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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 9:47 PM

Our college football conference previews continue today with the Sun Belt. If you missed yesterday’s report on the WAC, please check the archives. We strongly encourage you to print out all of our summer weekend reports so you can have them handy once the games begin! Mid major rundowns will appear every Saturday and Sunday through July. We’ll cover the major BCS conferences in August.

We have a 10-team league to discuss today…so let’s jump right in!

 

ARKANSAS STATE

Athlon Ranking: 64th

2011 Total Offense: 24th

2011 Total Defense: 24th

Strength: Rush Defense (13th)

Weakness: Pass Defense (69th)

Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 4 on defense

Head Coach: Gus Malzahn

Notebook: By Sun Belt standards, Arkansas State was something special last year. They ran the table 8-0 in league play. And, they managed top 25 rankings on both sides of the ball. The problem is…Sun Belt standards don’t rate so well when you compare them to the rest of the country! Arkansas State lost in the Go Daddy Bowl to Northern Illinois 38-20. And, the offense only managed 22 total points in checkbook games at Illinois and Virginia Tech. The Sun Belt has dropped a bit since the time Troy was springing upsets on unsuspecting major conference teams. You have to assume the Red Wolves are going to thrive again this year. New coach Gus Malzahn is likely qualified to lead a better program. Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin returns at quarterback. Be careful asking for the moon in September road games at Oregon and Nebraska. Malzahn is an offensive genius…but it’s the defense that may need the most work with only four returning starters.

 

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL

Athlon Ranking: 68th

2011 Total Offense: 82nd

2011 Total Defense: 30th

Strength: Rush Defense (22nd)

Weakness: Rush Offense (72nd)

Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 9 on defense

Head Coach: Mario Cristobal

Notebook: More bad bowl news here last year, as FIU fell to Marshall 20-10 in the Beef O’Brady Bowl. So, the two bright lights in the Sun Belt lost by double digits to Northern Illinois and Marshall. We see a lot of talent returning here on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately the STAR talent on offense is gone…and that’s a unit that could only rank 82nd nationally last year anyway vs. a soft schedule. We like Mario Cristobal a lot. And, we will consider FIU in “defensive dog” positions this year…or maybe the Under against the Vegas total in those kinds of games. He’s brought toughness and respect back to the program. Big test for him this year because FIU is the only Sun Belt team not to return experience at quarterback.

 

LOUISIANA LAFAYETTE

Athlon Ranking: 76th

2011 Total Offense: 51st

2011 Total Defense: 75th

Strength: Pass Offense (29th)

Weakness: Pass Defense (100th)

Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 4 on defense

Head Coach: Mark Hudspeth

Notebook: Hudspeth brought the team forward last year in dramatic fashion…as a team that had been 3-9 the prior year finished 9-4 with a New Orleans Bowl win over San Diego State. You may remember watching that game on TV. Great home crowd atmosphere for the Ragin’ Cajuns in the SuperDome. Playmakers are back on offense…and you know enthusiasm is going to be at a very high level. We’ll be looking for good things in early road tests at Troy and Oklahoma State. Who knows? Maybe even a November trip to Florida could get interesting if the Gators continue to tread water. Rebuilding the defense will be a concern. Look to bet Overs if there’s no early signs of improvement.

 

LOUISIANA MONROE

Athlon Ranking: 100th

2011 Total Offense: 55th

2011 Total Defense: 21st

Strength: Rush Defense (8th)

Weakness: Rush Offense (65th)

Returning Starters: 8 on offense 5 on defense

Head Coach: Todd Berry

Notebook: We now drop down into the 100’s in the Athlon rankings even though it’s only the fourth team in the Sun Belt. Clearly there’s likely to be a “big three” this year, with everyone else fighting for scraps. Monroe does return a lot on offense…and will be in position to improve on what happened in 2011. Unfortunately, going 3-5 in a weak league and 4-8 overall (with one of the wins over Grambling) means you can improve and still be pretty bad. We do expect to find some pointspread edges amongst these also-rans when they play each other. The markets are notoriously bad about only paying half-attention to lesser lights in the lower leagues.

 

WESTERN KENTUCKY

Athlon Ranking: 101st

2011 Total Offense: 89th

2011 Total Defense: 53rd

Strength: Rush Offense (35th)

Weakness: Pass Offense (102nd)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense

Head Coach: Willie Taggart

Notebook: Western had a very nice run last year, going 7-1 in league play. They were 7-5 overall because they scheduled tough out of the conference. It will be nice to have a battle-tested group from the seven returning starters on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, workhorse star running back Bobby Rainey is gone. The pessimistic magazine assessment comes from that loss of talent. We’re a bit more optimistic than Athlon is because returning that many starters from a team that went 7-1 in the conference suggests improvements at the TEAM level. An early stretch against Alabama, Kentucky, and Southern Miss should prove very informative. The Hilltoppers learned early lessons very well last year.

 

NORTH TEXAS

Athlon Ranking: 104th

2011 Total Offense: 96th

2011 Total Defense: 97th

Strength: Rush Offense (66th)

Weakness: Pass Defense (104th)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 4 on defense

Head Coach: Dan McCarney

Notebook: McCarney lifted the program back to respectability after too many years as an absolute doormat. The Mean Green were 5-7 overall, and 4-4 in league play. Don’t forget that this team beat Indiana last year. That being said, we have another bad, undersized defense dealing with a lot of newcomers. That’s a common story in the Sun Belt this season. Road trips to LSU and Kansas State are on the agenda in September. If we see promise there, we’ll look for value spots on this team in league action.

 

TROY

Athlon Ranking: 109th

2011 Total Offense: 65th

2011 Total Defense: 113th

Strength: Pass Offense (17th)

Weakness: Rush Offense (117th)

Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense

Head Coach: Larry Blakeney

Notebook: It’s amazing how far this team has fallen in a short period of time. They used to present real dangers in September non-conference meetings against major programs. Last year they went 3-9 overall, and just 2-6 in conference action. They can still pass the ball…but their running game is abysmal and the defense has gone invisible. Only five starters are back on both sides of the ball in 2012. Hard to project a bounce back this season. The early schedule is easier than it’s been in years past though. Maybe that will help the team build some confidence.

 

MIDDLE TENNESSEE

Athlon Ranking: 114th

2011 Total Offense: 45th

2011 Total Defense: 103rd

Strength: Pass Defense (44th)

Weakness: Rush Offense (114th)

Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 4 on defense

Head Coach: Rick Stockstill

Notebook: Remember when Coach Stockstill was getting mentioned for coaching openings across the country? That talk has died down with the 2-10 debacle last season (1-7 in Sun Belt play). And, now the team is going to be inexperienced too. We have another example, too, of a very poor defense that’s now also inexperienced. Somebody out of the longshots is going to get hot and make a run at the big three. Study the early results as closely as you can to see if you can isolate who that team is going to be.

 

FLORIDA ATLANTIC

Athlon Ranking: 120th

2011 Total Offense: 120th

2011 Total Defense: 69th

Strength: Pass Defense (59th)

Weakness: Pass Offense (111th)

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 8 on defense

Head Coach: Carl Pelini

Notebook: If you see the name Pelini, you know that defense is going to be a priority. Prior coach Howard Schnellenberger didn’t leave the cupboards bare in that regard. In fact, it was the team’s only strength during a 1-11 collapse in 2011. Eight starters are back on that side of the ball. So, that will present the opportunity for some “defensive dog” or Under spots through the schedule. Hopefully there won’t be too many injuries during a brutal Georgia-Alabama road sequence in September.

 

SOUTH ALABAMA

Athlon Ranking: 123rd

2011 Total Offense: not eligible for rankings

2011 Total Defense: not eligible for rankings

Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 9 on defense

Head Coach: Joey Jones

Notebook: South Alabama went 6-4 last year in a lower class of football. We talked about Texas State and Texas-San Antonio moving up in class yesterday in our WAC preview. South Alabama and UTSA played an overtime game last year. We’ll have to let these newcomers to the big time show us where they belong. We’re going to assume it’s the bottom of the barrel until proven otherwise.

That wraps up our look at the Sun Belt. Don’t forget that early-bird football is now available from JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK. Complete details are available in the office at 1-800-323-4453. You can sign up for the the annual “Dollars of August” preseason package right here at the website with your credit card if you prefer to take care of business online. Every dollar you win in exhibition football will multiply itself over several times before the Super Bowl.

Back with you Monday to review the high’s and low’s from the first half of the Major League Baseball season. Our next football report will be next Saturday when we begin two-day coverage of the Mid-American Conference. Make sure you’re with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what’s REALLY going on in the world of sports!

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