2012 Sun Belt Football Preview, Predictions
South Alabama will play its first season as a Division-1A program this year for the Sun Belt.
This will be the final year FIU and North Texas will be a member of the Sun Belt, thanks to the Conference USA needing help after losing members to the Big East.
Here is a preview for the 2012 Sun Belt season with predictions.
Florida International: 10-2 (8-0)
In 2006, Miami (Fla.) offensive line coach Mario Cristobal took over a football program that had gone 0-12 the season before, was known for its horrendous brawl with the Hurricanes, and had no weight room or meeting rooms. Five years later, he has turned down offers from Pitt and Rutgers, and FIU is projected to take home the Sun Belt title. Although the Golden Panthers lose their best player in team history (T.Y. Hilton), they are bringing back enough talent to run the table.
Arkansas State Red Wolves: 9-3 (7-1)
It seems as if Arkansas State's football program is headed into the right direction, especially after the hiring of former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn this offseason. Malzahn brings a ton of credibility to the university and has already made huge strides with the team, including bringing in former 5-star running back Michael Dyer. The Red Wolves want to become the Boise State of the south, and they just might—in a few years when Malzahn has his players.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns: 8-4 (6-2)
First-year coach Mark Hudspeth took LA-Lafayette to its first-ever bowl win and nine-win season in 2011. With plenty of returning starters—including quarterback Blaine Gautier—and a ton of momentum, the Ragin' Cajuns will be contending for a conference championship in 2012.
North Texas Mean Green: 6-6 (5-3)
North Texas rode the momentum train towards the latter end of the season last year, including a 59-7 dismantling over Middle Tennessee State in the finale. Coach Dan McCarney brings a legitimate reason for Mean Green fans to stay optimistic, as the program continues to move forward. The offense began to click (that's an understatement) Week 8, and with junior quarterback Derek Thompson back under center, it should continue doing so throughout the 2012 season.
Troy Trojans: 5-7 (4-4)
Troy had been a powerhouse program in the Sun Belt for a half decade up until last season, when it completely fell apart. The Trojans finished 3-9 with just two conference wins—their first losing season since 2005. They return a nice passing game with a strong linebacker corps, along with a good recruiting class. However, coach Larry Blakeney may have to settle with a rebuilding year before his team can start contending again.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers: 4-8 (3-5)
The Hilltoppers enjoyed a relatively favorable schedule last year, playing Indiana State, Arkansas State, LA-Lafayette, Florida International and Troy at home. They went 3-2 in those games and ended up 7-5 overall, ultimately being snubbed by UCLA for a postseason bid. WKU will take on a brutal schedule in 2012, which features away games versus Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas State, Florida International, La-Lafayette and a tough home game against Southern Miss.
Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks: 4-8 (3-5)
The Warhawks are just one step away from being postseason bound, having lost three games last year by five points or less. Turnovers and poor special teams play were the downfall in 2011, and although there will likely be improvement in those areas, the Sun Belt is a lot stronger in 2012 and stiff competition will hold them back.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders: 3-9 (2-6)
Despite having much success from 2006-09, winning a total of 27 games and an appearance in the New Orleans Bowl, the Blue Raiders' wheels have fell off the wagon over the last two seasons. They won just two games in 2011 (against Memphis and Florida Atlantic, who ranked 117th and 118th out of 120), and were blown out by 52 points to North Texas in the season finale. Unfortunately for MTSU, things don't look like they'll be much better this fall.
Florida Atlantic Owls: 2-10 (1-7)
Though Carl Pelini, brother of Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, was hired to turn around the FAU football program last December, don't expect much difference in the conference standings in year one. The Owls finished 1-11 and did not win a game in the Sun Belt last season, and although I'm sure we'll see a better output on the defensive side of the ball, they aren't looking too great on paper to start the new campaign.
South Alabama Jaguars: 2-10 (0-8)
The University of South Alabama football program played its first-ever game in 2009, while finishing with a 6-4 record as an FCS school last year (including a 41-10 loss to Cal Poly in the season finale). The Jaguars welcome a full FBS schedule in 2012, including road trips to North Carolina State, Mississippi State and Hawaii. The Sun Belt will not be friendly, either, as it consists of four or five teams currently on the rise. Welcome to Division-1A, USA.