2014 NCAA Football Preview: Sun Belt Conference

August 21, 2014

I’ve been a bit lazy the past few days, so I apologize for the lack of previews in that time span. But since my last post, my Big Ten preview was pretty much trashed. Ohio State probably isn’t going undefeated anymore and I’ll be surprised if Northwestern lives up to the 9-3 record I predicted without Venric Mark.

Let’s hope that the Around The Corn curse doesn’t strike any teams from the next conference to be previewed, or I might end up getting a phone call from a conference commissioner or two.

That’d be so awesome.

Here’s a look at the Sun Belt Conference.


It’s sort of funny how the conferences least affected by the addition of a playoff to college football are the ones that have experienced its consequence so dramatically. The consequence, conference realignment, has affected leagues across the country to various degrees, but none more so than the Sun Belt Conference over the past four years. In just the past two seasons the conference has lost five football schools and gained eight (well, gained four technically, as both Georgia State and South Alabama have been longtime members but just recently joined the FBS ranks).

Even the diehard college football fans may have a hard time keeping up with the shifting. Appalachian State…that’s the team that beat Michigan in 2007 when the Wolverines were ranked No. 5, right? Well yes, but at the time the Mountaineers were a 1-AA program. Idaho…are they even remotely close to the Sun Belt region? Well no, but when you go from the dying Western Athletic Conference to an being an Independent to the Sun Belt in a matter of three seasons, the hell with geographic proximity.

In essence, the Sun Belt Conference has become a welcoming home to the forgotten. The schools that no one else wanted, or that couldn’t get into more prestigious conferences due to academic standards, or that simply don’t have the financial capability of landing anywhere else. On one hand, you could view these schools almost like a bunch of orphans. But on the other hand, the perfect situation is created for a league full of 11 football squads with a chip on their shoulder.

You know what that creates? Good football. And when it really comes down to it, that’s all we’re looking for out of any conference.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a Playoff Bid


There is a good chance that there will be a lot of parody in the Sun Belt throughout the 2014-2015 season. But while parody means interesting storylines and a mad dash for the conference crown down the stretch, it almost means the death of the minuscule chance that a team from the Sun Belt climbs high enough in the rankings to get a serious look from the selection committee. Granted, even a team that finishes undefeated in this conference wouldn’t get a serious look. The best that the conference champion could hope for is an access bowl invitation and even that seems unlikely.

If you’re watching the Sun Belt Conference, it’s because you graduated from one of the member schools or because you absolutely live and breathe college football. This league won’t be enjoyed by those that love to be engulfed by the media fluff and hype that accompanies the Power Five conferences. There is none. No team will be fighting for a playoff spot. A few teams might give a playoff contender trouble early in the year, but that’s the last you’ll hear of them until mid-December. Not until bowl season will many of these teams even see the production crew associated with one of the major television networks. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is reality.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Texas State

What’s a good way to elevate yourself in a conference? How about plucking your offensive line coach and defensive coordinator from a Sun Belt school that has won at least eight games the past three seasons and twice won the league title? That’s what Texas State head coach Dennis Franchione managed to do when he hired former Arkansas State offensive line coach Brad Bedell and defensive coordinator John Thompson. If there are two areas that the Bobcats could improve upon from last season, it would be the offensive line and defensive secondary.

Talent is coming back on the offense, especially at quarterback with sophomore Tyler Jones. If the spread system that Franchione is working on implementing takes root, the Bobcats could be a threat to score a lot of points this year. The difference between mild progress and a potential breakthrough season will come down to the play of the defense, though. A mostly new cast will need to learn Thompson’s defensive strategy quickly and establish a groove before the difficult part of the schedule, which takes place near the end of the year. The pieces are there for this team to be a surprise bowl game participant, but putting those pieces together could be a challenge.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Terrance Broadway (Sr.), UL-Lafayette quarterback

The Ragin’ Cajuns have been the most exciting offense in the Sun Belt over the past two seasons, and this man is the main reason why. As a junior in 2013, Broadway had the best quarterback rating in the conference while throwing for 19 touchdowns and rushing for eight more. But as exciting as he is, the dangerous thing about the dual-threat option is that there is still room for growth. The 12 interceptions he threw last season were second most in the conference. If he cuts down on his turnovers, not only does UL-Lafayette become even more potent offensively, but Broadway becomes one of the better quarterbacks in the country.

UL-Lafayette is the favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference for a second straight year and assuming that Broadway builds on his success from the past two seasons, things will go as planned. As long as he can stay healthy (he missed a game in 2013 due to a broken arm – one in which the Ragin’ Cajuns lost 30-8), he should be in the running for Conference MVP. Ragin’ Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth knows what he has at the quarterback position and seems just fine with letting his star do whatever necessary to move the ball down the field.

Out-Of-Conference Game to Watch

UL-Lafayette vs. Boise State (September 20th)

The Ragin’ Cajuns score a lot of points under the guidance of coach Mark Hedspeth. Under new head man Bryan Harsin, who was the offensive coordinator at Boise State from 2006-2010, so should the Broncos. This game isn’t your typical big game matchup, but both of these teams will be fighting for position near the top of their respective conferences this season. This out-of-conference affair should be a good indicator of just how good opposing teams will need to be to beat them later on in the year.

UL-Lafayette has the advantage in the passing game, where the Broncos will be breaking in a new quarterback after the departure of Joe Southwick. But Boise State gets the nod in the running game, where junior Jay Ajayi emerged as one of the most bruising tailbacks in the country last season. Neither team had an affinity for defense in 2013, but with a lot of starters returning for both teams chances are Terrance Broadway and Ajayi will have to really earn the yards they gain. Still, expect both teams to at least reach the high 20s in points scored and don’t be surprised if they climb well into the 30s. The blue turf has always been known for offensive fireworks.

In-Conference Game to Watch

South Alabama vs. UL-Lafayette (November 1st)

The Sun Belt is set up for a lot of parody this year, but talent wise UL-Lafayette and South Alabama are still the class of the conference heading into the season. This game will likely decide the conference champion, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the winner goes unbeaten in the league while the loser’s only blemish is at the hands of the victor. South Alabama is in just its second season of bowl eligibility and would love to make its first postseason appearance as the Sun Belt champions.

In 2013, the Jaguars got lucky and played a Broadway-less Ragin’ Cajuns team, stifling the UL-Lafayette offense en route to a 30-8 victory. While it won’t be as easy this season, South Alabama will still be the most difficult Sun Belt defense that Broadway faces this year. The Jaguars are also solid offensively and if junior quarterback Brandon Bridge makes a smooth transition into the starting role this game will be extremely close. The Ragin’ Cajuns have the advantage of playing at home, but last year’s game was in Lafayette as well and that didn’t matter much.

Conference Predictions

1. UL-Lafayette (10-2, [8-0])

2. South Alabama (8-4, [7-1])

3. UL-Monroe (7-5, [6-2])

4. Troy (7-5, [5-3])

5. Texas State (6-6, [5-3])

6. Arkansas State (6-6, [5-3])

7. Georgia Southern (4-8, [3-5])

8. Appalachian State (4-8, [2-6])

9. Georgia State (3-9, [2-6])

10. Idaho (1-11, [1-7])

11. New Mexico State (1-11, [0-8])

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding the Sun Belt or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

– K. Becks

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