyler Jones’ second year under center. The Bobcats own one of the league’s top linebacking corps with senior Michael Orakpo and David Mayo leading the way.
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State headline four newcomers into the Sun Belt for 2014. The Eagles finished the 2013 season by beating Florida in the Swamp and catch a break in scheduling by not playing UL Lafayette and Arkansas State. New coach Willie Fritz was one of the top hires of the offseason.
Appalachian State played better at the end of 2013, which was the first year under the direction of Scott Satterfield. The Mountaineers are a solid program and will eventually be a consistent winner in the Sun Belt. With running back Marcus Cox leading the way, Appalachian State could match last year’s win total.
Idaho and New Mexico State join the Sun Belt after spending 2013 as a FBS Independent. Both teams are in rebuild mode, with the Vandals in better shape in terms of personnel. However, Idaho is banned from postseason play in 2014. The Aggies return just eight starters and have uncertainty at quarterback and several holes to fill on defense.
Georgia State didn’t win a game in Trent Miles’ debut, but the Panthers showed progress. With Miles upgrading the roster through recruiting, as well as his track record of success at Indiana State, expect Georgia State to show more improvement in 2014.
Sun Belt Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014
New Orleans Bowl: MW vs. Sun Belt
GoDaddy Bowl: Sun Belt vs. MAC
Camellia Bowl: Sun Belt vs. MAC