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By Kendall Webb/College Football America publisher
Four of the league’s premier programs will leave for Conference USA this fall taking a combined eight conference championships with them. FAU, FIU, Middle Tennessee and North Texas have all claimed at least a share of the conference title during their time in the league, and Middle Tennessee and North Texas were charter members of the league’s football conference.
But while the current realignment craze ultimately killed the Western Athletic Conference as a football league, the Sun Belt has chosen an aggressive expansion strategy under new commissioner Karl Benson, who ironically was the WAC commissioner when it began to crumble as a football league. So far, things are going a little better in the Sun Belt partly due to the fact that Benson’s twofold strategy includes picking up the WAC members that were left homeless by realignment.
The second half of Benson’s strategy is a throwback to the plan he employed in the WAC when the league’s programs began to bolt for the Mountain West and Conference USA. Under Benson, the WAC began extending invitations to up-and-coming FCS programs, and Texas State was one of the schools that accepted the WAC’s invitation. Unfortunately for the Bobcats, the WAC’s survival strategy didn’t work, but at least Benson hasn’t forgotten the WAC programs that were left without a conference home. Texas State will join the Sun Belt this fall while Idaho and New Mexico State will play as independents before joining the Sun Belt in 2014.
Georgia State will continue its transition from the FCS by joining Benson’s Sun Belt, too, this fall and Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will begin a transition from the lower division next season when Western Kentucky leaves for Conference USA.
It all adds up to this — despite the loss of five members over a two-year period, Benson’s Sun Belt will have a net gain of one member by next season to get to 11 teams after playing with eight this fall. Eleven is one short of the NCAA’s requirement to stage a championship game, and we suspect the Sun Belt’s long-term strategy involves getting to 12 teams and splitting into two divisions. Of the Sun Belt’s two non-football members (UALR and UTA), UTA in particular seems to have a strong undercurrent of support for football (and, by the way, there’s a nice stadium in Arlington that loves to host college football games). It’s speculation at this point, but either way, we suspect Benson’s strategy involves finding a twelfth program.
Of the current programs, Arkansas State has taken the last two championships, but the Red Wolves will have their third head coach in three seasons this fall. Bryan Harsin takes over after the last two coaches used the program as a springboard to bigger jobs in the SEC (Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn).
Harsin, however, won’t have the luxury of Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Ryan Aplin at quarterback. Instead, he’ll likely have Utah State transfer Adam Kennedy under center, and while Kennedy had some success for the Aggies, he’s not Aplin. Fortunately with seven starters back on offense including running back David Oku (1,061 yards, 16 TD’s) and receivers J.D. McKissic (103-1,022 yards, 5 TD’s) and Carlos McCants, he might not have to be. They should still be able to move the ball, and if the five starters on defense can hold up, the Red Wolves should still challenge for one of the Sun Belt’s bowl bids.
Louisiana-Lafayette, however, appears to be the new frontrunner. Head coach Mark Hudspeth has led the program to its first two bowls in program history with two wins in the New Orleans Bowl, and a third straight appearance in The Big Easy isn’t out of the question. If the Ragin’ Cajuns can again overcome a defense that returns only three starters from a unit that ranked seventh in the league in total defense, then the offense, which returns mostly intact, should be effective.
Quarterback Terrance Broadway is one of the nation’s top dual threats (2,842 yards passing, 769 yards rushing), and he still has Alonzo Harris (881 yards) at running back and experienced targets at wide receiver (Jamal Robinson and Darryl Surgent) and tight end (Ian Thompson).
ULM and Western Kentucky could also challenge for the league crown. ULM has the league’s top signal-caller in Kolton Browning to lead an offense that returns seven starters including four on one of the league’s best offensive lines. With nine starters back on defense led by safety Isaiah Newsome, the Warhawks might be ready to claim their first title since sharing the 2005 championship with Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Western Kentucky, meanwhile, won’t go down quietly in its final season before joining Conference USA. The Hilltoppers will be led by new coach Bobby Petrino, who is a proven winner with a career record of 75-26 at Louisville and Arkansas. If Petrino can stay out of trouble and away from young, female athletic department employees, then the offensive mastermind should find ways to get the Hilltopper offense moving. Having senior running back Antonio Andrews and his 1,728 yards rushing back (fifth in the country in the FBS in 2012) for one more year doesn’t hurt.
The Sun Belt’s forgotten powerhouse is the Troy Trojans who won at least a share of five straight championships from 2006-10. Senior quarterback Corey Robinson is the key to the Trojans’ hopes as he is the league’s all-time leader in passing yards. He only managed 12 touchdowns against nine interceptions last year, however, and the Trojans only return two other starters on offense to go with just two total on defense.
South Alabama is another former FCS program entering its first year of eligibility for the Sun Belt title and a bowl bid. But it will only be slightly better than the other two newcomers — Texas State and Georgia State.