2012 NCAA Football Preview: Sun Belt Conference

August 30, 2012

Today is the day! College football finally returns this evening, which is why I need to hurry up and get these last few conference previews in before the games start.

Here is the Sun Belt Conference preview.


The teams in the Sun Belt Conference don’t vie for national championships. They don’t even get BCS bowl consideration for the most part. If you’re one who can name all the teams that play in the conference, you are probably the only one in your circle of friends that can do so. But this conference still produces some very exciting games, which is really all that matters if you’re watching a game in which you don’t care who wins.

At the very least, familiarizing yourself with the teams in this conference will make you sound like you know what you’re talking about when your team plays a Sun Belt member in the early part of the season. Trust me, I do it a lot.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid


This is no surprise. No team from the Sun Belt would receive major consideration to play in the national title game even if it ended the regular season undefeated. A team from the Sun Belt running the table this year would be a shock in itself, so don’t expect to hear a whole lot from the national media about this conference. There are definitely some teams such as Arkansas State and Florida International that could give the big boys a scare, but they probably won’t make it through their non-conference schedules unscathed.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers no longer have tailback Bobby Rainey, but should have a chip on their shoulder that could propel them to greater heights this season. Western Kentucky won seven games last year and finished second in the Sun Belt, yet was passed over by bowls in favor of several 6-6 squads. The Hilltoppers still have quite a bit of talent on the offensive end, including almost the entire offensive line from last year.

The defense will set the tone for this team, which features middle linebacker Andrew Jackson, almost a sure bet for first-team All-Sun Belt honors. Jackson and the rest of the defense will be called upon even more this season if the offense struggles without Rainey, but this squad is up to the challenge. The Hilltoppers are one of two teams in the Sun Belt who shut out an opponent last season. This team is dying to play in a postseason game, and I think there is enough motivation for them to get there.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Ryan Aplin (Sr.), Arkansas State quarterback

The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year looks poised to lead the Red Wolves to a second consecutive Sun Belt title this season. Aplin will have one of his favorite targets back in senior wideout Taylor Stockemer, and the rest of the receiving corps should also be strong which means lots of points through the air.

New head coach Gus Malzahn can put full trust into Aplin knowing that the senior has the tools to run his offense extremely well. This is a team that will need to score as many points as possible to win games, and Ryan Aplin is the perfect quarterback for that need. In addition to his arm, Aplin was also the leading rusher for the Red Wolves in 2011. Big numbers should be expected, and another Player of the Year trophy is very possible.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Arkansas State vs. Nebraska (September 15th)

The Red Wolves will be huge underdogs when they head up to Lincoln to face the Cornhuskers, but this game is still one of the Sun Belt’s most intriguing out-of-conference matchups. Arkansas State has a powerful offense, and new head man Gus Malzahn will not be afraid of any team he goes up against thanks to his time spent as offensive coordinator at Auburn. If anything, Nebraska needs to make certain they take this game seriously or they could be in for a difficult day.

The Cornhuskers don’t want to be caught in a shootout with the Red Wolves, who are capable of keeping pace. As a result, defense will be the most important factor in this game. If Nebraska is able to limit Ryan Aplin’s ability to escape the pocket, this game should go relatively smoothly for the Big Red. If Aplin gets into a groove early, this one could become interesting by the second half.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Arkansas State vs. Florida International (October 4th)

There is a good chance that this game will decide the Sun Belt champion. Both Arkansas State and Florida International retain key pieces from the teams that finished first and second in the conference last year, although the Panthers will be without electric wideout and kick returner T.Y. Hilton. Hilton’s absence may be a limiting factor in FIU’s success this season, which may be most visible in a game like this one.

The Panthers were one of the best all-around defensive units in the Sun Belt last season, and they will need to bring their A-game if they want to take down the Red Wolves. Arkansas State is simply too strong offensively for FIU to expect to win in a shootout, so Mario Cristobal’s team is going to need to keep the ball away from the opposing offense if they don’t want a repeat of last year’s result.

Conference Predictions

1. Arkansas State (10-2, [8-0])

2. Florida International (9-3, [7-1])

3. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4, [6-2])

4. Western Kentucky (6-6, [5-3])

5. Middle Tennessee State (5-7, [4-4])

6. Louisiana-Monroe (4-8, [3-5])

7. North Texas (4-8, [3-5])

8. Troy (2-10, [2-6])

9. Florida Atlantic (3-9, [2-6])

10. South Alabama (2-11, [0-8])

Questions from the Readers

There are no questions from the readers for the Sun Belt Conference. Remember, if you have a question that you want to see answered, send me it on Around The Corn’s Facebook page, by tweeting me at @KBecks_ATC or emailing me at kbecks@aroundthecorn.com. There are only two more conference previews (Western Athletic and Independents) left as well as a Final Thoughts preview, so please submit your questions by the end of today. Thanks everyone.

– K. Becks

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