With FBS college football scheduled to start in less than three weeks (Georgia State hosts Abilene Christian on Aug. 27), it’s time to make some preseason predictions. Today’s edition breaks down what I think will happen in the Sun Belt in 2014.
Sun Belt Projected Order of Finish
1. Arkansas State
3. South Alabama
6. Georgia Southern
7. Texas State
8. New Mexico State
10. Appalachian State
11. Georgia State
Why Arkansas State?
This was a very tough call to make. There are a lot of good teams at the top of the conference, and I could make a legitimate case for as many as four teams to win the league championship.
With that said, the Red Wolves are my pick to win the Sun Belt this fall. ASU has dominated the conference over the last three seasons, posting a 20-3 record during that span. While the Red Wolves will be solid on offense once again with the three-headed monster of Fredi Knighten, Michael Gordon, and J.D. McKissic, it’s the defense that makes them my top choice. Under the leadership of new defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen, the Wolves will run a more aggressive scheme that will generate more turnovers. The ability to come up with a timely stop gives it the advantage over Louisiana-Lafayette, in what will be one of the five best games in college football this season.
Circle your calendar for Tuesday, October 21.
Surprise Team of the Conference: New Mexico State
Picked to finish last in the league in the Sun Belt Coaches’ Poll, the Aggies will be the surprise team in the Sun Belt this year. With eight starters returning, including four on the O-line, New Mexico State’s offense will be much better after playing against the likes of Texas, UCLA, and Boston College last year. Similarly, the defense will improve under the leadership of 49-year coaching veteran Larry Coyer, whose defense helped guide the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl in the 2009 NFL season.
Biggest Disappointment: Appalachian State and Georgia Southern
No disrespect is meant to the league’s newcomers, but making the transition from FCS to FBS is no small task. Even though each team showed flashes of brilliance last year – highlighted by Georgia Southern’s upset of Florida in the season finale – the fact remains that both of them finished 4-4 in Southern Conference play. While they’ll both be competitive in the Sun Belt this year, neither will reach the level of success that it grew accustomed to at the lower subdivision. Although there’s no shame in that, it will be disappointing.
Offensive Player of the Year: Terrance Broadway, QB, Louisiana-Lafayette
Make no mistake about it: Broadway is one of the top triggermen in the country. One of the most underrated players in the United States, Broadway ranked 11th nationally in yards per attempt (9.1), 17th in passing efficiency (153.35), and 30th in yards per play (7.24). With a veteran offensive line returning, and teams focusing on stopping All-Sun Belt RBs Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire, his passing numbers could be even better this year.
Defensive Player of the Year: Qushaun Lee, LB, Arkansas State
There’s not really much to say here since Lee should have won this award last year. After all, he did lead the conference in tackles last year with 134 (7th nationally), giving him back-to-back seasons with 100 or more stops. It’s tough to argue with that type of consistency.
Newcomer of the Year: Pete Thomas, QB, Louisiana-Monroe
Thomas is just what the doctor ordered for the Warhawk offense, which loses four-year starter Kolton Browning this season. In three full college seasons (two at Colorado State, one at North Carolina State), Thomas has thrown for 5,936 yards with a very respectable 62.6 completion percentage. After adapting to two different playbooks in his career, he should not have trouble picking up the ULM offense this fall, giving the Warhawks the type of veteran leadership they had under center for the past four years.
Coach of the Year: Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
This is a no-brainer since I’m picking the Red Wolves to win the conference. The only real question is whether the “one-and-done” era at Arkansas State will continue. On a national level, a lot of fans know who Bryan Harsin is, and they might think that Arkansas State will suffer a dropoff at the coaching position with Anderson replacing him after one season. That’s simply not going to be the case.