Sun Belt Preview
Sun Belt Conference coaches tabbed the Universities of Louisiana to share the league championship in their annual preseason poll earlier this week in New Orleans.
Louisianas Lafayette and Monroe tied for the top spot with 57 points apiece, although the Ragin' Cajuns held a 4-2 edge in first-place votes.
For the record, the Warhawks visit the Ragin' Cajuns on Nov. 30.
Two-time defending conference champion Arkansas State received the remaining two first-place votes and finished third in the balloting with 45 points.
ULM quarterback Kolton Browning was chosen as the Offensive Player of the Year, while Western Kentucky linebacker Andrew Jackson is the Defensive Player of the Year on the preseason All-Conference team.
A brief look at the Sun Belt's eight teams:
(T-1). Louisiana-Lafayette (9-4, 6-2) — After posting bowl victories in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history, the Ragin' Cajuns take aim on the conference title in coach Mark Hudspeth's third season as head coach.
New Orleans Bowl MVP Terrence Broadway returns to direct an offense which averaged 35.5 points per game — 24th in the nation — in 2012. In nine starts, Broadway generated 3,611 yards of total offense (2,842 passing, 769 rushing) and 26 touchdowns (17 passing, 9 rushing).
Other weapons in the arsenal include running back Alonzo Harris (170 carries, 881 yards, 10 TDs) and wide receiver Darryl Surgent (34 receptions, 569 yards, 3 TDs).
Center Andre Huval, a preseason All-Sun Belt pick, is one of three veterans up front.
New defensive coordinator James Willis has inherited the task of shoring up a unit which ranked 86th nationally in total defense. Willis has scrapped the 3-4 in favor of the 4-3.
End Christian Ringo (29 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, team-high 7 sacks) and linebacker Justin Anderson (105 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks) are the defensive mainstays.
UL was particularly vulnerable against the pass in 2012, ranking 112th among FBS teams.
Bastrop High product Jevante Watson and Trevance Pratt moved to the front of the depth chart at cornerback during spring drills. Also expected to contribute is Jones County (Miss.) Junior College transfer Corey Trimm.
Kicker/punter Brett Baer, the most prolific kicker in school history, leaves humongous shoes to fill in the kicking game.
(T-1). ULM (8-5, 6-2) — Returning 19 starters (8 offense, 9 defense, 2 specialists) from the first FBS bowl team in school history, the Warhawks take aim at the conference title in coach Todd Berry's fourth year at the helm.
Entering his fourth year as a starter, Browning makes the Warhawks go. As a junior, Browning was responsible for a Sun Belt-high 3,537 yards of total offense and 32 touchdowns. He completed 273-of-428 passes for 3,049 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Browning was also the team's leading rusher with 488 yards and seven scores.
Brent Leonard (104 receptions, 1,118 yards, 10 TDs) will be hard to replace, but three of Browning's top four targets return in Je'Ron Hamm (62-915-6), Tavarese Maye (56-612-4) and Colby Harper (29-303-2 in 8 games).
Jyruss Edwards returns in the backfield after missing the final four games of 2012 with an injury. In eight games, he was the team's second-leading rusher with 438 yards and six touchdowns.
Center Josh Allen, a preseason All-Conference selection, is among four veterans on the O-line.
ULM is looking for improvement on defense after surrendering an average of 29.2 points per game a year ago.
A healthy linebacker Cameron Blakes should be a step in the right direction. Starting all 12 games in 2011, Blakes accumulated 50 tackles and two sacks. Last year, his season was cut short after three weeks due to an injury. Blakes is joined in the linebacker corps by Ray Stovall (63 tackles, team-high 13 TFL, 3 sacks).
End Joey Gautney (37 tackles, 5 TFL) headlines the defensive front.
All five starters return in the secondary, including Isaiah Newsome (57 tackles, 4 interceptions).
3. Arkansas State (10-3, 7-1) — The Red Wolves are seeking their third consecutive conference title under their third head coach in three years. Bryan Harsin steps in for Gus Mahlzahn, who accepted the head coaching gig at Auburn after spending one season in Jonesboro.
Harsin's most pressing task is to find a quarterback following the graduation of two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin. Competition for the wide-open vacancy will continue into fall practice.
Whoever wins the job will be surrounded by a pair of proven playmakers.
First-team All-Sun Belt running back David Oku (243 carries, 1,061 yards, 16 TDs) is among the best in A-State history.
J.D. McKissic's school-record 103 receptions were tops in the nation among rookie receivers. In addition to earning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors, he was named MVP of the GoDaddy.com Bowl following A-State's 17-13 victory over Kent State.
Oku and McKissic are joined on the preseason All-Conference team by center Bryce Giddens, linebacker Qushaun Lee (100 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 forced fumbles), free safety Sterling Young (71 tackles, 2 interceptions) and kicker Brian Davis (17-of-21 field goals).
4. Western Kentucky (7-6, 4-4) — When Willie Taggart bolted for South Florida, the Hilltoppers created the league's biggest offseason news by hiring the embattled Bobby Petrino as its new head coach.
In order to succeed with the Hilltoppers, the former Louisville and Arkansas coach must find a quarterback for his pro style scheme. Neither of the three candidates separated himself in the spring.
Petrino inherits a hidden jewel in running back Antonio Andrews, whose 3,136 all-purpose yards in 2012 are second only to Barry Sanders in NCAA history.
Andrews racked up 1,728 yards rushing, 432 yards receiving and 767 yards in kickoff returns.
Wide receiver Willie McNeal (43 receptions, 556 yards, 6 TDs) is expected to emerge as the Hilltoppers' top-shelf receiver.
Left guard Sean Conway is among three incumbents on the front wall.
WKU will have four new starters up front, while the entire back seven returns from one of the top defensive units in the conference.
Jackson is the mainstay of the unit after tallying 122 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and four forced fumbles last year.
Jackson is joined on the preseason All-SBC squad by linebacker Xavius Boyd (79 tackles, 7.5 TFL) and strong safety Jonathan Dowling (68 tackles, 6 INTs).
5. Troy (5-7, 3-5) — With only eight returning starters (3 offense, 3 defense, 2 specialists), the Trojans enter the campaign as the league's least-experienced squad.
Quarterbacks Corey Robinson and Dean Anthony of New Iberia will continue to rotate at quarterback. Robinson threw for 3,141 yards and 12 TDs last fall. Dean passed for 836 yards and 9 TDs and was the team's second-leading rusher with 390 stripes and eight scores.
Former Shreveport Evangel standout Eric Thomas, a preseason All-SBC honoree, caught 55 balls for 667 yards and 7 TDs in 2012. Also back is wide receiver/return specialist Chandler Worthy (46-544-2).
Left tackle Terrence Jones is the lone returning starter on the offensive line.
Safety Chris Pickett (61 tackles, 3 forced fumbles) and end Tyler Roberts (35 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 sacks) are the building blocks on a depleted defense.
6. Texas State (4-8, 2-4 WAC) — Under third-year head coach Dennis Franchione, the Bobcats enter their first season in the Sun Belt, following a year in the WAC. Franchione, the one-time Alabama and Texas A&M head coach, is in his second stint in San Marcos.
Tyler Arndt moves into the starting QB role after appearing in five games as a backup in 2012.
Isaiah Battle (26 receptions, 428 yards, 3 TDs) is the team's top returning receiver.
Texas State lost its two top rushers, but welcomes back the explosive Tim Gray (27 carries, 279 carries, 1 TD).
The Bobcats have an abundance of depth on both sides of the trenches.
Eight of the top 10 O-linemen return to a group which has made a collective 65 starts.
Nose tackle Blake McCulloch (32 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks) is among six holdovers on the front four. Texas State has also added an influx of transfers, including end D.J. Yendrey, a two-time All-WAC honorable mention selection at TCU.
Cornerbacks Xavier Daniels (66 tackles, 5 pass breakups) and Craig Mager (48 tackles, 4 INTs) are the ring leaders in the secondary.
7. South Alabama (2-11, 1-7) — The upstart Jaguars enter their first season in the FBS. Joey Jones, the only coach in school history, started the program from scratch in 2009.
Seven starters return on both sides of the ball, although an influx of transfers are expected to challenge for starting spots.
Quarterback Ross Matheny returns after throwing for 2,148 yards and 12 TDs last season, but will be pushed by Alcorn State transfer Brandon Bridge.
Wide receiver Jereme' Jones (45 receptions, 513 yards, 7 TDs) and tight end Wes Thaxton (26-336-1) are the team's go-to targets.
Leading the way for the Jaguars defensively is end Alex Page (64 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 6 sacks).
Thaxton and Page are both preseason All-Conference picks.
8. Georgia Southern (1-10) — Like South Alabama, the Panthers' football program is in its infancy.
Bill Curry, who started the program in 2010, retired at the end of last season. Former Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator Trent Miles will guide the Panthers into its first season in the FBS.
Albert Wilson (48 receptions, 947 yards, 7 TDs) is the Panthers' most prolific offensive threat. A double All-Colonial Athletic Association selection last season, Wilson garnered postseason accolades as a first-team return specialist and as a third-team receiver.
For the Panthers to show progress, they must improve on a minus-20 turnover differential last season.
Nose guard Terrance Wood (59 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack) returns to the fold after being named the team's Defensive MVP last season.