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Observations, Opinion & Occasional Silliness by Richard L Gale
2013 Sun Belt Conference Preview
Red Wolves, Ragin Cajuns, running backs galore, and the return of Bobby Petrino.
The Sun Belt may be the poor relation among conferences, but if you stick with this conference down the stretch, you're going to see a real exciting finish, a couple of fine quarterbacks (Kolton Browning, Terrance Broadway), some excellent runners who could finish in next year's draft (Antonio Andrews, David Oku, Alonzo Harris, Jyruss Edwards), and at least a couple of coaches that will be significant someplace better-known real soon. There's a clear split in quality between the first four teams here and the rest, but those four will provide a fight to the wire.
A string of solid recruiting years and two Sun Belt championships are the legacy left to new coach and former Boise State quarterback, Bryan Harsin. And it's hard to think that, despite the change in leadership, a team that thrashed its would-be Louisiana rivals last year would be anything but favorites again, especially with 16 touchdown runner David Oku in the backfield and most of the offensive line starters returning. Watch for explosive sophomore runner Michael Gordon too. But they'll miss QB Ryan Aplin, who was worth 30 combined TDs last season. If they find a quarterback who's half what Aplin was - sophomore Stephen Hogan and Utah State transfer Adam Kennedy are in the picture - they'll vie for another conference title, but the blow-outs will be harder to come by.
Head Coach Mark Hudspeth looks a lot like the right man for the job. In the 15 years before Hudspeth, this program had a winning record just once (6-5 in 2005). Since he arrived: 9-4 and 9-4, including two New Orleans Bowl victories. So what next for the team that got blown out by Arkansas State 27-50, but nearly upset the Florida Gators? Well, it's hard to tell with a restocked secondary, and a line replacing both starting tackles, but if the Ragin' Cajuns do float to the top of the division (and they may not even be the best Louisiana team in their conference), it'll all be down to quarterback Terrance Broadway taking the next step. Last year he flung for 17 TDs and ran for 9 more - he's a blend of efficient passer and running threat that, packed into more than his 6-2 205 frame might have seen him in a marquee conference. The depth concern on the team makes me shy away from predicting a conference title, but there's a good chance.
To their credit, ULM went 8-5 last year and upset Arkansas. Being a cynic, you could argue that Arkansas' 2012 vintage upset themselves, but the Warhawks followed that up with narrow losses to Auburn and Baylor before a five game winning streak. It was a mixed bag against conference foes to finish the year, however, and that return to the chasing pack coincided with injury to RB Jyruss Edwards, who, while no stud, was at least balance to QB Kolton Browning (29 TDs). On defense, a couple of key linebackers graduated, but everybody else is back. ULM aren't the sexiest pick for the Sun Belt - if the Sun Belt gathering of by-the-ways has any 'sexy' picks - but with no downs played, they may have the most convincing roster, top to bottom.
The past: Bobby Petrino in a neck brace, failing to elicit any sympathy whatsoever after the bike crash incident and the other woman. The present: Bobby Petrino is still a heck of a football coach, and Western Kentucky is coming off a 7-6 season with a bright future at QB (redshirt freshman DaMarcus Smith), a right-now running star (NFL-bound Antonio Andrews, 1,733 yards on the ground in 2012), and real good linemen on both sides of the trenches. LB Andrew Jackson and FS Jonathan Dowling have pro scouts' attention. The future: Bobby Petrino has a track record for moving on. It would be a shame if he was caught peeking at his resume rather than putting this program where it could be - on top of the conference - before his latest disappearing act.
After going 3-9 in 2011, the Trojans managed five wins last year, which sounds like progress, but oh, what could have been - every one of their seven losses was by a single possession. QB Corey Robinson, who amazed as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and has posted over 10,000 yards passing to date with decreasing scores, needs to put it all together, take advantage of some tasty receivers, and make up for a running game that will likely take a step back. They could be a slightly worse team this year, and still post a slightly better record.
The nomadic Bobcats would just like to catch their breath after stints in the Southland, as an independent, as part of the twilight of the WAC, and now in the Sun Belt. Oh, and they'd like some defense to show up. With stints at Alabama and Texas A&M on his resume, coach Dennis Franchione still carries the name recognition to recruit well (and being in Texas helps), but getting from 4-8 to 6-6 could be a struggle with no obvious passing game and a pass rush that was frequently wafted away into the scenery by opposing QB-minders. They'll get there, but it may take a couple more years before they can escape the lower half of the conference.
In their first year in the FBS, the Jaguars kept things fairly close for, well, some of their early games, but the second half of the season was a six-game skid and showed South Alabama still has a way to go. After losing by a single score to several minnows in 2012, a mostly-returned defense, a running game bolstered by some JuCo talent, and a line that has a little experience to build on could start to win one or two more this year. They won't be bowl-eligible, but they may not get such a crick in their neck from looking up to the likes of Louisiana Lafayette.
Don't expect much yet from a team that went 1-11 in FCS play last year. As with the two teams above, they're in the right geographical space to eat from the scraps of bigger recruiters, and if the coaching staff stick around long enough, they'll have a passing game one day (note ex-BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski as Offensive Coordinator). For now, winning their first game against FBS opposition would be cause for celebration.